Manager speaks out on removal

By Patricia Chambers
Posted 3/26/08

Though the writing was on the wall, Tomás Benavídez waited to hear the Town Council’s roll-call vote that rejected his reappointment as town manager Thursday (March 20) before accepting his fate.

“I just didn’t want to walk away,” …

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Manager speaks out on removal

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Though the writing was on the wall, Tomás Benavídez waited to hear the Town Council’s roll-call vote that rejected his reappointment as town manager Thursday (March 20) before accepting his fate.

“I just didn’t want to walk away,” Benavídez reflected the day after the  council vote.

The interview was briefly interrupted by a call from his mother wishing him a happy birthday. Benavídez turned 45 on the day after the vote.

“Right now, I feel relieved,” he said. “I’ve been working since I was 16 years old and I’m looking forward to taking some time off.”

After more than a year of disapproval voiced by two town councilors, Benavídez had consistently rejected suggestions he resign from the job he has held since 2005.

“Darren (Córdova) and Rudy (Abeyta) didn’t like the way I was doing things. They didn’t like my management style and they wanted to get rid of me,” Benavídez said. “They were trying to create policy in the town departments because they said that I wasn’t doing it,

“When there is a conflict, someone has to leave and it’s not likely to be the elected official,” he added.

The outgoing town manager confirmed the council had offered several months ago to give him the 120-day severance payment if he had agreed to resign earlier, but he rejected it.

As an appointed town official, he will receive a payment of the four-month severance pay, and a nearly equal payment for unused vacation and leave time due him totaling about $80,000.

The town manager’s salary was about $120,000 annually.

‘Right direction under my leadership’

“I think it’s good that I left, but I also think I did a lot for the town,” Benavídez said.

He pointed to the town’s contract with a marketing firm to promote tourism, a planned increase over the next three to five years in marketing funds, construction of the Taos Youth and Family Center and his involvement with the final Abeyta Water Settlement negotiations approved under his management as proof that “things have gone in the right direction under my leadership.”

Benavídez said the town employee benefits have made the jobs competitive with other communities. He cited recent pay raises for police and firefighters, annual raises averaging 4 percent, and noted that the town of Taos makes the largest employer contribution to the Public Employees Retirement Association in the state.

Town employees can now receive cash reimbursements for unused leave time and authorized leave is no longer broken down by sick leave and annual leave.

The town’s employee roles have increased dramatically under Benavídez’ three-year tenure. The town’s operating budget is about $10 million, he said. The full budget is about $45 million.

 “We have worked very hard to find alternative funding for projects. The town has limited resources. Things have to be done in increments,” he said.

Progress on projects he opposed

Benavídez also pointed to progress on projects he had opposed.

As town manager, Benavídez prevented the council from discussions with directors of the North Central Regional Transit District by removing it from the meeting agenda on several occasions.

The former manager agrees, however, that the Town Council, which has two new members, will probably join the district in the near future.

“Maybe it’s a way to link the communities within Taos County before bringing people to Santa Fe,” he said.

For more than a year, Benavídez opposed the wording of the public conservation and welfare statement that must accompany the Taos Regional Water Plan which must be accepted by the Interstate Stream Commission.

“We had two projects approved this year (by the Legislature), even though they said the Water Trust Board wouldn’t approve them if the water plan wasn’t approved,” Benavídez said.

“The re-classification of the (department) directors is under way,” Benavídez added.

Within the past year, Córdova and Abeyta had tried several times to convince former Councilors Erlinda Gonzales and Melitón Struck to approve a proposal to make all directors “classified” rather than “at-will” employees.

Gonzales and Struck, who lost their bids for reelection in the March 4 election objected. The action was tabled three times with a split vote by council members and a deciding vote by Mayor Bobby F. Durán.

Only one director, Patricia Trujillo, who is director of special projects, is a classified employee. The other dozen “at-will” employees could be asked to leave the job at the request of the mayor.

Trujillo was removed as director of human resources in January 2007 and transferred to a newly created position after a negative assessment of the department. Her status had been changed to classified during the 2006 mayoral election. 

The decision to reassign Trujillo, who has worked for the town for more than 20 years, was made at the same meeting in which Córdova and Abeyta first attempted to dismiss Benavídez in January 2007.

Hint of nostalgia

Benavídez looked back on nearly 10 years with the town of Taos with a hint of nostalgia.

The Taos native began as the town attorney, then assistant manager under Gus Córdova, who was the town manager for nearly 20 years. When Córdova (no relation to Councilor Córdova) resigned, Benavídez was appointed manager.

“One thing Gus taught me was fiscal responsibility, and I tried to follow that,” he said. The town’s finances are sound.”

“I believe the town has become more open to the public (than it was under Gus Córdova’s leadership). We’ve been more willing to listen to the concerns of the public. Mayor Durán has had an open door policy. He is a really good man,” Benavídez said. “He gives out his home phone number and cell number to everyone and he is always available. He doesn’t have an agenda and he is sincere and practical.

“I could be angry and criticize the councilors, but politics is difficult when things are changing,” he added. “I hope they have the wisdom to move the community in the right direction.

“I sleep well at night. I don’t regret anything. I hope I’ve built a legacy to turn over to the town.”

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