The 2018 municipal election season is fully underway in the town of Taos. With early voting beginning Feb. 14, the race is heating up after two public forums for the candidates and recent reports of scofflaws taking down candidate signs around town.
More than 300 members of the community turned out for the first forum, hosted Feb. 1 by The Taos News and the Taos County Chamber of Commerce. Candidates for mayor and city council answered questions focused on economic development, jobs, government transparency and crime.
On Tuesday, (Feb. 6), the mayoral and council candidates had another chance to make their platforms and positions known to the voting public in a forum hosted by Taos United and attended by more than 200 people. Taos United describe themselves as "a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizens' organization dedicated to solving local problems that affect us all."
Both forums were held at Bataan Hall (University of New Mexico-Taos) on Civic Plaza Drive. Many more people joined the livestreams of both forums at Facebook.com/taosnews.
During a brief introduction period, Councilor Judi Cantu came out of the gate swinging, calling for Mayor Dan Barrone to withdraw his candidacy for mayor. Riding on claims that the mayor lives in an alternate location outside town limits, Cantu has positioned herself against Barrone in the election and promised to hold elected officials accountable for their actions and policies. Cantu also focused on Taos' need for economic growth, suggesting specifically the addition of a recycling plant in Taos.
New to the public eye, political freshman Michael Santistevan shocked and entertained the crowd by "winging" most of his responses and introduction. Although Santistevan is new to the political scene, his take on the future of Taos is highly focused on keeping people in the area. In addition, he wants to encourage younger community members to open their own small businesses.
"We need for people to want to stay here and want to come back," Santistevan said.
Another newcomer to the scene, Sarah Lopez, brings her experiences in finance and food and beverage service to give a financial reality check to how Taos views its workforce. To reduce crime, Lopez said the town needs to ensure its police force is not overworked. In addition, Lopez suggested a living wage would help reduce crime in Taos. She said with higher wages, people would be less inclined to commit crimes such as theft.
Melanie Baca is another political novice who addressed the town's crime rate. "As Taos has grown, so has our crime rate," said Baca, "which is a very scary reality in this community whether you are a business owner or a homeowner."
In addition to her concerns, Baca said one of her main focuses would be to look towards opportunities for the youth in Taos.
Baca works at Private Label Select, a Taos manufacturing business, which she encouraged the audience to support along with other local business in town. Baca said she never spends her money at the dollar stores in and around Taos.
Pascual Maestas has returned to the campaign trail and is hitting heavy on agricultural and personal responsibility in his campaign. As a Navy veteran and high school math teacher in Taos, Maestas is looking within the community to solve many of the issues present in Taos. He said he is hoping to encourage parents and government to play a more active role in education in the community. Maestas also emphasized the importance of self-sufficiency in Taos in regards to energy and agriculture.
"We need to get ourselves into a place where we are providing ourselves with our own energy and having extra energy for us to sell to outlying communities," Maestas said.
Candidate and former council member Andrew Gonzales has also returned to the campaign trail and is looking at other revenue streams for Taos besides tourism and the local ski industry, hard hit this year by the lack of snow.
"We don't control the weather, but we can't live and die by it either," Gonzales said. "We need diversification."
Gonzales also advocated the need for the entire community to share the Taos Plaza and supports the closure of the plaza for events.
Incumbent town councilor George "Fritz" Hahn remained focused on his plan to revitalize the historic acequias in Taos if reelected. "To the ditch," Hahn said.
He said that in doing so, Taos would be able to utilize more of the water in the area and agriculture would thrive. Hahn has worked with several community members in the past cleaning and updating some of the acequias and plans to continue the work in the future.
Hahn also said he is against bringing in box stores to Taos at the expense of the local businesses already present within the community. By starting locally grown Taos Herb Company business, Hahn has been an advocate for local shopping.
The highly anticipated conversation of the night was that of the Taos mayoral candidates Darien Fernandez and current Taos Mayor Dan Barrone. Barrone began his evening by saying there was still work to be done.
Fernandez said he is looking at a home-rule status for Taos, which would allow the town to raise the minimum wage and provide additional benefits. He also encouraged the "dusting off" of several older economic plans for Taos and taking a second look at the diversification of the economy. Fernandez added that his campaign was nothing personal against Barrone, but that he felt there was a different approach needed for the town of Taos.
Barrone suggested bringing back the lumber industry to Taos and said it would provide economic prosperity as well as help the environment by thinning out some of the thick forests around the county.
Barrone also spoke on his administration's efforts to raise wages for police officers in Taos and keep the Taos police department financially competitive with other markets. According to Barrone, the police staff is full and some of the new officers are from Taos.
When asked about recreational marijuana and agricultural hemp, answers given were polar opposite as Fernandez said he supported both and Barrone said he was against both.
Taos United forum
Stan Riveles, Taos United member, moderated the questions with the mayoral candidates. Rose Gordon, a community member of 48 years, moderated the council candidates' questions.
Prior to the start of the event, Dan Pritchard, one of the founders of Taos United, said, "The purpose of this forum is to enhance and expand upon what the results were from the last one. There'll be complementary questions and more in-depth answers now that the candidates have had a chance to think about the questions. We might hear some different perspectives."
At the forum, audience participants submitted questions to the candidates by completing a question card. Additionally, Taos United provided ten questions to the candidates in advance, which were answered in advance with a 'would' or 'would not' response.
Riveles began the questioning by pointing out the two projects that have caused public uproar in recent years: the Holiday Inn and the Smith expansion proposals. He then asked the mayoral candidates: "What will you do to ensure a more inclusive and less contentious decision process?"
Fernandez spoke first outlining community involvement plans. Barrone addressed the issues, which occurred during his mayoral term, by saying, "The Krogers [the Kroger Co.,Smith's owner] came to us. We learned a lesson. We created Strong at Heart," which is a town effort to engage the community in determining the future of downtown.
For the final question, Riveles gave the candidates 15 seconds each to answer. He asked: "With no obligation to money or red tape, if you could change one thing about Taos, what would it be?"
Barrone answered: "Traffic problems." Fernandez said he would put the money toward UNM-Taos.
The highlight of the councilor segment pertained to candidates Gonzales and Santistevan, both of whom are employed by Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. An audience question asked if they'd be prepared to leave their jobs if it appeared a conflict of interest is possible.
Santistevan began his response with, "I love Kit Carson Electric. I also love the Town of Taos." He said if there's a conflict of interest, he'd recuse himself from the conversations.
Gonzalez responded, "No. We all have a right to make a living. Where I work is irregardless (sic) of the fact that I want to serve this community."