Observer staff writer
Before the big game, there was the big debate.
This past Sunday, candidates in the upcoming March 2 city elections answered questions, that perhaps because the forum was held at Father D’Acro Hall at St Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, included controversial issues such as abortion and domestic partnership rights.
This was the first public forum for the candidates; the previous two forums were hosted by firefighters and police unions. Despite the largest TV event ever taking place later that afternoon, the hall was filled with about 40 people.
In the race for the top seat, former mayor Jim Owen continued his rhetoric of categorizing the last four years of leadership as an era of mismanagement. Owen said city leadership should have seen the economic recession looming on the horizon.
“Good management watches the trends so they can make key adjustments,” said Owen. “Why didn’t this administration or the previous administration see it?”
Owen was mayor of Rio Rancho from 2002 to 2006.
Swisstack said despite the economic downturn he continues to see the glass “half full.” Swisstack was elected by voters in 2008, completing the final two years of former Mayor Kevin Jackson’s term. Swisstack was also mayor from 1994 to 1998. Jackson resigned amid allegations of the misuse of funds in his day job and in city government.
Both candidates were asked what they would do to increase economic diversity at City Center
Calling the development in the area four years behind schedule, Owen said he would kick development into gear by “incentivizing” more projects but said that would take time because City Center has lost momentum.
Swisstack refuted that, saying that because infrastructure was not in place at City Center, the city had to go in and retrofit sites to make them business ready. Despite that and the dive in the economy, a number of projects are ahead of schedule including the Hewlett-Packard facility. Swisstack also went on to say the city is hoping to soon announce the arrival of two big businesses, bringing with them as many as three thousand more jobs.
When asked to name key projects under his administration, Swisstack named University of New Mexico’s West Campus, the upcoming Presbyterian Hospital and the HP building. Owen’s response was the acquisition of the land for City Center that made all those projects possible.
“All these were started in our administration,” Owen said.
Then both candidates were asked about whether or not they would support domestic partner benefits for employees.
“I support people having insurance, health care” Owen said. “If they’re not covered, we’re paying for them anyhow.”
Swisstack said when he talks about insuring same-sex partners of city employees he also includes covering traditional partners of employees who are not married.
Owens, who described himself as being a conservative, pro-life Christian, took a stronger stance.
“Traditional marriage is something we need to hang onto,” he said. “Why should I have to support your lifestyle?”
But Owens conceded saying that the decision is likely not going to be left up to local officials.
“This is being decided by the Legislature; we’re not going to have a choice,” he said.
The responses by both Owen and Swisstack drew applause.
Swisstack said the biggest issue facing Rio Rancho is the fact that the majority of undeveloped land is owned by thousands of people scattered across the country, making it hard for the city to solicit business development.
Owen argued the city is already in trouble because of its depleting budget reserves.
“We’re getting to the legal minimum,” he said, adding that the reserves are half of what they were when he was mayor.
An area both men agreed on was that the city needs to continue to try to increase its collection of gross receipt taxes.
“We’ll maintain our financial independence by growing our tax base,” Owen said. “We need to figure out how to keep people here and shop here.”
In his final comments, Swisstack said the successes of the past two years were not about him but the city.
“My only promise to you is to help this city grow,” he said.
Owen said if he’s elected, he’ll push for ethics reform for the city council.
Municipal judge race
Three men with a background in law enforcement are vying for the position of municipal judge.
Among his accomplishments, incumbent James Walker cited the video arraignment system that he implemented, which he said has freed up thousands of hours for officers, a night court and a young adult offenders program. Walker said if reelected he would not seek another term in 2014.
Jeff Hartman, who is retiring from the Rio Rancho Police Department in April after 18 years, said he “intends to bring integrity to the bench.”
Aware of the financial restraints of the city, Hartman said if elected he would request a reduction in salary. When later pressed how much of a reduction in the $67,000 salary he would ask for, Hartman said jokingly he didn’t want to give an answer before the election because he did want the other candidates to “underbid him.”
Robert Cook, who was appointed by Walker three years ago to be his alternate judge, said three qualities make a good judge: experience, good judgment and neutrality.
“I believe you are innocent until proven guilty, that’s not always true in our municipal courts,” he said.
Cook said so far there have been no appellate decisions overturning his rulings. He also said if elected, he said he would push for the city to hire a second municipal judge. He said Farmington, which is half the size of Rio Rancho, has two full-time municipal judges and a part-time judge.
“We need to have a second judge,” Cook said. “You shouldn’t have to wait four hours (for a court appearance).”
City Council race
District 2 candidate Federico Cardenas admitted he was new to the political ring.
“I’m not a politician; I haven’t been doing this for 30 years,” he said. “I’m going to represent you, be transparent. I’ll put education and public safety on the front burners.”
His opponent, Patty Thomas has been on the council since 2001 and before that she was a county commissioner.
But despite being the longtime incumbent, Thomas said she has been going door-to-door meeting constituents.
“I would like to continue to make Rio Rancho a place for families,” she said.
District 2 candidate Paul Valles did not attend Sunday’s forum. Valles’ wife said he was called out of state for work and would be gone for the next three weeks.
In the District 3 race incumbent Tamara Gutierrez said the city needs to meet its infrastructure needs and addressing the antiquated platting and growth. Gutierrez works in human resources for Intel, said she would make herself accessible to residents if reelected. Gutierrez was appointed to the council this past summer after the death of Delma Petrullo. Her challenger, small business owner Denny Muzzey said he knows how to handle large budgets
As an ad executive in New York City, Muzzey said he handled $150 million accounts, and knows how to make sure money is spent correctly.
“Don’t let anyone kid you, government is big business,” he said.
Timothy Crum did not let the fact that he is running unopposed for District 5 keep him from detailing his plans when he joins the council.
“I understand business and government,” Crum said.
On council, Crum said he would “pave the way of lowering taxes” and like the rest of the candidates, would work to attract more retail.
During the question and answer part, the candidates were asked if they would hypothetically vote for or against Planned Parenthood opening a location in Rio Rancho.
Incumbents Thomas and Gutierrez responded saying the question was moot because councilors do not approve or deny individual business or building permits. Per normal city practice, the council typically only votes on zoning changes. Muzzey and Cardenas said that if Planned Parent became an issue, they would listen to their constituents and ultimately want residents to make the decision. Crum took the question as an opportunity to state his stance on abortion and other social issues.
“I will oppose any such action as a city councilor,” Crum said. “Immorality is unacceptable — pornography or anything else. We need to support human life.”