By Mike Cook
Las Cruces Bulletin
To increase voter turnout in Las Cruces city elections and level the playing field for city council candidates in all districts, Councilor Greg Smith is proposing that the mayor’s term of office be increased from four to six years.
That proposal was discussed at the council’s Monday, April 8 work session along with a discussion of hospital speed zones and decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Before 1991, when a new city charter took effect, councilors were elected by districts and then they chose the mayor. Since 1991, six councilors have been elected by district and the mayor citywide. In 1991 and every four years since, races for mayor and councilors in districts 1, 2 and 4 have been on the same ballot. In 1993 and every four years since, races for councilors in districts 3, 5 and 6 have been on the same ballot, with no mayor’s race.
Turnout has always been higher when there is a mayor’s race, Smith said. To increase voter turnout, he proposes to extend the mayor’s term from four to six years, which would create “more equitable distribution of mayor’s-race cycles” by alternating the council races that coincide with the mayor’s race.
A longer term would also eliminate the unfair advantage enjoyed by incumbents representing districts 3, 5 and 6, Smith said, because, not being on the ballot with the mayor allows them to run for that office without giving up their council seats.
The proposed change requires a two-thirds majority of the council to be placed on the Nov. 5, 2019, ballot, where it would need a simple majority of voters to become part of the city charter. If adopted, Smith said the extended term for mayor would take effect in 2023, meaning whoever is elected mayor this November would still serve a four-year term.
Smith has announced that he is running for mayor this year rather than seeking a third term as District 2 councilor. Councilor Gabe Vasquez, elected to the District 3 seat in 2017, said in a separate interview that he also is considering running for mayor. Incumbent Ken Miyagishima, who recused himself from the April 8 discussion, said in a separate interview that he has not decided whether he will seek re-election to a fourth term.
The issue will be discussed and voted upon by the council at a future meeting.
The city currently has hospital speed-reduction zones on North Telshor Boulevard near Memorial Medical Center (MMC) and on East Lohman Avenue near MountainView Regional Medical Center (MVRMC) and has received multiple requests for the removal or extension of the zones, according to city documents. Both zones include signs and flashing lights to reduce the speed to 25 miles per hour.
City engineer Hector Terrazas said a consultant hired by the city found that no other municipality in the country has speed zones specifically designated for hospitals, and that no traffic studies were ever done to warrant the zones, which are not required by federal or state law or city ordinance.
Terrazas said the consultant recommended removing the lights and signs and that city police and fire departments and American Medical Response, which provides city ambulance service, see no need for the speed zones because drivers respond to emergency vehicles’ alerts.
Miyagishima and several councilors said the city needs to reduce speed around hospitals. “We need to pass an ordinance if we’re going to keep [the hospital zones],” the mayor said.
“I wouldn’t want to remove them,” Councilor Kasandra Gandara said. “People just need to slow down there” so that emergency vehicles and hospital staff and visitors “are safe coming in and out of those entrances and exits.”
“I’m very interested in how this improves public safety,” Councilor Jack Eakman said. He asked city staff to provide that data. If the zones increase safety, Eakman said, the city should consider creating them around other hospitals and healthcare facilities.
Senate Bill 323, which passed both houses of the New Mexico legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in April, decriminalizes the possession of one-half ounce or less of marijuana and gives jurisdiction to magistrate or metropolitan courts, but not to municipal courts like the one in Las Cruces. City Attorney Jennifer Vega-Brown said her office will conduct research to determine if the city could draft and pass an ordinance to give Las Cruces municipal court jurisdiction in petty misdemeanor cases involving marijuana possession.