The Española City Council considered at its Sept. 28 meeting updating the city ordinance that outlines qualifications and pay for the municipal judge.
Three issues arose when former municipal judge Stephen Salazar resigned under an investigative cloud. Salazar was and his replacement Martin Martinez is the highest paid municipal judge in the state. There are minimal qualifications attached to the requirements to run for the office and when a judge leaves the bench temporarily (vacation or sick) or permanently, as in the case of Salazar, the process to replace him wasn’t clear to all.
City Attorney Jonas Nahoum presented the Council with several options to address the salary, versus qualifications.
Currently the only qualifications to run for the office of municipal judge is the candidate must be a citizen of Española, New Mexico, and the United States.
Nahoum suggested adding the requirement of a high school diploma or equivalent, 60 college credit hours toward a two- or four-year degree and be at least 25 years old.
To match the new requirements Nahoum suggested changing the salary to match education levels. A judge with a high school diploma would be paid $55,000 a year, someone with a two-year degree would be paid $65,000, someone with a four-year degree would be paid $75,000 and someone with a master’s degree or higher would be paid $85,000.
The municipal court judge currently earns $93,000 annually. Nahoum said the city’s current pay structure is based on the state statute regarding magistrate judges, a much more difficult job.
Resident Claire Baillargeon attended the meeting and spoke to the proposed changes.
“What I’d like to know is how do you justify 20K plus more than any other municipality?” she said. “I’m definitely in favor of taking it down a few notches.”
Local attorney Yvonne Quintana was concerned that making the qualification stricter may shrink the pool of eligible candidates too much.
“It is short-sighted to limit the individual who can run for judge,” she said. “There are many people with life experience without the college experience.”
She also asked how many lawyers live inside the city limits.
“We serve a broad community in Española, not just from the city,” Quintana said.
She said the salary is up to the Council.
“I offer no opinion what the salary should be,” she said. “We elect you to control the purse.”
The sitting municipal judge said he had more questions than advice or support to offer.
“I suggest (the judge) shall have a minimum of 60 credit college hours,” he said.
He was also concerned if the new salary schedule was adopted that night, would it affect his pay.
“I was hired at the former municipal judge’s salary so I would expect that you folks tonight would honor that same obligation,” Martinez said.
Nahoum explained changing the salary of an elected position cannot affect the current occupant. The changes would be effective following the March 2022 municipal election.
Nahoum said there was a scramble of sorts when Salazar resigned in the spring. The new ordinance would change the process for obtaining a temporary judge.
When a judge is sick or on vacation, he/she will choose a temporary judge. If he/she does not then, with the change, the Mayor would appoint someone meeting the qualifications, with the City Council’s approval. Currently, the same system is in place to find a successor judge, such as was the case when Salazar resigned.
Martinez suggested setting a time limit and address removal.
“Take two or three weeks,” he said. “Add some language to the affect that you folks, after the appointment, have the power to remove a designee.”
Quintana argued the Mayor should not appoint a judge.
“It’s risky,” she said. “It has you, the executive, appointing the judicial. If you can remove and reappoint, it really enables the executive branch to control the judicial branch.”
Mayor Javier Sanchez disagreed, saying it was not a matter of separation of powers because no decisions made by a municipal judge would affect laws or the business of running the city.
After much tinkering with the language, Councilor Justin Salazar-Torres made the motion to send the changes back to the Public Safety Committee.
Nahoum submitted different changes Oct. 6 to the Public Safety Committee. He eliminated the sliding salary scale and cut back on education requirements.
The leaner version adds a judge candidate must have 60 credit hours toward an applicable two- or four-year degree at a college or university. The salary would be set at $70,000.
Salazar was paid and Martinez is currently being paid
Nahoum said he set the salary by looking at five other municipalities, similar in size. The average was $60,000 annual salary. He added $10,000 because of the requirement for two years of college.
Salazar-Torres started the discussion by recognizing there was no change to the appointment of a temporary or successor judge.
“The current city code is sufficient,” Nahoum said and the Committee moved on.
Salazar-Torres said he was OK with the bullet points and range of salaries as presented the previous week in City Council.
“I’d like that returned,” he said. “God forbid we ask for qualifications to run a $700K budget.”
Councilor Manny Martinez said he agreed with the change in salary.
“I think with pay of $70K we should have that tiered section,” he said. “But if we do have a candidate with a bachelor’s or master’s degree, we should look at what that salary would be.”
He suggested $70,000 for a minimum of 60 hours of college. Someone with a master’s degree would be paid $85,000. He did not address a bachelor’s degree.
Councilor Peggy Martinez said life experience should be allowed to count for something. She wanted to allow someone with law enforcement or judicial training to be able to substitute experience for education.
Councilors went back and forth regarding the salary for different levels of education and life experience. A longer discussion was held about whether life experience at a halfway house would qualify as law enforcement or judicial experience.
Three motions were made, one five paragraphs long, and all were withdrawn after the qualification discussions.
The final motion was to recommend Nahoum’s proposed changes to the full Council for review during its Tuesday meeting. That included lowering the salary to $70,000 and adding the requirement of 60 credit hours of college credit.