Despite several councilors’ concerns it would put him in a difficult position, the Roswell City Council on Thursday evening approved a directive to the city manager to not enforce the governor’s emergency health order.
Under questioning from City Councilor Juan Oropesa, however, City Manager Joe Neeb said he could not give a full answer of what that directive means without having a conversation with his staff.
After an hour-and-a-half discussion that focused mainly on enforcement of the mandate to wear face masks in public, the council approved the directive 6-4. Councilors Judy Stubbs, George Peterson, Angela Moore and Oropesa voted against the directive. Councilors Jacob Roebuck, Margaret Kennard, Jason Perry, Jeanine Best, Savino Sanchez and Barry Foster voted in favor.
Councilors Roebuck, Kennard, Perry, Best and Foster requested the directive be placed on the agenda for Thursday’s special meeting, along with another directing Neeb to investigate options for legal action against the governor.
That directive also passed by a vote of 6-4 on the same lines.
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The main purpose of the meeting was to consider approving the city’s 2021 budget, which the council did 9 to 1, with Oropesa the lone “no” vote.
Regarding the directive to not enforce the governor’s emergency order, Oropesa cited state statutes on the governor’s powers. The statute, he said, specified an executive order becomes temporary law. Later in the discussion, he asked Neeb if he believed he had a responsibility to follow the law, and if the council by a majority vote asked him to do something that was against the law, would he do it.
Neeb said he did have a responsibility to follow the law, but needed further clarity on the governor’s order.
“I believe there are some questions that remain on the table as far as how to interpret that. I believe we would enforce the law, any law, within the state of New Mexico. And I will not be able to give you a better answer than that for the line of questions, because I don’t operate autonomously. I operate based upon the vision and the direction of the City Council, and I rely heavily on the professionalism of those departments I rely on,” Neeb said.
Oropesa then said he was trying to make a point that the directive put Neeb in a difficult position, echoing earlier comments from Peterson.
“This directive is going to put Mr. Neeb in a bad spot,” Peterson said. “If the court rules against him, is he going to go to jail? Are you guys going to go to jail?”
“For you to make those kinds of decisions is unfair to you because you have a responsibly to this community, as the police does,” Oropesa said.
Moore said she was “deeply troubled” by the concept the council would decide which laws the city is going to enforce.
“I have trouble with us saying we don’t like this temporary law, mandate, whatever, so we’re not going to follow it today. We may change our mind tomorrow,” she said.
Stubbs said she could not see how the directive would protect the health and welfare of the citizens, as the council is charged to do. She said she also had a concern about taking away the responsibilities police officers have in upholding the oath they take.
In introducing the directive, Roebuck said it was not a partisan issue and asked council members not to get into partisan arguments, but in their comments, several offered support or criticism of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in issuing the emergency health order.
Roebuck said the governor has overstepped her authority in not turning to the Legislature to support actions to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
“While we certainly have a continuing crisis on our hands, the emergency part has passed. There has been ample time for the governor to make her case to the people, to get their support through the lawmaking body,” he said.
“Instead of going to the people and asking them how we want to deal with the situation, she has imposed her values on us. The cost of the governor’s orders on the people of Roswell has been high,” he said.
Small business has suffered, he said, and the prolonged financial and social stress can cause poor decisions that lead to domestic violence and drug abuse, and children have suffered in their development from not being able to swim or play sports and attend school as normal.
Roebuck said, however, his reason for supporting the directive was not partisan.
“I think there’s a clear line between political and partisan. This is a political process,” he said. “I think one of the reasons we need to do this is because it needs to be on us, the political body, and not the staff to decide.”
Best said the city has more important issues to deal with than enforcing the mask mandate, which is classified as a misdemeanor.
“I think we have more important fish to fry. You know, (the governor) she wants us to pay $100 or go sit in jail for six months when she’s letting people out of jail in Santa Fe that shouldn’t be let out of jail,” Best said.
“She’s not making sense in the decisions that she’s making,” she said.
Foster questioned the governor’s motives.
“I’m not sure the governor is acting in the best interest of our state, more in the best interest of her party,” he said.
Her lack of response to a lawsuit by the New Mexico Restaurant Association showed a contempt for the state courts, he said.
Earlier this week, a district court judge signed a restraining order against the governor’s health order prohibiting dine-in services at restaurants and breweries because the state failed to file a response to the association’s lawsuit. Within hours, however, the state Supreme Court issued a stay on the restraining order.
“Her actions by not responding to the restaurant association shows me she has contempt for our system and she doesn’t care about our Constitution, so that is why I’m for this,” Foster said.
Mayor Dennis Kintigh, who at times had to rebuke some of the councilors from directly criticizing each other, mostly remained silent during the discussion except to direct the meeting. After the vote, however, he said that if there had been a tie, he would have voted in favor of it.
He cited a letter written by the city attorney of the city of Hobbs in response to a letter from the state attorney general that said local law enforcement may enforce the governor’s emergency order.
“There’s some points raised in the city attorney’s letter which raises serious questions, as yet unresolved, as to whether that is authorized by the state Constitution or state statute,” Kintigh said.
He said it’s inappropriate to expect law enforcement or other city personnel to enforce the mandate until the Supreme Court resolves the questions.
“I think we are best suited to wait for clarity and stand on the sidelines,” he said.
City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or firstname.lastname@example.org.