October 31, 2016

That other question on Bernalillo County ballots: Home rule

Photo via Flickr by Erik (HASH) Hersman

One ballot Bernalillo County initiatives voters will weigh in on this election season may appear perplexing on the surface, but the idea is relatively simple.

“It’s basically like a constitution for the county,” former Bernalillo County attorney Randy Autio said of the proposition to establish a home rule charter in the county. “It sets guidelines on what governance in the county would look like.”

The county is home to more than 674,000 people, including all of Albuquerque, and is currently subject to the same governance guidelines as all but one other county in New Mexico.

One of those guidelines from state law, for example, only allows for a maximum of five elected officials to represent the county.

But state law also allows communities to establish “home rule,” which Autio said would give county voters “the greatest ability to govern themselves.” If voters approve this for Bernalillo County next week, they could in the future push to amend the charter to change the number of county commissioners, who currently represent more than 100,000 people per district on average.

Voters could also amend the county charter in the future the same way they amend city charters. Recent votes in Albuquerque established a citywide public campaign finance system, and in Santa Fe a vote expanded the mayor’s legislative powers.

More than 110,000 Bernalillo County residents currently live in unincorporated areas outside the borders of the city of Albuquerque. This population would be the second-largest city in the state.

Adding to that argument is the sheer size of Bernalillo County government, which has a $500 million annual budget and employs more than 2,500 people.

“I feel strongly about it simply because I’m a fan of local people trying to solve their own problems,” Autio said.

Over the past year, Autio chaired a committee that wrote up the proposed county charter, which would establish a code of conduct to limit conflicts of interest for county officials, an ethics compliance officer and transparency guidelines for county government among other initiatives.

Currently, Bernalillo County government follows these guidelines through ordinances that future county commissioners could remove with a majority vote.

The county charter would essentially put these and other guidelines into a “more permanent” document, according to Autio. The code of conduct, for example, could only be changed by a “supermajority” vote of four out of five county commissioners.

Though the county government isn’t taking an official stance on the home rule initiative, it has sought to spread the word. Since August, the county has held 20 neighborhood meetings and made social media posts and news releases “in an effort to raise awareness just so people know this is on the ballot,” according to Bernalillo County spokesman Andrew Lenderman.

The full ballot initiative reads: “Shall the County of Bernalillo, New Mexico, establish a Home Rule Urban County by adoption of a Charter under Article X Section 10, Urban Counties, of the New Mexico Constitution, empowering the Citizens of the County to exercise the maximum degree of self-government and exercise all powers of governing the County independently not denied expressly by State law?”