Feel-good resolutions: Acts of impact or distraction?

October 16, 2017 GMT

Santa Fe brims with tradition, from Fiestas to summer art markets to the chants of “Burn him!”

And then there’s the soapbox at City Hall.

Step up and condemn Jane Fonda. Stand tall and oppose the Iraq War. Support those protesting a pipeline to be built 900 miles from town.

That Santa Fe’s city councilors and mayors will occasionally articulate a political view or express a social consciousness by adopting resolutions that address issues of the day — even those beyond city, state or national borders — is indeed a time-honored custom. Not quite a Christmas Eve farolito walk, but something like placing a candle in a paper bag for all to see.

“We’re elected to take care of the interests of the city and the citizens — and it’s very mundane,” said former Mayor Sam Pick. “Sometimes you like to expand the horizon.”

To be sure, these value statements make up only a fraction of what appears before city committees, and ultimately, the governing body. And they’re not exclusive to the city: The state Legislature, for example, will pass dozens of memorials that recognize service animals or acknowledge the need to protect horses.

Predictably, perhaps, there are both supporters and detractors of the practice in Santa Fe. And a pair of resolutions proposed by Councilor Renee Villarreal this summer illustrated the divide.

One of the drafts expressed opposition to the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons agenda and support for a California congressman’s bill that would restrict the president’s ability to launch a “first use” nuclear strike. Another requested the state Environment Department to amend its consent order governing cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory, asking the lab to suspend a planned expansion of plutonium pit production until safety issues are resolved.

Upon their introduction at the city Finance Committee, a few councilors said variously the drafts were well-intentioned and would send an important message from the city. But there was also skepticism about their ability to make an impact.

Councilor Mike Harris suggested the “political statement” in critiquing President Donald Trump needed to be toned down or cut and questioned whether the city’s sentiments were necessary.

“I just don’t see how we can add too much to the discussion,” Harris said at the time.

“Some of this can be valuable, but I also think it results in a loss of focus, oftentimes, from the core work we’re charged with doing for Santa Feans,” he added more recently, speaking of the general practice. “It does get in the way, I think, on occasion.”

Pick said city officeholders through the years have been too quick to take up issues beyond the “meat and potatoes” of city governance. But they can be forgiven, he added, for engaging in what he called “aspirational” thinking from time to time.

Pick, who served 2 1/2 terms as mayor across the ’70s and into the ’90s, recalled a resolution passed when he was a city councilor that condemned Fonda as unpatriotic for her actions during her 1972 visit to North Vietnam while the U.S. remained enmeshed in a war in Southeast Asia.

“Yeah, she’s recovered from what Santa Fe did to her,” Pick, 81, quipped. “It took her a while, but she’s living in a nice house. She’s doing well.”

But, he added, after that vote, “I got to thinking: It’s a hell of a lot easier to do that than worry about the streets. It’s a lot of fun.”

In recent years, amid the reams of what Pick would call the mundane, the council has adopted resolutions that request President Barack Obama deny a Keystone Pipeline construction permit, voice support for Dakota Access Pipeline protesters and side with a movement to ban nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics in livestock production.

David Coss, another former mayor, recalled a resolution he proposed as a councilor that stated the city’s opposition to American involvement in Iraq.

“I thought it was important for Santa Fe, as a political body, for us to go on the record and say: ‘Here’s why this war is wrong,’ ” Coss said. “It didn’t change George Bush or Dick Cheney’s mind, but it was at least a statement that the people of Santa Fe could make that they were against it.”

In 1998, the council weighed in on an international issue with a resolution “urging the U.S. to join other nations in becoming a signatory to the Ottawa Convention to Ban Antipersonnel Landmines.”

In 2009 came a resolution “supporting June 26 as the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.”

And in 2012, the council adopted a resolution “petitioning the president and Congress of the United States to say NO to attack on Iran, NO to any pre-emptive strike on Iran and NO to U.S. weapons used in an attack on Iran.”

Coss said the practice of making statements to — or on behalf of — the community has been part of Santa Fe city politics “forever, as far as I know.”

“I think, of course, you’ve got to be careful with them,” he added. “It always irritates the snot out of the other side.”

