Charter changes: Some good, some, uh

Published September 25th 2007 in Santa Fe New Mexican
FEATURED QUOTE:  "Instant-runoff, or ranked-choice, elections? This is a sophisticated concept, but this is a city of sophisticated voters. We should be able to rank our choices of candidates right on the ballot."

It’s been 10 years since voters approved a home-rule charter giving Santa Fe a measure of independence from the state Legislature, which reigns supreme over most New Mexico towns and cities.

It’s a good local constitution. Among its features are modern-day citizen controls over government via initiative, referendum and recall. And, of course, it made provision for amendments. This was an especially appealing idea — since some of the more sweeping reforms were held in abeyance by a diverse charter commission willing to wait until our community might be better prepared to adopt them.

For the past year or so, a citizen-volunteer charter review commission has been working on several amendments.

At this evening’s meeting, the council will determine which ones to send on for citizen approval. Some are so sensible that we can’t imagine the City Council not putting them on the March municipal ballot. As for others, we’re not sure they’re ready for prime time.

Among the proposals:

* Requiring law degrees of our municipal judges? Great idea. There’ll be a bit of resistance from folks who love to maunder about the “people’s court” — but last we looked, Ann Yalman was eminently human; sensitive yet sensible. The acting judge also is a lawyer — and that, we suspect, is a leading reason why our city court at last is less of a zoo.

* Allowing the mayor to vote not just to break ties, but also when his or her vote is needed for quorum purposes to meet minimum-vote standards? This provision surely should be in the charter.

* Lowering the number of petition signatures necessary to put initiatives and referenda on the ballot? Beware of this one, unless you like lunatics running the asylum — or corporate interests controlling our community under the guise of Concerned Citizens for Noble-Sounding Ignobility, or something like that.

Our charter allows citizen-initiatives, referenda and recall of bad choices — but it takes petition signatures of 20 percent of our registered voters. That’s a high hurdle — and it should be. Worthy causes will draw plenty of signatures.

* Instant-runoff, or ranked-choice, elections? This is a sophisticated concept, but this is a city of sophisticated voters. We should be able to rank our choices of candidates right on the ballot. If no candidate wins a majority of first-place votes, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated — and the second-, third- and lesser votes are counted according to voters’ choices. The process goes on until one candidate gets a majority. It’s done by computer, so it really is an instant runoff. It’s working in other places — and, as we’ve noted, voters are spared the damage that “spoiler” candidates and assorted whackos can do to the process, while allowing every dog his day.

* Public financing of municipal campaigns? That could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars every couple of years — and could be a big disadvantage to candidates willing to stick to the city limit while an opponent goes hog wild. We’d say let candidates scrounge for whatever money they think they need — as long as there are disclosure rules on the books. Santa Feans, election in and election out, have shown a healthy disregard for heavily financed candidates — and/or their sugar daddies.

We hope to hear a lively discussion of the amendments tonight — and with at least as much sincerity as Machiavellian motives. Meanwhile, we thank the members of the original charter commission as well as the charter-review commission; theirs is, too often, tough, dry, difficult work on behalf of an ever-better Santa Fe.