By Margaret Wright
— There were no activist stunts; no one was escorted out of Albuquerque City Council chambers by uniformed officers. But last night’s regular meeting still saw flares of tension as legislators plodded through a thick agenda that included fixes for the maligned police department and crafting of a new city budget.
Council President Ken Sanchez reminded everyone he’d ordered a series of changes to the public comment policy, including a prohibition on signs, props and “disruptive public outbursts.” He added that anyone who violated the new rules could be cited for trespassing.
Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union, said during public comment he was concerned new rules might infringe on the public’s right to free speech. He said it also appeared proper procedure on the amendment of rules was violated when the changes were enacted.
Councilor Don Harris defended the changes characterizing them as emergency measures to diffuse a tense situation. Simonson said he agreed with the council’s obligation to maintain order during meetings, but “on the other hand, there’s never a point when our basic rights under the Constitution can be suspended.”
Council members said they would confer with civil liberties advocates to ensure modifications to meeting policy align with constitutional protections.
Next Steps to Reform
The duo hired out of Ohio by Mayor Richard Berry to help direct the police department’s reform measures gave a presentation on that process.
Civil rights attorney Scott Greenwood and former police chief Tom Streicher said they’d learned important lessons from guiding their hometown Cincinnati through its own version of Albuquerque’s police department crisis. Now they assist other cities across the country enacting reforms. Streicher said he felt confident after meeting with APD officers and command.
“I think it’s fair to say that they’re objective about moving forward. That’s a key point in leading to the success of this type of process—that they’re firmly committed to this process, and they are firmly committed to their oath of office here.”
Greenwood described what to expect since the Department of Justice investigation findings have been released. He said he and Streicher will help the city craft a plan to address, point-by-point, the problems federal investigators identified. Once finalized, that plan will solidify into an agreement with the federal government, spelling out the city’s commitment to specific reforms. A special monitor will then oversee the enactment of those reforms over a five-year period.
“The city can make and will make fixes to things like policies and procedures and protocols,” said Greenwood. “But the underlying issue that leads to unrest in policing in the community is police-community relations. That is a harder problem to fix, but it’s a more important problem to fix.”
The plan, he said, is to provide large- and small-scale forums and work sessions to collect public input. Every possible segment of the community—neighborhood associations, community organizations, religious and minority groups, police officers and their families—will be offered a chance to provide input and craft goals for the final agreement with the feds.
Councilor Isaac Benton asked where active legislative proposals fit in, especially when it comes to changes to the police chief selection process and fixes for effective civilian oversight. And Councilor Trudy Jones wondered whether there was a potential for conflict between the federal agreement and the police union.
Greenwood suggested the Council continue to debate and solicit public input on new legislation. And while he told Jones bluntly that federal mandates trump local collective bargaining, “it’s incumbent on the city and the administration to be fair with APD. … We owe them no less.”
Discussion switched to negotiations with AFSCME, the public service employees union, over pay raises. Vincent Yermal, the city human resources director, said the administration was preparing to enter into arbitration with the union over pay raises, arguing for protection against any order to shell out more in back-pay than what the city’s already budgeted for.
“We don’t want to put ourselves in a situation where an arbitration order could exceed the appropriation,” said Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry.
“I urge you to go to arbitration in good faith and get a contract,” said Councilor Diane Gibson, “which should have been done—what? Five years ago?”
Perry’s tone turned discernibly defensive before he suggested that focus turn to the new budget proposal, which included 3 percent raises for regular workers and 5 percent for police officers.
“If these contracts are not agreed upon this year, it’s up to the council to make the decision of how we use that money,” said Councilor Jones. “We can either put it in a savings account and use it on salaries, or we can re-appropriate it and use it on other things.”
The real shame, countered Councilor Rey Garduño (to a smattering of illicit applause from the public), was that neither the mayor’s administration nor the legislative branch had honored previous agreements with city workers.
Public comment lasted almost two hours, with most feedback centered on the police department. Several bemoaned the repeated absences of Mayor Berry, while others appealed to the community to avoid demonizing police and public officials. Three Parks and Recreation Department employees appealed for departmental budget increases and the hiring of more workers in the face of increasing park acreage.
Police Oversight Task Force member Alan Wagman questioned Chief Gordon Eden’s recent moves to restructure the department’s leadership before shifting the critique to city legislators.
“What do we get for those positions? You’ve asked for practical solutions. You have budget power. It’s time you stop giving the mayor a blank check and ask for a return on investment.”
Councilors deferred action on all police-related legislation until the June 2 meeting to allow for more public input and debate before turning their full attention to the $500 million budget. The measure passed unanimously.
Councilor Dan Lewis said the budget “addresses some of the most urgent needs the city is facing,” by including investments in mental health and homeless services, as well as $2 million for police department reforms.
“This really is the people’s budget,” said Lewis.