MIX Santa Fe oversight shifts from city to chamber of commerce

July 12, 2018

A behind-the-scenes decision to transfer a government contract that was awarded three years ago to Andrea Romero, now the Democratic nominee in state House District 46, from City Hall to the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce is raising suspicions among her detractors.

But the people involved in reassigning the contract to a different entity say there is nothing untoward about the move.

Last month, about a week after Romero scored a stunning upset over three-term incumbent Rep. Carl Trujillo in a rough-and-tumble primary election, Romero wrote a letter to the city requesting the contract to oversee MIX Santa Fe be reassigned to the chamber of commerce for this fiscal year, which started July 1.

MIX Santa Fe is loosely defined as a business networking initiative for young professionals that includes an accelerator program for startups. Critics, though, question whether public funds should be used to throw such events.

“The Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce has agreed to act as the assigned designee of this contract, and [Andrea Romero Consulting] will be working with it to carry out ongoing duties and responsibilities with the Chamber,” Romero wrote in the June 13 letter to Matt Brown, the city’s economic development director.

The contract, which started at $20,000 a year, has been amended several times, bringing the total to $104,037 since it was first awarded in April 2015.

Brown said the new amendment for the 2018-19 contract is still being drafted. “The amount will be $20,000,” he said in a text message. “And it is now with the chamber, not Andrea … just to make sure we are all being accurate.”

The current contract calls for Romero to “provide services to support the coordination and organization of all MIX activities,” such as events, special projects and strategic planning.

In an email, Romero said the move would improve efficiency.

“The Santa Fe Chamber has served as MIX’s fiscal agent since our inception, so moving the contract to the Chamber streamlines the administrative side of this work,” she wrote.

Asked why the contract was moved in the fourth and final year instead of in previous years, Romero responded with another emailed statement that echoed the first one: “MIX and the Santa Fe Chamber agreed that this move would streamline the administrative process,” she said.

Devin Bent, a Nambé resident who was a staunch supporter of Trujillo’s, uncovered the contract reassignment through documents obtained under an open-records request. Bent said he doesn’t trust Romero, who landed in the crosshairs of public criticism amid revelations of travel policy violations, including the purchase of expensive wines and liquor and Major League Baseball tickets, during her tenure as executive director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities.

“I just think she’s a very flawed candidate, and I don’t want her representing me,” Bent said.

Bent said he worries that moving the contract to the chamber, which isn’t subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act or the Inspection of Public Records Act, could leave taxpayers in the dark.

“I think the contract becomes less transparent in the way it’s administered,” he said.

Simon Brackley, the chamber’s president and CEO, acknowledged as much.

“I can hire whoever I want at the chamber, and it’s not up to the city to go through the RFP [request for proposals] process and have to deal with it at all,” he said. “It’s up to me to hire a program director to run the MIX program.”

Asked whether he anticipated Romero to continue to oversee MIX Santa Fe, Brackley said he had “no idea.” He said he has not talked to Romero about her “career intentions” and that he didn’t know how much time she would have to devote to the state House of Representatives if she wins election in November.

“She has her own business as well, so she has a lot on her plate,” he said, referring to Romero’s fledgling ostrich farm.

Most of the funding for MIX Santa Fe comes from sponsors, which are mostly local businesses, though “the city has been funding some of it,” too, Brackley said.

Brackley said the decision to move the contract to the chamber, which he said already has been approved by his board of directors and City Manager Erik Litzenberg, was multi-pronged. One of the reasons, he said, was to avoid the appearance of a conflict if Romero is elected.

“It’s to avoid any appearance of conflict or to put her in a position where she is — how do I say this? — to clarify what her role is as an elected official so she can make good decisions for the entire community,” he said.

Brackley did not respond to a follow-up question about how the move would eliminate the appearance of a conflict if Romero was still overseeing the contract but just under a different entity.

Though the chamber is not subject to the Inspection of Public Records Act, Brackley said the chamber’s books are open.

“You’re welcome to look at our books,” he said. “You can look at our financials.”

In response, The New Mexican requested Brackley’s salary and those of each of his employees, as well as contracts over $25,000 since January — which would be public information at a government agency.

“My bookkeeper is away this week,” Brackley said Wednesday via email. “I’ll get with her next week and send you relevant info.”

Brown, who became the city’s economic development director about a year ago, said he decided to take a closer look at Romero’s contract with the city after she announced her candidacy. He said he expected the contract to receive additional scrutiny after Romero became a candidate for public office.

“Everything came out clean,” he said. “She had delivered everything under the contract and had the invoices and all the receipts and everything.”

But documents obtained by Bent show there were some initial doubts.

The contract requires Romero to submit “informal reports” at least once a month. The reports that Romero has been submitting list the number of hours she has been spending on various tasks, from “communications with sponsors and stakeholders” to “gathering of information, testimonials, photos, logos and other material for promotion.”

“According to your contract, you are to provide informal reports at least once a month. Is there something more you used to provide besides the invoices? Verbal or written?” Jessica Sandoval, who works in the city’s Economic Development Office, wrote to Romero in January.

“No,” Romero responded. “I thought we decided the matrix of hours dedicated to each area of the contractual obligation was the correct way of submitting. I would have to go back each month and recall each of the narrative pieces of the work completed and write it down. Should I do that, or just do it going forward?”

“No, let’s continue with the matrix of hours,” Sandoval replied. “I figured that would work but wanted to double check.”

At the same time he was conducting his review, Brown said Brackley and Kate Noble, a school board member who used to work for the city and helped start MIX Santa Fe, were talking about “how to transition MIX from a project to an organization so it can mature and grow.” He said the idea of assigning the management of the contract to the chamber made sense to him.

“I really like the idea of an organization like the chamber, which is representing our business community and has a strategic objective of improving entrepreneurship in our city, so they want to do that, and MIX is trying to do that as well. So it seemed to be a good alignment,” Brown said.

Brackley said he was “surprised this is coming up now” since Romero already won the Democratic primary, though she faces two opponents, independent Amadeo J. Ortiz and write-in candidate Heather Nordquist, in the November general election. He questioned whether Bent routinely files open-records requests.

“It sounds like he’s fishing for something,” he said, “but I’m not sure that it’s worthy of your time to pay attention to him.”

Brackley declined to say whether he personally supported Romero in her bid for House District 46.

“I’m not going to answer that,” he said.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.