The majority of the Taos County Board of Commissioners voted to block Commissioner Candyce O'Donnell from taking on a leadership role among the board while voting two members into their third terms as chairman and vice-chairman.
The 3-2 votes came at the beginning of the first commission meeting of the year Tuesday (Jan. 9), when the five commissioners decide who among them will serve as "chairman," "vice-chairman" and representatives to several other boards.
Commissioner Tom Blankenhorn lauded Fambro's accomplishments as chairman and nominated him for a third term.
Yet Commissioner Gabriel Romero said he wished the board would "give someone else the opportunity" to take on that role. "It's good to relieve ourselves of these positions of power," Romero said.
Commissioner Fambro was elected in 2014 and has served two one-year terms as chairman, in 2016 and 2017. O'Donnell also won her 2014 election but, in addition to being the only woman on the board, is also the only commissioner who has not served in either of the top leadership positions.
The chairman is responsible for setting the agenda, running the meetings and working with some state and federal offices.
O'Donnell said she too had concerns with Fambro taking a third year at the helm of the public body and that she had previously expressed to him her interest in serving as chairman.
"I'm not saying now," O'Donnell said of her taking on that role during the meeting. She then suggested Commissioner Mark Gallegos, the two-term vice chairman, assume the top spot on the board. Gallegos said he didn't want to take the position because, as the mayor of Questa, he would be too "spread out."
O'Donnell and Romero voted against keeping Fambro as chairman while Blankenhorn and Gallegos voted for his retention. Fambro cast the deciding vote in his favor. He will remain chairman until early 2019.
Fambro told The Taos News after the meeting he wasn't aware O'Donnell wanted the top job. He also said he understood his nomination and two affirming votes as signals "they thought I was qualified" to keep doing the job.
O'Donnell said her "prime reason" for voting against Fambro's appointment was because of the "tradition" of rotating the chairman role annually, which Taos County has done in the past. Similarly, the three commissioners in Rio Arriba County change the top job every year, according to their county manager Tomas Campos III. The shuffle isn't mandated in state law, he said, but is part of a "gentlemen's agreement." But in neighboring Colfax County, the chair generally retains that position "until they term out," according to Colfax County Manager Mary Lou Kern.
"I don't believe in rotating for the sake of rotation. It's too important of a decision," Tom Blankenhorn told The Taos News in a Jan. 10 interview.
The second major item on Tuesday's agenda was the appointment of vice-chairman, who generally fills in for the chairman when he or she is unavailable for meetings. Romero nominated O'Donnell for the position, saying, "She's proven herself not just to her district but to the people of Taos County." He also said O'Donnell "questions things going on -- right and wrong."
Yet some among the commission bristled. Gallegos had "a little bit of heartburn" over Romero's nomination of O'Donnell, he said. "I need to be assured that….if elected [as vice-chair] you would do as I have done and not overstep my boundaries, not overstep your boundaries," Gallegos said.
"I wholeheartedly agree with what [you] said," O'Donnell responded. "I really would like to serve in that position," she said.
The commission then took a vote on O'Donnell's vice-chairman nomination, with she and Romero voting in favor and Blankenhorn and Gallegos voting against. Fambro again cast the deciding vote, blocking her appointment to the position.
"It's just hard for me to show support for those who don't support me," Fambro said.
Gallegos was then elected to the vice-chairman role for a third term in another 3-2 vote, with Romero and O'Donnell dissenting.
The series of split votes reveal at least some tensions that have simmered over the past year. Gallegos said earlier in the meeting he would be willing to step down as vice-chairman.
He told The Taos News he voted against O'Donnell for vice-chairman because of past "instances" where, Gallegos said, she spoke on behalf of the commission at public gatherings. Similarly, Fambro "did not feel comfortable with [her] being in that position at this time" because of "things that have happened in the past," he said in an interview after the meeting although he declined to elaborate.
Yet all commissioners are looking forward -- not behind -- in staying upbeat about their ability to work together on behalf of their constituents. Gallegos, Fambro and O'Donnell said they were planning to run for re-election in the 2018 race.
Even after the first vote, Fambro pledged he would work with O'Donnell and Romero and that his "vision is of Taos County always, first and foremost."
"All five of us work hard to work together. I don't like to see a 3-2 vote on anything, so that bothers me. But we have progressed by being able to put differences and personality conflicts aside," Fambro later said in an interview.
O'Donnell sees Tuesday's leadership votes as a page ripped out of the democratic power struggles of the Roman empire, calling the majority a "triumvirate," a loose coalition of three people wielding their political power.
"I've learned to have a certain amount of detachment from these situations because we have so much work to do," O'Donnell told The Taos News. "I like these guys. I'm doing my best to work with them. I hope they do the same with me. I know I'll have my chance [to become chairman and vice-chairman] if I win my re-election. I just have to be patient."