Candidates for the 2018 Taos Municipal elections gathered Thursday (Feb. 1) at the Bataan Hall at University of New Mexico - Taos for a public forum where they answered questions ranging from how they would diversify the economy to how they would address crime.
During a brief introduction period, Councilor Judi Cantu came out of the gate swinging in the forum calling for Mayor Dan Barrone to withdraw his candidacy for mayor. Riding on claims that the mayor lives in an alternate location outside town limits, Cantu has positioned herself against Barrone in the election and promised to hold elected officials accountable for their actions and policies. Cantu also focused on the economic and financial needs for recycling in Taos throughout the evening.
New to the public eye, political freshman Michael Santistevan shocked and entertained the crowd by "winging" most of his responses and introduction at the forum. Although Santistevan is new in the political scene, his take on the future of Taos is highly focused on keeping people in the area. In addition, he wants to encourage younger community members in Taos to open their own small businesses.
"We need for people to want to stay here and want to come back," Santistevan said.
Another newcomer to the scene, Sarah Lopez brings her experiences in finance and food and beverage service to give a financial reality check to how Taos views its workforce. To reduce crime, Lopez said the town needs to ensure its police force is not overworked. In addition, Lopez suggested a living wage would help reduce crime in Taos. She said with higher wages, people would be less inclined to commit crimes such as theft.
Melanie Bacas is another political novice who addressed the town's crime rate. "As Taos has grown, so has our crime rate," said Baca, "which is a very scary reality in this community whether you are a business owner or a homeowner."
Baca, like Santistevan and Lopez, is entering the race with no public office experience and is relying on her experience working in town at Private Label Select, which she encouraged the audience to support along with other local business in town. Baca said she never spends her money at the dollar stores in and around Taos.
Pascual Maestas has returned to the campaign trail and is hitting heavy on the agricultural and personal responsibility aspects of Taos. As a Navy veteran and high school math teacher in Taos, Maestas is looking within the community to solve many of the issues present in Taos. He said he is hoping to encourage parents and government to play a more active role in education in the community. Maestas also emphasized the importance of self-sufficiency in Taos in regards to energy and agriculture.
"We need to get ourselves into a place where we are providing ourselves with our own energy and having extra energy for us to sell to outlying communities," Maestas said.
Candidate and former council member Andrew Gonzales has also returned to the campaign trail and is looking at other revenue streams for Taos besides tourism and the local ski industry, hard hit this year by the lack of snow.
"We don't control the weather, but we can't live and die by it either," Gonzales said. "We need diversification."
Seated in the middle of the panel of candidates, incumbent town councilor George "Fritz" Hahn remained focused on his plan to revitalize the historic acequias in Taos if reelected. "To the ditch," Hahn said. He said that in doing so, Taos would be able to utilize more of the water in the area and agriculture would thrive. Hahn has worked with several community members in the past cleaning and updating some of the acequias and plans to continue the work in the future.
Hahn also said he is against bringing in box stores to Taos at the expense of the local businesses already present within the community.
The highly anticipated conversation of the night was that of the Taos mayoral candidates Darien Fernandez and current Taos Mayor Dan Barrone. Barrone began his evening by saying there was still work to be done and he plans to see to it that the work is completed.
Fernandez said he is looking at a home-rule status for Taos, which would allow the town to raise minimum wage and provide additional benefits. He also encouraged the "dusting off" of several older economic plans for Taos and taking a second look at the diversification of the economy. Fernandez added that his campaign was nothing personal against Barrone, but that he felt there was a different approach needed for the town of Taos.
Barrone suggested bringing back the lumber industry to Taos and said it would provide economic prosperity as well as help the environment by thinning out some of the thick forests around the county. Barrone also spoke on his administration's efforts to raise wages for police officers in Taos and keep the Taos police department financially competitive with other markets. According to Barrone, the police staff is full and some of the new officers are from Taos.
When asked about recreational marijuana and agricultural hemp, answers given were polar opposite as Fernandez admitted to be for both and Barrone said he was against both.
Over 300 community members turned out to listen to the candidates speak on tourism, affordable housing, agriculture and other important issues facing the community of Taos.