Frustrated residents and increasingly impatient Española police officials will have to wait at least another two weeks for final word on Department leadership after the City Council pushed back the appointment of a police chief at its Tuesday meeting, based largely on 11th-hour input from City Attorney A.J. Salazar, which some councilors characterized as against the interests of the city.
Partway through a debate on Mayor Javier Sanchez’s proposed appointment of current interim chief Roger Jimenez to the permanent chief position—which requires Council approval—Salazar supported a suggestion from Councilor John Ramon Vigil that state law barred Jimenez’s appointment, advising the Council of New Mexico Statute 3-11-5, which states that “If the governing body fails to confirm any person as an appointive official or employee of the municipality, the mayor at the next regular meeting of the governing body shall submit the name of another person to fill the appointed office or to be employed by the municipality.”
Salazar referred to a 1966 Attorney General’s Office opinion holding that section prohibits a person from being appointed to a position which a governing body, such as the Council, has already denied them.
In May, the Council voted 5-3 against Jimenez—then deputy police chief—being promoted to the position of Public Safety Department director, a position overseeing both the fire and police departments. The Public Safety Department and the director position were created in practice and within the city budget seemingly about seven years ago, but never made official within city code.
A resolution formally splitting the fire and police departments was finalized in August, against recommendation from Salazar that the Council wait until an organizational chart and ordinance outlining an appointment process for a Fire Department chief could be approved.
Mayor Pro Tem Manny Martinez argued that the Public Safety director position had different duties and was distinct, but Salazar, backed by Vigil and Councilor Peggy Sue Martinez, argued that due to the lack of formal designation of a Public Safety Department, Jimenez was functionally up for the same job against state law.
Asked by Sanchez when he learned of the statute, Salazar said he only realized that Jimenez’s appointment was scheduled this week when the meeting agenda released Saturday and that he performed the relevant research the day of the meeting. Salazar’s disclosure of his research was prompted by a question from Vigil about the statute.
Councilor Justin Salazar-Torrez questioned why Salazar had not informed the Council before the meeting or even at the start of the discussion.
“There’s one person who has to have our back legally, and that’s you, sir,” he said. “You didn’t have our back.”
Salazar noted that Sanchez did not consult him on the issue and that Salazar-Torrez had only reached out once at the beginning of the process.
At the last Council meeting Oct. 8, Salazar-Torrez attempted to call a closed session to update Councilors and, presumably, Salazar on the status of the search for a chief, but Salazar blocked the motion because it was not on the agenda.
Peggy Sue Martinez said Sanchez’s decision not to consult Salazar put the city at risk.
“You have the responsibility to run things through the city attorney,” she said. “When you sidestep him at every chance you get, it leaves us open for situations like this. It leaves us open for litigation and it leaves the city vulnerable at large.”
When Councilor John Ricci said Salazar had not performed the duties of an in-house attorney, Salazar challenged Ricci to fire him.
“If you want to proceed, and you want to make a motion in reference to my job, I invite you publicly to do so,” Salazar said.
Jimenez was hired as deputy chief last year after nearly five years as a sergeant and instructor at the state Law Enforcement Academy in Santa Fe. He was appointed to the interim chief position after a narrow vote in June, but a four-councilor hiring committee for the permanent chief position recommended that same week that the city open the position to external applicants.
The committee, led by Salazar-Torrez, on Oct. 17 unanimously recommended Jimenez as permanent chief to Sanchez, with Officer Danny Pacheco listed as a second option.
Salazar-Torrez said the hiring committee, which included Manny Martinez and Councilors Denise Benavidez and Robert Seeds, ultimately interviewed no external applicants for the position, despite their best efforts. He said of the six candidates selected by the committee for interviews, just two returned background check waivers to Human Resources Director Sally Baxter upon request, and both turned up serious red flags.
Benavidez said later in the meeting that she never wanted Pacheco listed on the recommendation letter and that she never saw external applicants’ resumes or background checks, having struggled to communicate with Human Resources Director Sally Baxter. Both are public record and Vigil noted later that while he was not on the hiring committee, he requested and reviewed applicants’ resumes and felt that many had good qualifications.
The contents of applicants’ resumes and their backgrounds were reported on in a previous Rio Grande SUN article.
Six Department officers spoke in support of Jimenez prior to the discussion, along with several members of the public.
Officer Pacheco called for Department unity during the debate, eventually offering to withdraw his application if it would make things easier.
“There’s something that’s more important than anything,” he said. “That’s to make this department whole, and make it work right.”
Jimenez said in a text statement after the vote that nothing could change the Department’s vision.
“The need for a leader with integrity, loyalty, and who wants the best interests for the community, is more apparent than ever!” he said. “Our officers, firefighters, paramedics, citizens and community deserve more. I’m going to continue to fight to make Española Police Department the model agency for the entire State of New Mexico.”
Councilors Ricci, Salazar-Torrez and Robert Seeds—the same three who backed Jimenez as Public Safety director in May—voted against the motion to table the issue until the Council’s Nov. 12 meeting.