The town of Taos has paid mayor Darren Córdova’s radio stations more than $165,000 for advertising in the eight years he’s served as an elected official.
Payments to the mayor’s company — DMC Broadcasting — quadrupled after Córdova took office in 2006 and have hovered around $22,000 annually in recent years, according to town records. That amount buys taxpayers about 6,600 ads a year from DMC, or an average of about 18 ads a day.
DMC Broadcasting includes Taos stations KXMT, KVOT, KKIT and KKTC.
Town officials say the radio ads are used to promote special events and raise awareness about town services. Officials also acknowledge Córdova’s potential conflict of interest as mayor and business owner, and insist steps are taken to ensure the payments to DMC are legal.
Payment records show the town was spending around $2,300 a year for ads before Córdova was elected to the council. Records show the ads were to promote high school sports and holiday events.
In the following years, the ad budget with DMC increased substantially. The town paid DMC $10,400 for ads in calendar year 2006, then $22,600 in 2007, then $26,200 in 2008. Annual ad purchases have averaged $22,500 each year since.
Those payments do not include $6,000 a year that comes from the town to support DMC’s annual Mother’s Day celebration.
In an interview Tuesday (Nov. 19), Córdova explained that the rise in advertising was related to the expansion of DMC, which acquired several stations around the time he was elected to the council. FCC records show KXMT was licensed in 2005, and KVOT and KKIT were licensed in 2006. (DMC acquired this year two more frequencies that are not yet operative.)
In its most recent contract with DMC, the town agreed to pay up to $22,000 for ads on DMC stations. Each 30-second ad spot costs the town $3 — a price Córdova called “unbelievably low for radio” — meaning the town can buy as many as 6,587 ads a year.
By comparison, KTAO charges up to $10 per 30-second spot in its contract with the town.
The DMC contract notes that the broadcasting company provides $2,000 worth of free interviews with town staff, and Córdova said his stations also give the Taos Police Department “carte blanche” to use his stations’ air waves.
The money paid to DMC for ads is a third of the $66,000 the town spends for “marketing consultants,” which includes payments to other local radio stations and to The Taos News.
Current town contracts show KTAO/LUNA is paid up to $11,000 a year for advertising, with up to $13,500 going to The Taos News, not including legal ads. State law requires public bodies to publish legal notices in a newspaper of general circulation.
Córdova said the amounts for radio advertising were based on the number of stations each company owned, with each station receiving $5,500. The idea is to reach the varied demographics each station reaches, Córdova said.
“Logically they [KTAO] have two stations, we [DMC] have four,” Córdova said.
Town manager Oscar Rodríguez called the contracts with DMC and other local media a “standing practice” that connects the town to its constituents. Rodríguez said the size of Taos’ budget for this kind of advertising is “middle of the road” when compared to other municipalities.
Since taking over as manager last year, Rodríguez has scrutinized a number of long-standing town contracts, insisting that contractors establish clear measures to judge whether they are spending public money wisely.
Rodríguez said he has not yet done a detailed review of the ad contract with DMC or other local media outlets. “I have much bigger line items to go after,” Rodríguez said.
Córdova said the Taos radio market is too small and diverse to get an accurate picture and each station’s ratings. He also said he could not provide ratings because DMC does not subscribe to ratings providers.
As part of the budget process each spring, the council is provided with details of how much each local media outlet receives over the fiscal year. The council approves the overall budget, but the individual contracts for ads are executed by the town manager and do not require a direct vote of the council.
Under the current ad contract with DMC, it is up to Rodríguez to decide how much to advertise and when. Rodríguez works directly for the mayor and council, but he says he’s never been pressured by Córdova to push more ads to DMC.
Córdova was equally adamant that he’s never pressured any town staff about the terms of ad contract.
In 2011, then-town councilor Gene Sánchez asked that the matter be discussed at a regular meeting during an ongoing and very public dispute with Córdova. Minutes from that meeting show Sánchez proposed that the ad budget for DMC and KTAO drop from a combined $33,000 down to $5,000 because he felt the amount of advertising was excessive.
The issue was discussed and some council members, including Michael Silva said it deserved further review, but the issue does not appear to have been revisited in open meeting.
Silva said in an interview this week he felt the issue was resolved because town staff had better control over when ads were run and on what stations.
Councilor Fred Peralta, who is running against Córdova in the municipal election next March, said he believed the payments to DMC have been legitimate, but he suggested the entire local ad budget could be spent more effectively.
Peralta said that even if it were legal, he said it wouldn’t be “proper” for him to do private business with the town while serving as an elected official.
As part of the contract, DMC asserted that it had no conflict of interest that would violate state law or the town’s purchasing policy.
State law prohibits a public employee from participating in procuring a contract if the employee or immediate family member has a financial interest in the contract. The law allows for an exception as long as the connection has been publicly disclosed, the work can be done “without actual or apparent bias or favoritism” and the contract is “in the best interests” of the government.
A town council resolution approved in August 2006 (under then-mayor Bobby Durán) provided a waiver to the procurement law and asserted that Córdova must not be involved in contracting with DMC.
Córdova says he goes to great lengths to not be involved in negotiations, both as mayor and as radio station owner. “I try to stay out of it on both sides,” Córdova said.
Minutes from this year’s budget session show that Córdova recused himself and left the room during the entire discussion on local advertising.
In an email, The Taos News asked town attorney Brian James whether the mayor’s ownership of DMC constituted a conflict of interest or a perceived conflict of interest. The Taos News also inquired about the role of Rodríguez as contract manager and subordinate of Córdova.
James responded that the conflict of interest issue is resolved when it meets the procurement code waiver requirements. He said he did not recall the specific contract with DMC.