Councilor Signe Lindell said she can recall perhaps three or four resolutions taken up by the council since she was elected in 2014 that amount to commentary on national issues that wouldn’t explicitly affect Santa Fe residents — and thus, she said, they don’t take up too much time.

A resolution passed by the council in February that reaffirmed the city’s welcoming status toward immigrants and refugees, on the other hand, was an example of a statement that was essential because it “directly affects our community,” she said.

That resolution excised the word “sanctuary” to avoid picking a fight with the Trump administration — reflecting the delicate balance policymakers sometimes try to strike in these areas.

But “those are things that within this city people feel very, very affected by, and are a day-in, day-out part of their lives,” Lindell said.

Former city councilor Karen Heldmeyer said she changed her mind on the practice when a constituent once said to her: “The state government doesn’t care about us; the federal government doesn’t care about us; could we at least demonstrate that the city government cares about us?”

“Sometimes something is a philosophic point of view that isn’t in the [city] charter, or isn’t in the charter yet, and that point of view can inform some of the other things that the city does, like the budget,” she said.

And provided its composition and research don’t require extensive staff time, a resolution articulating a shared Santa Fe value, particularly one with policy implications, can be meaningful, Heldmeyer said.

A recently approved ordinance to ban certain traveling exotic animal acts within city limits was viewed by some critics as an attempt to legislate taste and appeal to an anti-circus movement that originated outside Santa Fe. But dozens of residents testified in favor of the ordinance, some in emotional terms, and it passed, 8-1.

“There were many, many people and many, many constituents that wanted to see that brought forward,” said Lindell, who sponsored it.

The lone vote against that ban, however, has made no bones about his feelings about city leaders issuing opinions through what he calls the “feel-good resolution.”

Councilor Ron Trujillo said he believes there are better mechanisms for elected Santa Fe officials to declare a stance on what he sees as matters primarily outside the realm of city government.

“There’s nothing wrong with us writing a letter on city letterhead signed by those councilors,” he said, adding another option would be to write to a congressional representative.

“That would be, in my opinion, more appropriate,” he said. “If we’re going to bring something before the council, a resolution, a feel-good resolution, it better pertain to the well-being of this community and its people.”

Villarreal’s proposals on the lab and the Trump administration have been postponed a few times since their introduction in August and some changes have been made. Among those, specific references to Trump have been replaced by references to the “current” administration.

Harris said since being elected in 2016 he has softened his view that the City Council deals with too many resolutions in general. Introducing one, talking through objections, he said, can be a fine way to work toward consensus.

Villarreal’s proposal concerning cleanup and safety at LANL is a prime example, Harris said. With a few more tweaks, he said, he might sign on as a co-sponsor.

“It’s something that potentially does have a direct impact and influence on the lives of Santa Feans,” Harris said. “That I am willing to do.”

Villarreal said although councilors primarily focus on day-to-day city services, there’s room in the multifaceted positions for the occasional symbolic gesture. And a city resolution on an issue with regional reach like LANL cleanup might even prompt a ripple effect, she added, and build a groundswell of support in other nearby cities and counties.

“I think those resolutions, whether they’re the ones I come forward with or others, they are making a statement about our values as a city,” she said.

The proposal might not change LANL’s mind on the cleanup order, she said, but if passed it would demonstrate the city’s support for and belief in the importance of the issue.

“There’s a limit to it,” Villarreal added, referring to the symbolic or values-driven decisions, “but there can be a good balance.”

A resolution restating the city’s approach to race, class, gender and LGBTQ concerns in the wake of Trump’s elections failed, Villarreal recalled. She said she wished it hadn’t.

It would have been a good reminder, Villarreal said, in a tumultuous time: “What are our values? What do we stand for? Some [resolutions] are more symbolic, and some have direct implications that do affect people.”

Still, there might always be those like Pick, who feel the balance is out of whack at City Hall.

“They didn’t elect us to be philosophers for the city,” Pick said. “When you bring up other issues that are outside your job description, it’s a fight you don’t have to fight. It’s like Trump. He picks fights he doesn’t have to pick. There’s no reason to do that. I think it’s divisive.”

Staff writer Daniel Chacon contributed to this report.

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or tstelnicki@sfnewmexican.com.