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In a town hall hosted by the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce and the Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition, each of three candidates for mayor took turns selling their economic assessment and vision at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Monday evening.

The public forum zeroed in on economic issues facing the city while also touching on a range of topics that impact businesses: broadband, public safety and zoning. A second public forum, focusing on housing, will take place Tuesday night at the performing arts center and also stream on YouTube.

The incumbent, Mayor Alan Webber, outlined the work of his administration over the past three and half years to weather the tumultuous economy throughout the pandemic.

Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler painted a different fiscal picture of Santa Fe.

“I think Santa Fe is in desperate need of change. That’s why I’m running,” Vigil Coppler told the audience of roughly 250 at the arts center and others online that she had questions about a 150-page audit for Fiscal Year 2020 first released for a Finance Committee meeting that took place about an hour before the forum began. “I’m very concerned about our city’s audit, our city’s financial accountability…Today’s audit came out and it’s not a pretty picture.”

Webber explained that he inherited a disorganized city government as the city’s first full time mayor and he said it took time to get the city where it is today. He called the most recent report a “clean audit.”

“My job assignment as the fist full-time mayor was to modernize, professionalize and streamline the city of Santa Fe so that we could be a modern city government.” He added, noting it speaks to his progressive agenda that 75% of managers in the city’s government are female.

The third candidate, Alexis Martinez Johnson told the audience, “My platform is safety,” referring both to the public health of the city and the crime that she said is increasing on Santa Fe’s streets.

The event remained relatively cordial compared with past town halls with the candidates where they clashed over the mayor’s handling of the obelisk’s toppling in the Plaza almost one year ago on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Webber did single out Vigil Coppler’s lack of consistency on issues in his closing remarks, pointing to the mask mandate that the city adopted at the beginning of the pandemic—one that Vigil Coppler voted against.

In explaining her vote, Vigil Coppler said, “Masks saved my life when I had to wear them in a quarantine room in the 1990s. I know the value of masks. What I voted for was an erroneous, unenforceable resolution, where there were so many holes in it that it pretty much didn’t really amount to a whole lot. It could’ve been better.”

Matthew Jaramillo, the event’s moderator and a member of PNM’s government affairs team, asked the three candidates of their plans to improve broadband in the greater Santa Fe area.

Martinez Johnson suggested expanding internet access through taxes to help improve the television and film industry. Vigil Coppler proposed working in conjunction with the county to reach those living in the least connected areas.

Webber touted his former experience as the co-founder of the technology magazine, Fast Company. He pointed to the work his administration has already done, establishing “micro transfer points” and extensions across the city that bring broadband to more homes. Webber also dangled the prospect of attracting another broadband business to Santa Fe should he win re-election.

The candidates each took an opportunity to address zoning issues that affect business owners. Martinez Johnson targeted the city’s cannabis zoning process which she believes has failed to get adequate public input. “I want to hear from the constituents and I really think that an effort was not made, where many people were aware of the zoning that is going to occur in Santa Fe,” Martinez Johnson told the audience. “I want to make sure it’s not all just in one area,” Martinez Johnson said of the need to ensure business owners all over the city can get involved in the cannabis industry.

Webber was upfront about the challenges businesses face in the zoning process. “We have a zoning code that is badly out of date,” Webber said.

Pointing to one thing about the zoning process he would like to change, Webber said, “We can’t any longer separate the notion that housing is one thing, but a livable, sustainable, walkable neighborhood is something else. We need to see blended development so that everybody lives and works and can shop within their own community.”

Vigil Coppler, who owns a real-estate firm, pointed to the “patchwork” land development code as the source of many people’s frustration with zoning. She also touched on the need to reimagine housing in Santa Fe. “I would like us to really bite the bullet and consider a little bit higher density allowed because we’re never going to achieve the goals of developing affordable housing if we don’t do that,” Vigil Coppler said.

Another concern of the business community Jaramillo cited was the permitting process. Vigil Coppler said, “This is the number one complaint I get as a city councilor. Businesses cannot get their permits out of Planning and Land Use. They cannot get their phone calls answered.”

She pointed to a study of the city’s Land Use department, funded by the National Association of Realtors. Vigil Coppler said the study found the department has “out of date, antiquated systems for tracking, that there’s not really a lot of customer service in there and that the cost of a small business waiting for a permit, per month, could be up to $20,000.” Vigil Coppler said that cost could be $40,000 per month for larger businesses.

When Jaramillo presented the topic of public safety before the candidates, all three candidates pointed to police vacancies as a primary source of concerns that Santa Fe has become less safe. Webber pointed to a 26% decrease in serious crimes last year as evidence of his administration’s efforts to support the police: most notably the Alternative Response Unit, a team of caseworkers, paramedics and police officers, trained in behavioral health issues.

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