Española Municipal Judge Stephen Salazar filed a lawsuit suit against the city of Española and 10 City Council members after they voted on the City’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget.
Salazar filed on July 27 an application for a restraining order against the mayor and every member of the City Council.
The application focuses on a tied 4-4 vote broken by Mayor Javier Sanchez that resulted in the City Council freezing nine vacant positions, including a court clerk position at the Española Municipal Court.
The vote, taken July 21, resulted in changes to Salazar’s budget “which is contrary to law,” the suit alleges.
The seven-page suit claims the City Council eliminated an employee from the court’s budget. Salazar claims in the suit he was using the eliminated 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 Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, the suit claims.
Salazar did not return phone calls, text messages or emails before press time. Salazar’s attorney Yvonne Kathleen Quintana did not return phone calls either.
The suit requests that the “defendants be restrained from submitting a budget to Department of Finance and Administration which provides for the removal of an employee from the judiciary of the City of Española.”
City Attorney Nancy Long responded with a seven-page objection stating that “the economic impact from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is causing budget shortfalls in municipal and county budgets throughout the United States.”
The response states that the City Manager Xavier Martinez went to nine department heads for input as to how much budget cuts each department could handle. Salazar’s department was not singled out, according to the response.
When reached for comment, Long forwarded the request to Martinez, who said in a July 29 telephone interview that he sat down with Administrator Services Director Jessica Ortiz and “crunched some numbers.”
He said he met with all departments to go through the upcoming Fiscal Year 2021 budget. All departments except for the fire department were affected by the budget cuts including community services, planning and land, recreation, police and clerk. The fire department had no wiggle room within their budget. Several work sessions were held to discuss the budget cuts.
“The budget was fair across the board, it was not like the judicial budget was singled out,” Martinez said. “It is very clear we didn’t just single out one department over the others.”
He said that they looked at every angle.
“To say that the city was not fair is not true,” Martinez said. “Our main goal was not to affect our employees’ paychecks and ultimately it seemed like we were successful in doing that but unfortunately it meant freezing and I want to quote this, we froze vacant positions.”
The budget for the Española Municipal Court for Fiscal Year 2020 was $600,000 which is far larger than other municipalities, Long’s response claims. The suit gave examples of municipalities of similar size such as Taos, Las Vegas and Lovington.
“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,” Long wrote.
The case was reassigned to Judge McGarry Ellenwood on July 28 after Judge Jason Lidyard recused himself from the case. It is unclear why he recused himself.