Questa mayor fires back at residency question

'Open secret' gets aired ahead of March 6 election


With only days left before the municipal election in Questa, the mayor is defending his legitimacy in the race while responding to the longstanding but well-known reality that he splits his time between Questa and Taos.

During a forum for mayoral and council candidates Tuesday (Feb. 20), which was hosted by the Questa Economic Development Fund, Mayor Mark Gallegos responded to a question from the audience about whether he resides in the village.

Although Gallegos lists as his primary residence a house that sits about a half-mile north of the juncture of State Roads 522 and 38, Gallegos told the audience of about 40 people that he does spend most of his nights in Llano Quemado, a community located south of Ranchos de Taos.

Gallegos has been the mayor since 2014 and served two terms as a village councilor. During each of his campaigns, he said, Questeños knew about his living arrangement.

"Every time I've run, the people in this community know where I lay my head, and they know my commitment to the community. If there's one thing I haven't done, it's been able to clear up this mess of where I reside," Gallegos, who is also a sitting Taos County commissioner for the northernmost district, told The Taos News in a Monday (Feb. 26) interview.

On one level, the issue of residency is a simple one. The state constitution says that municipal officers and municipal governing body members "shall be residents of the political subdivision or district from which they are elected."

Yet the constitution does not detail what residency means in a practical sense. Furthermore, the election handbook for Questa is nearly as vague. Among the 10 factors that determine residency, the handbook states, "The residence of a person is that place in which his habitation is fixed and to which, whenever he is absent, he has the intention to return."

Joey Keefe, spokesperson for New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, told The Taos News that in statewide political races, his office simply checks to make sure the address listed on a person's declaration of candidacy matches the address on their voter registration.

"That's what we go off of. If they own another home or spend time at other houses, that's not something we have jurisdiction over or pay attention to," Keefe said.

Similar to those statewide races, Gallegos' declared address of 6 Cisneros Road in Questa was checked against his voter registration twice, by both the Taos County Clerk's Office and the village clerk.

Yet it's the grey reality of residency that Gallegos occupies.

While his voter registration is attached to the Cisneros Road address, "I do sleep and spend time with my family, which is in Taos [Llano Quemado]," he said. Gallegos has been in a relationship with his girlfriend for 16 years and has a 15-year-old daughter who attends Taos High School, he said.

Gallegos does own property in the village with his brothers, but said his girlfriend owns the Llano Quemado home where he spends upwards of 98 percent of his evenings. "As much as I can get over there and spend time with them, I do," he said.

Gallegos emphasized that in addition to his duties as mayor of Questa and county commissioner, he daily drives to the village to take care of his parents and run the businesses they no longer can. "If my mom and dad need me here, then I'm here and I spend my nights here."

Plus, he said, working for 10-to-15 hours a day in Questa and then sleeping in a house south of Taos "is no different than the people [from Questa] who work in Taos."

Indeed, two of the municipal candidates in Questa, including councilor John Anthony Ortega, work at Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, which is headquartered in Taos.

Gallegos said the "infamous question" around where he lives has "always been on the table" during his past political campaigns. When Gallegos first ran for council in Questa, he was in a "transition" between spending time in Questa and Taos, which was driven by "financial" concerns, he said.

"It's not like it's ever been hidden that he doesn't live here," said Evelyn Coggins, a former village councilor who was part of the committee that put together the event for candidates.

So when a person at Tuesday's forum asked him to finally put the issue to bed, he did.

He also told the crowd that the March 6 election is when the community has the choice to vote him into office again or not.

While some people insist a mayor should live full-time in the village, some at the forum also appreciated Gallegos' frankness. Malaquias Real, a former mayor and councilor who currently heads the Questa Economic Development Fund Board of Directors, told The Taos News that Gallegos "didn't shy away from the question."

"I thought his honesty was good," he said.

But candidates having to deal with questions around their residency are not new. Keefe, with the secretary of state, said that residency concerns are "something we hear about from time to time, especially as it gets close to elections."

Indeed, the Questa issue resembles the residency questions swirling around both town of Taos mayoral candidates, sitting mayor Dan Barrone and sitting councilor Darien Fernandez. Town councilor Judy Cantu filed a complaint in district court alleging Barrone does not reside at the address listed on his declaration of candidacy.

Meanwhile, Fernandez' own family is torn about the address he listed as his primary residence, and another resident has filed a complaint in district court regarding Fernandez' residency. A hearing in the case was scheduled Wednesday (Feb. 28).

Even as questions about where they live have dominated the talk of the town, neither Taos mayoral candidate has bowed out of the race.

In other parts of the state, residency issues have led to fewer choices on Election Day. A Republican candidate for Lt. Governor from Zuni Pueblo pulled out of the race in November. The state constitution says a candidate for that office must live in New Mexico for five years; the Republican candidate lived in Utah for a few months early during the five-year period.

Gallegos' opponent in the race, John Anthony Ortega, said his residency at a house situated between State Road 522 and Herrera Road "will never come into question."