UPDATE: Citizens of Taos were on the edge of their seats as the June 8 town council meeting kicked off. The question in the air: Will the council vote to extend or shorten their own terms in office? Within the first few minutes of the meeting, the answer was clear: neither.
Rather than hold a public hearing to discuss and decide whether or not to opt-in to the Local Election Act, the town of Taos council voted to drop the item from the agenda at the beginning of the town council meeting Tuesday (June 8).
If the council had chosen to opt-in to the Act, an additional decision would have been made to shorten terms by 9 weeks or extend them by 22 months - one that became highly controversial prior to the meeting.
Town manager Rick Bellis suggested to the council the item be taken off because he wasn't sure of the legality of the term-extension issue.
"The conundrum is that if you can vote to extend your term and increase your compensation, therefore, does this create the appearance of conflict of interest?" questioned Bellis.
Bellis presented several alternatives to make the decision whether to shorten or lengthen terms limits a public decision. He posited first that a special election could be held in August, in which ballots are mailed out to all registered town of Taos voters. The second option would see the council hold a special election to determine the term limit issue in November, along with other elections. The third option would be to ask voters how they feel about opting-in to the Local Election Act at the normal town election in March of 2022.
"Ideally we would do a special election, and if we have to do that, we have to do that in August," said Bellis, noting it would require a quick turnaround. "That would allow people who intend to run for office in the next election to already know the results of whether they'd be working with a full council or not. If the voters turn this down and decide to leave it as March … nothing changes."
All of the council (except for councilman Darien Fernández, who was out with his newborn baby) voted in favor of removing the item from the agenda.
Nearly a dozen members of the public who signed on to voice their comments and concerns during the public hearing were allowed to speak during the citizen's forum, and many spoke to the potential election changes.
Many members of the public expressed their thanks that the item was dropped from the agenda, but still questioned why term extensions were an option in the first place. Resident Marjorie Luckey said she was glad the issue will be left to the people and said she thought having November elections was the right choice, but still thought even having the option to extend terms was undemocratic.
"There is not a single valid democratic justification for even well-meaning politicians to disenfranchise voters in order to hold on to power for almost two additional years," she said.
Former town council member Andrew Gonzales, who also signed onto a letter along with eight other former council members and mayors disapproving of term extension, said he felt "very disheartened, because it seems like there's a huge lack of or an absence of leadership," and suggested the election be held in March 2022, and that voters decide. "When you all run you can run alongside with it. And let the people decide whether or not we move elections to November."
Resident Lynn FitzGerald said a long extension of terms should be decided by the voters, "not by the very members being voted on," and called the entire process "very suspect and not at all transparent."
Councilman Fernández said after the meeting that he was glad the item was removed. "Opting-in to a November election cycle makes sense in the long run, but it has to be up to the voters to decide what the terms are going to be," he said. He called the option to opt-in and extend terms an "attempt to subvert the will of the voters," and "another in a long line of anti-democratic, anti-transparent practices by some of the council."
Several residents of the county got on to speak as well, hoping to make it clear that the decisions made by the town affect the county too. Elin Ritchie, MD, of El Prado, said "we are all in this together. And we all do deserve a say, so please include us."
Jean Stevens, another county resident, said the thought "it's important for everyone to have their voice heard, because these decisions impact all of us."
County resident Ron Hagg said he was glad the council was "postponing this undemocratic trickery," and said he felt the council was trying to end public discussion on the issue before it even began.
While some were happy the item had been taken off the agenda, others questioned why the change was so last minute.
Larry Adams commented, wondering why the item was dropped from the agenda at all. He pointed out the council had ample time to discuss and review the ordinance to opt-in (the item was first discussed in November of 2018), and wondered why the sudden change of heart.
"It turns out that after all this time, you can't even be prepared at this moment to make a decision. I think that's unconscionable," he said during the meeting. In an email later, he said "the conflict they cite only applies if they try to extend their terms. If they agree to truncate their terms there is no conflict of interest or need to postpone the decision."
Resident Mickey Reilly said she was still trying to understand the reason behind the removal. "What's happened in the meeting today so far has only compounded the governance issues that many of us have with the current council and manager."
Reilly called the Local Election Act "a great idea back in 2018, and it's still a great idea today. But back in 2018, we had no idea about the global devastation we were about to face … I would think the last thing this town - or any community for that matter - would need right now is less ability to have our voices be heard."
She went on to call the removal of the agenda item an example of "[lessening the] ability to have our voices be heard." Reilly referenced a statement signed recently by over 100 scholars, who said democracy is at risk from changes to election laws. "These scholars point not to threats from outside our country, but rather to erosion of our own democratic foundations all the way down to the local level," she noted.
"I fear that today's meeting indicates that democracy is dying in Taos on your watch."
The fate of elections in Taos remains to be seen.