Just over a month ago, the Rio Rancho city council seemed to teeter on the brink of becoming an all-white male bastion for the first time in many years, as District 5 Councilor Jennifer Flor — the only woman on the council — resigned mid-term due to family obligations.
Then Mayor Gregg Hull announced his choice to fill the council vacancy: Karissa Culbreath, PhD, a highly regarded medical scientist of African-American heritage.
The talent pool of applicants was astonishing. It included attorneys, local nonprofit organization heads and Rio Rancho business people. Community leaders like the Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce helped spread the word to potential council candidates.
A council/manager form of city government like Rio Rancho’s is designed to limit partisan political influence over day-to-day operations and tilt the organization toward professional best practices in city management, regardless of political allegiance.
Of course, a fly lands in that ointment when a city manager amasses enough power to control the city’s elected representatives, rather than the other way around. Or the reverse can occur: If the council becomes a partisan or otherwise monolithic voting bloc, the temptation to further those narrow interests can overcome the pursuit of best management practices.
I have seen both situations occur during my time in Rio Rancho.
Before I joined the city council in 2014, a council majority and city manager with ties to the state Democratic party ran Rio Rancho city government efficiently but one-sidedly. One independent councilor was frequently denied the chance to put his and his constituents’ concerns up for discussion.
That arrangement ended abruptly when members and sympathizers of the TEA Party elected their own power bloc. They fired the city manager and were seen as terrorizing remaining staff to impose their political will.
Then Hull was elected, and there followed a period of balanced government, with many split votes and vigorous but positive debate. Then came a slow erosion of female councilors, eventually out-numbered by a margin of 5-1.
But by 2020, and with the recent mid-term resignation of our last remaining councilwoman, the City of Rio Rancho stood at a crossroads. Especially since Hispanic people (40.8 percent of our population), Native Americans (2.3 percent) and African-Americans (3 percent) also had no presence on the council. But community optimists are seeing Dr. Culbreath’s appointment as a positive step toward city government leadership that reflects the diversity of our community.
The opportunities are right there in front of us. Last month, the city announced 14 vacancies on seven city-appointed boards and commissions. That’s 14 chances for citizens to make a difference in our community.
All current opportunities are listed on the city website, rrnm.gov. Interested applicants for any of the vacant board and commission seats should apply online, or contact the city clerk’s office if the applicant has no access to internet service.
We can do this, Rio Rancho. Let’s look and act like who we really are.
(Cheryl Everett is a Rio Rancho resident and former city councilor.)