March 10, 2023

Bill mandating expansion of some county commissions passes House

Screenshot of Rep. Susan Herrera discussing HB 399 which mandates some counties expand to five member boards based on their population.

Screenshot of Rep. Susan Herrera discussing HB 399 which mandates some counties expand to five member boards based on their population.

The House approved HB 399, which seeks to require counties with 35,000 or more people to expand their county commissions to five members, on Thursday by a vote of 40-28. 

Only three counties would be affected by the bill should it pass: Otero, McKinley and Rio Arriba counties.

“Thank you for the very strong-minded debate and the urgency that we all are coming to recognize,” bill co-sponsor Rep. Willie Madrid, D-Chaparral, said. “I have to say in closing, you know, when we talk about the statutes and listen to the discussion today, it was a start of the will of the people. They have to be a part of this.”

Commission districts must be equally distributed based on population alone.

The county commissioner boards draw the new district maps, bill co-sponsor Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, said.

According to current state statute, New Mexico counties can expand to five county commission board members by a unanimous vote for the expansion. Then a redistricting effort is to occur based on the most recent U.S. Census data.

Herrera said the bill’s purpose was to expand representation to traditionally excluded populations such as Hispanics.

“Anytime people without power go up against people with power, there’s going to be a difficult struggle,” Herrera said. “These conversations are not easy and they are not easy to bring forward and they are not easy to solve. But I think it’s incumbent on all of us to hear voices that are not being heard and bring them forward.”

Case study: Otero County

NM Political Report reached out to county commissioners and county managers for the three affected counties. Only one of them responded.

Newly elected District 2 Otero County Commissioner Amy Barela, a Republican from Tularosa, wrote a letter opposing the bill to the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee that she shared with the NM Political Report.

“Otero County Commissioners currently represent 22,882 constituents in each district. The cost of each commissioner currently includes $26,257 for salary, $22,942.58 for benefits, $5,000 travel allowance and $2,075 for office equipment. This does not include training expenses, staff support, office utilities, etc,” she wrote. “Each commissioner has an approximate cost to the county of $55,274.58.”

The median county commissioner salary in New Mexico is $42,130, according to ZipRecruiter.

She also said that it would cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars to remodel or relocate the county commission chambers.

A ballot question was on the 2016 ballot asking voters if they wanted the Otero County Commission to be increased to five members which passed with 74 percent of the vote approving the proposal.

The question was nonbinding and served as a bellwether to see how the electorate at the time felt.

In 2018, the Otero County Commission discussed publishing an ordinance that would expand the commission board to five members.

“The beauty of having five, is you are required to live in your district and the five redistricting maps, five scenarios, people would be required to live out in rural areas to represent rural concerns,” then-Otero County Commission Vice Chairwoman Janet White said in November 2018. “It won’t be Alamogordo split five ways.”

The motion to publish the ordinance failed on a 1-2 vote with White being the sole vote against.

Alamogordo is the largest municipality by population in Otero County.