By Barron Jones, SUN Staff Writer
The Rio Arriba County Commission is asking a judge to order Santa Fe County Commissioners to adhere to a state law regarding an annexation petition filed in May, by a group of Española residents.
Working through Rio Arriba County Attorney Adán Trujillo, the County commission and the Citizens for Accessible and Representative Government filed a Writ of Mandamus, Aug. 1, requesting the court order the Santa Fe County Commission to issue a public notice letting residents know that a group has filed an annexation petition with the governing body.
Submitting the petition to the Santa Fe County Commission is an integral part of the annexation process.
Trujillo said Rio Arriba County joined the legal skirmish to show support for the principals on which the government was founded.
“The commissioners recognize how important it is to support and defend the efforts of the general public to petition their government and vote on issues that are important to them,” Trujillo said.
The Writ came in the midst of a disagreement between the two counties regarding Santa Fe County’s refusal to help fund the Española/Rio Arriba County Regional E911 Dispatch Center. But long before the dispute surfaced, Rio Arriba County leaders publicly criticized the Santa Fe County Commission for not doing enough to provide services for residents living in the northern reaches of Santa Fe County, to include repairing a washed out bridge and providing fire protection.
Rio Arriba County Manager Tomas Campos said Santa Fe County officials have not only refused to provide services, but they have also declined to work in the spirit of cooperation, which would enable Rio Arriba County to provide much-needed services.
“Half of Española is in Santa Fe County and yet they won’t give us Santa Fe rates at the landfill,” Campos said. “Not only do they not help us out at North Central, they don’t help at the E911 center. They don’t help hardly anywhere.”
Citizens for Representative Government believe they and Santa Fe County’s roughly 1,300 Española residents would be better served if they became citizens of Rio Arriba County. The crux of the Citizens’ argument is the 25-mile one-way drive to the city of Santa Fe, to take care of government business and to receive County services, is burdensome and inconvenient.
The public notice, commonly referred to as a Cause Notice, would give qualified voters living in the impacted area an opportunity to protest the petition and the signatures the group collected.
According to the complaint, once the petitioner obtained signatures from 51 percent of the city’s 1,350 eligible Santa Fe County voters, the Santa Fe County Commission should have published the Cause Notice without question. The Notice is a necessary step that must be taken before a judge can order an election that would let voters decide.
Trujillo sought the court’s intervention because he believes the Santa Fe County Commission broke the law when it failed to publish the Notice and abridged the group’s First Amendment protection by denying them a proper venue to redress their grievances.
“A Writ of Mandamus is requested to compel the Board to cause this notice to be published because Respondent has refused to perform its mandatory, non-discretionary duty to do so,” Trujillo wrote in the 27-page complaint. “A form of notice was provided to Santa Fe County May 4, 2016 and on May 9, 2016. Santa Fe County has improperly placed its financial and territorial interest ahead of its duty to perform administrative functions.”
The dispute originated after Santa Fe County Commissioners voted to disapprove and take no further action on the Citizens for Accessible and Representative Government’s annexation petition.
Test of convenience
Ahead of the official denial, Deputy Santa Fe County Manager Tony Flores sent Citizens for Representative Government’s George Martinez, of Española, a letter informing him that there were problems with his group’s petition.
Among those problems was an interpretation of a prior New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that Santa Fe County officials believe had already set precedent in a case that presented a similar argument.
“Mileage alone is not the test of convenience,” Flores wrote citing the 1952 New Mexico Supreme Court case of Stone vs. Crenshaw. “The draft petition contained no factual statements concerning the locations and conditions of roads or the existence or nonexistence of transportation facilities.”
Santa Fe Commissioners rejected the petition during a May 10 meeting that Trujillo argues was illegal because the item regarding the group’s annexation petition was put on the agenda for executive session, the day of the meeting, contrary to state law. The item was listed as threatened or pending litigation.
“The requirement for a list of specific items of business ensures that interested members of the public are given reasonable notice about the topics a public body plans on discussing or addressing at a meeting,” Trujillo wrote in support of his argument. “The Compliance Guide also interprets the pending or threatened litigation exception to the Open Meetings Act and states, ‘It is important to note that this exception allows a public body to rely on the attorney-client privilege to close a meeting only when the public body is involved in pending or threatened litigation.’”
The Open Meetings Act demands that governmental bodies place items on the agenda at least 72 hours before a scheduled meeting and only take action on the items listed, unless it is an emergency.
Martinez said the Santa Fe County Commission’s decision was an effort to stifle the citizens’ rights to petition the government regarding what they consider as unjust treatment.
“We have been soliciting legal advice, as we believe our position is strong and our right to petition shall prevail,” Martinez said.
Although Rio Arriba County officials didn’t circulate the petition, Trujillo filed the Writ on the group’s behalf to protect the Citizens’ right “to a free, open election, without interference from civil Authority,” and to put an end to the “long-standing issue of checkerboarding.”
Rio Arriba County Economic Development Director Christopher Madrid estimated shortly after the annexation talk surfaced that, if successful, the measure could increase Rio Arriba County’s tax revenue.
“The County would receive about $500,000 in property taxes that is going to Santa Fe County now,” Madrid said. “The GRT (Gross Receipts Tax) is harder to calculate, but it is somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000 to $500,000. So about a million a year is going to Santa Fe County.”
He said the additional revenue would be used to provide services to Española residents that live across the Santa Fe County line.
Española City Manager Mark Trujillo said he supports Rio Arriba County’s efforts.
“I admire Rio Arriba County’s efforts for trying to annex that part of Santa Fe County,” he said. “They have a good argument. But it is my belief that some residents don’t have a complete understanding of what the benefits are.”
Neither Santa Fe County Deputy Manager Tony Flores or anyone else in the Santa Fe County Manager’s Office returned calls seeking comment on the suit.
Rio Arriba isn’t the only government agency within the County’s boundaries that has issues with Santa Fe County. The city of Española is currently appealing a First Judicial District Court judge’s decision to denying a motion for reconsideration regarding a judge’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit filed in protest to a Gross Receipts Tax Santa Fe County imposed on the incorporated portion of the County.
SUN Staff Writer Austin Fisher contributed to this report.