Because of a disagreement between the Albuquerque City Council and Bernalillo County Commission, it’s not clear which ballot initiative voters will get to vote on—or if either will even be on the ballot.
During a Bernalillo County Commission meeting last week, commissioners did not discuss either of two recent ballot initiatives sent to them by the Albuquerque City Council. In fact, neither even appeared on the agenda.
One initiative, prompted by a successful petition drive, would require some employers to provide sick leave to employees. The other would increase public campaign finance dollars to Albuquerque mayoral candidates.
The county commission must approve the two measures in order for them to reach the ballot this November.
A spokesman for Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver said if the sick leave initiative is shortened to a summary, both questions could appear on the ballot. It’s still unclear if the city charter requires a summary or full text of the sick leave initiative.
Bernalillo County Commission Chairman Art De La Cruz said the County Commission did not place the questions on the agenda last week because the City Council failed to prioritize or specify how the questions should go on the ballot.
“The county cannot dictate to the city what’s on their ballot,” De La Cruz said.
County Commission, City Council point fingers
City Council President Dan Lewis fired back and blamed De La Cruz for not getting the two voter initiatives on the ballot.
“Art De La Cruz should have done his job when he had the opportunity to vote for them,” Lewis said.
Lewis defended the city council’s actions, saying they approved two questions and sent them to the county commission to get on the ballot.
“If you don’t want do you your job don’t blame the city council,” Lewis said.
De La Cruz pointed to the lengthy sick leave initiative and said city council did not specify if the question could be shortened or if one initiative has a priority over another since ballot space is limited.
“They need to tell us what they want,” De La Cruz said.
Instead of discussing the two city initiatives during their last meeting, the county commission opted to approve a separate advisory question regarding Albuquerque’s highly debated bus rapid transit project. Commissioner Debbie O’Malley introduced a proposal to add the non-binding question on Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) to ballots in November. Commissioners Wayne Johnson and Lonnie Talbert gave the only two dissenting votes against O’Malley’s proposal. The question will ask voters whether they approve or disapprove of the ART project but will not carry any weight as to whether the project will continue or not.
Such non-binding questions can be controversial. In 2014, advocates successfully placed a non-binding question about decriminalizing marijuana on the Bernalillo County and Santa Fe County ballot. Then-Secretary of State Dianna Duran said the state constitution prevented such non-binding questions from ballots, but the New Mexico Supreme Court disagreed and the questions went forward in Albuquerque*.
“They already prioritized,” Lewis said of the commission’s decision to add O’Malley’s proposal.
Both county and city officials previously debated whether or not the sick leave initiative needs to be on the ballot in it’s full seven page-length statement or a shorter summary.
Advocates weigh in
Advocates who support both potential city ballot questions weighed in on the debate of which will appear this November.
“We look forward to working with the County Commission to move earned sick leave forward to the voters in November,” Andrea Serrano, a deputy director of Organizers in the Land of Enchantment wrote in an email to NM Political Report. “This ballot initiative is extremely popular and has the support of small businesses, workers and voters.”
Common Cause New Mexico, an organization that supports greater transparency in elections, helped push for the initiative that would increase public money towards mayoral candidates. Heather Ferguson, the nonprofit’s campaign manager, said her organization does not take positions or comment on ballot priorities but hopes the commission takes the city council’s vote into consideration.
“This charter amendment to fix our public financing program in time for the next Mayoral race was approved by the city council by a vote of 8-1 in early June,” Ferguson said in a statement. “We hope that the county commission will act in time to put this critical public financing amendment on the ballot for the November election.”
Lewis maintains that the commission should vote on the two ballot questions one way or another.
“Our laws are extremely clear,” Lewis told NM Political Report. “There’s really nothing we need to clarify.”
Debate over wording continues
Still, it wasn’t immediately clear to at least two city councilors if a summary would suffice for a ballot question. Earlier this year, Albuquerque City Councilors Isaac Benton and Pat Davis** asked for clarification from the council’s legal advisor on what is required for a voter ballot initiative. Chris Melendrez, a council policy analyst, offered his interpretation of the city charter in a memo to Benton and Davis in July.
Melendrez said the city charter aimed to make sure voters know exactly what they’re voting for.
“Ballot size limitations notwithstanding, this requirement of the Charter makes policy sense because proponents of various measures certainly have incentive to submit somewhat editorialized persuasive summaries as opposed to more factual, objective ones,” Melendrez wrote.
He added that a ballot initiative in 2013 aimed at limiting abortions was required to be printed in full on ballots.
“At that election, the full measure as originally submitted was placed on the ballot based on this interpretation of the Charter even though the proponents were advocating that the ballot contain only their proposed summary,” Melendrez wrote.
De La Cruz said he is tentatively planning for a special meeting on Sept. 8 to make an official decision on what will make it to the ballot, but added that if he doesn’t receive a response from the council, “there will be nothing to talk about” and he will cancel the meeting.
This would likely mean neither proposal makes the ballot this November and would instead be on the ballot in the 2017 municipal elections.
The next scheduled county commission meeting is set for Sept. 13, which is also the deadline to submit ballot questions for Secretary of State Brad Winter. Winter, who is an Albuquerque city councilor, recused himself from the votes for the ballot initiatives to avoid a conflict of interest.
Lewis said he doesn’t plan to convene a special city council meeting because proper procedures have already been followed.
“We did exactly what we were required to do,” Lewis said. “The people of Albuquerque went out and got the required signatures, they obeyed our laws and they followed our procedures.”
Update: The County Clerk’s office initially said the ballot would only have room for the sick leave initiative or the public financing question. Tuesday the office clarified that there is room on the ballot for both if the sick leave initiative is a summary.
*ProgressNow New Mexico was involved in this initiative. ProgressNow New Mexico helps find funding for NM Political Report. No one in the organization has any input in the editorial process of this or any other story.
** Pat Davis is the executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico.