Sandoval County said goodbye to a longtime proponent of its success when 86-year-old Bill Sapien passed away Jan. 30 after a lengthy illness and having been on dialysis for four or more years.
Nice, old-school, loving and gentleman were a few of the words used to describe him.
A Democrat, as was his son John, a former state senator, Bill Sapien won a four-person race for the District 1 seat on the commission in November 1998 at the age of 62.
He won his bid for re-election in 2002, again defeating Charles Mellon, who’d been in the race in 1998.
After his November 1998 election, Sapien vowed to follow through on his “three planks” of his campaign: “We need to take control of the growth that’s taking place, and certainly we need to strengthen the planning and zoning board. Then we need to look at gang violence and drugs.”
Not long after he was elected as the commission’s chairman in January 2001, Sapien made what some considered a controversial decision: He decided to do away with the usual public comment portion of the commission’s bimonthly meetings and instead meet with any constituent at the county courthouse each Wednesday preceding the Thursday meeting.
“People feel they’re a part of the democratic process … I don’t think people in any way should be closed from the democratic process,” he said.
Sapien was told to his face after he announced his decision that it was a “chicken thing to do,” but that didn’t deter him.
Not much did deter him.
“He was a true gentleman,” said former Commissioner David Bency, who served with Sapien. “We agreed to disagree a lot of the time; we had a wonderful relationship. He was a gentle, loving man; he cared greatly for his community. He got along well with all the other commissioners and the staff.”
“He was a wonderful guy,” added another former commissioner from Sapien’s time, Daymon Ely. “Bill was an excellent public servant: kind, respectful, smart and committed to the community.”
First-term Secretary of State Laura Montoya, Sandoval County treasurer from 2012-20, posted on her Facebook page that “Sandoval County lost an amazing leader,” a man who “had his hand in so many different projects that expanded Sandoval County’s economic growth. He was a kind soul and always so thoughtful toward me. He and (his wife Miranda) were always so supportive throughout my life in Sandoval County.”
“I’ll never drive by the exercise walking path on Don Tomas (Road) in Bernalillo without thinking of Commissioner Bill Sapien,” former County Manager Debbie Hays said. “He championed that project and many others because it represented health and prosperity in the community he loved. (He) never lost sight of the importance of respectful debate, hard work and service to his constituents.”
But there was much more, Hays said: “He loved his wife and family and was enormously proud of his sons, his heritage and his Bernalillo.”
Bill Sapien was born in Hillrose, Colorado, to migrant workers from Mexico. After he spent two years at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, where he played basketball, he came to Albuquerque to find work, and obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degree at the University of New Mexico.
He became a State Farm Insurance agent in 1976, and had an office in Albuquerque for the first four or five years, his son recalled, before locating his agency in Bernalillo.
Bill Sapien also served 20 years in the New Mexico Army National Guard, and was a battalion commander, before retiring with the rank of major.
Son John, the youngest — born after Phil and Joe — served two terms in the state Senate (District 9) before deciding in January 2020 not to run for re-election. Like his father, he also became a State Farm Insurance agent in Bernalillo.
His father was insistent on a three-step mantra, John Sapien said: Be on firm ground, timing and enforce the issue.
“There wasn’t anybody he couldn’t work with,” John said. “He allowed (his sons) to live our lives … learn from our mistakes. He was never controlling.
“In politics, I would say we had some great, private discussions, where we did not agree.”
During his father’s two terms as county commissioner, he said his father had a role in the construction of Paseo de Volcan, the Rail Runner Express, fire protection in the county, the Placitas library and other quality-of-life projects.
“I’m not really too sure what he would’ve seen as his greatest accomplishment, other than his time serving the county and serving his constituents.”
There will be a rosary for Bill Sapien on Friday, Feb. 17, at French’s Mortuary, 7121 Wyoming NE in Albuquerque, at 6 p.m. Funeral services will be held Saturday, Feb. 18, at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Bernalillo at 10 a.m., with burial to follow in Our Lady of Sorrows Cemetery.