A district court judge denied Española Municipal Judge Stephen Salazar’s lawsuit filed against the city of Española and all 10 City Council members in which he alleged they approved a city government budget that hampered his court’s ability to slow the spread of coronavirus.
First Judicial District Court Judge Kathleen Ellenwood on July 30 issued a six-page order denying Salazar’s lawsuit over the councilors’ actions leading up to their vote on the city government’s budget the current fiscal year.
Salazar filed on July 27 an application for a restraining order against Mayor Javier Sanchez and each member of the City Council.
The seven-page suit claims the City Council eliminated an employee of the court out of the budget. Salazar claims in the suit he was using this position to handle “additional duties imposed and created in implementing the safety protocols for the continued operation of the court during the public health crisis.”
According to the lawsuit, removal of the clerk position interferes with the court’s ability to safely remain open during the coronavirus pandemic as well as increase the other employees’ workload. Also, reducing the budget interferes with the court’s ability to clean and disinfect as required by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the suit claims.
On Monday, Salazar wrote in an email that he will no longer oppose the elimination of a clerk position in the court, and that it is a difficult time for the city government’s budget.
“I have decided not to pursue my legal challenge to the City’s decision to eliminate one clerk position in Municipal Court, in spite of legal advice counseling me that there are real separation of power issues with the City’s action,” he wrote. “I also recognize that my continued opposition to the City Manager’s budget costs time and money for the City and its officers and Council.”
Ellenwood’s response stated the court determined a hearing is unnecessary. She wrote that “the City of Española, like all city, county, and state agencies is suffering a budget crisis in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, all of government has had to tighten their belts and try to make ends meet in a severe financial crisis.”
On July 21, the Española City Council held a budget hearing to approve the budget for the Fiscal Year 2021.
To absorb the $1.5 million shortfall, City Manager Xavier Martinez presented councilors with two options.
The options was freeze nine currently vacant employment positions across each department and transfer cash from prior years to the general fund or furlough city employees without any transfer of funds into the general fund.
The city council voted 5-4, with Española Mayor Javier Sanchez breaking the tie vote, in favor of freezing the vacant positions.
The municipal court had one vacant position, the court clerk that was affected by the proposed hiring freeze.
Ellenwood wrote that “in approving the budget, City Council did not dictate how the reduced budget should be spent by Judge Salazar.”
She wrote that the mayor and councilors are not “seeking to control personnel in the municipal court. Instead, they are seeking to balance the budget for the city. The City Council did not attach conditions to the budget that would micromanage the Municipal Court employees. The City Council was well within its legislative authority to approve a balanced budget that absorbed the $1.5 million shortfall due to COVID-19.”
Ellenwood wrote that the municipal court “suffered the same fate as the other City departments. The hiring freeze applied uniformly to all vacant positions in the city.
The defendants did not fire or furlough a clerk in the municipal court, it established a hiring freeze in order to balance the budget.”
Salazar’s suit had requested that the budget not be submitted to the state Department of Finance and Administration.
Despite that request, City Manager Xavier Martinez announced at the City Council meeting on Aug. 11 that the final approved Fiscal Year 2021 budget was successfully submitted within the required timeframe. The deadline was July 30.
“The municipal court will not suffer irreparable harm,” Ellenwood wrote. “Yes, resources will have to be readjusted, as with all City agencies, but the business of the court will continue.”