The issue of whether to form a permanent fund is set to go before city voters March 1, but the possibility of requiring the municipal judge to be an attorney is off the table.
At their meeting Thursday night at City Hall, Rio Rancho Governing Body members voted to put six proposed charter amendments on the ballot.
Mayor Gregg Hull stressed that the governing body wasn’t changing the charter that night.
“We’re just discussing whether to send these to the voters or not send these to the voters,” he said.
The issues are whether to:
• Require charter reviews every eight years instead of the current six years.
• Allow 60 days to fill a vacant mayoral or city councilor seat, instead of the current 45 days.
• Update the process of recording and codifying ordinances and resolutions to match current technology and procedures.
• Require that an acting city manager be paid at least the minimum salary for the city manager position.
• Require vacancies on boards and commissions to be filled as soon as practical, rather than within 30 days.
• Establish a permanent fund with $10 million to create an ongoing stream of investment revenue, with guidelines for management set via ordinance.
The charter review committee had also recommended asking voters if the municipal judge should be required to be an attorney in good standing with the New Mexico State Bar, and if the municipal judge should be required to work with the city manager to develop a court budget. Now, the judge doesn’t need to be an attorney and develops his or her budget before submitting it to the governing body.
Hull said that in 2016 voters supported a charter amendment requiring the judge to submit a budget to the governing body. He worried that it would be redundant and possibly cause legal problems to bring back the issue of whom the judge submits a budget to.
The governing body removed the item from proposed amendments.
City councilors kept the question of whether the municipal judge should be an attorney off the ballot on a 5-1 vote, with
Councilor Karissa Culbreath casting the dissenting vote. Culbreath said she saw no compelling reason why the issue shouldn’t go before voters.
“Because that is the question at hand, whether or not the citizens of Rio Rancho should have the opportunity to govern themselves through the charter,” she said.
She suggested changing the ballot question to include more information for voters.
State law doesn’t require municipal or magistrate judges to be attorneys. Municipal judges hear limited cases, basically traffic citations, codes violations and petty misdemeanors.
Rio Rancho Municipal Court doesn’t handle DWI, assault or battery cases because those ordinances were removed to send all such cases to Sandoval County Magistrate Court.
If voters had approved the attorney requirement, Culbreath said, it wouldn’t take effect until 2026.
Councilor Paul Wymer said he thought it would be hard to find attorneys willing to run a campaign and serve as municipal judge for the current pay of $70,000 a year.
“Best-case scenario, I think we’re going to have to raise the salary significantly to get any takers to this position,” he said.
Wymer said it was hard to vote against the results of a survey indicating that 90 percent of 399 respondents favored the attorney requirement. However, he said he thought the results would have been different if they’d known the judge would make $150,000 a year.
Also at the meeting, current Municipal Judge Bob Cook, who’s not an attorney, and 11 other people — some who lived in Rio Rancho and some who didn’t — opposed requiring the judge to be an attorney. One person, Rio Ranchoan Cheryl Everett, spoke in support.
“This is about the city charter, not about an individual or a collection of people,” Everett said.
She said requiring the judge to be an attorney would raise Rio Rancho to the level of Santa Fe and Las Cruces, and the charter should reflect Rio Rancho’s progress.
Opposing the requirement, Albuquerque attorney Sam Bregman said he’s practiced law in New Mexico for 30 years at all levels.
“I have had probably over a dozen cases in your municipal court, and there is not a courtroom in this state where I feel that I’m going to be treated and my client is going to be treated more fairly than in this municipal court,” he said.
The governing body voted unanimously to send the remaining six proposed amendments to voters.
In other business, governing body members:
• Approved a site plan for the McDermott Athletic Center to add volleyball courts and a food court.
• Confirmed Amy Rincon as development services director and Loyola Martinez as human resources director.