City Council undergoing most turnover in 20 years

Dec. 27—One longtime Albuquerque city councilor is calling it the "big reset."

Another says it's a reason for optimism.

Four new Albuquerque city councilors will take their oaths Saturday, marking the single largest council transition in the last 20 years.

In fact, the recent election turned over more seats than the past three local elections combined. Not since 2001 has the council seen so many new members join at once, meaning not even the council's longest-serving current member — Isaac Benton, who has been in office for 16 years — has been part of anything like it.

"It will be more different than any other transition than I can remember, and everyone has to get used to each other," Benton said. "It's a big reset."

Both current city councilors and those newly elected say they are hopeful about the fresh start despite what could be some deep ideological chasms within the nine-member legislative body.

Though city elections are officially nonpartisan, the new council will have five Democrats and four Republicans. For the last few years, Democrats have had a 6-3 majority.

The new council takes seat after a record-breaking year for Albuquerque homicides and with the city facing profound challenges related to homelessness. Tammy Fiebelkorn, a Democrat who recently won election to represent the city's middle Heights, said she believes the councilors all understand the issues and are capable of finding common-ground solutions.

"I'm really heartened by the conversations I've had with (other councilors) on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from me politically," she said. "We're finding overlap and areas of interest we can agree on."

Fiebelkorn succeeds Diane Gibson, a two-term Democrat who chose not to seek reelection. Renee Grout, a Republican, won the race to replace Don Harris, a fellow Republican who left on his own terms after 16 years representing the city's Southeastern-most district.

Republican Dan Lewis and conservative Democrat Louie Sanchez, meanwhile, enter office having ousted Democratic incumbents Cynthia Borrego and Lan Sena during the Nov. 2 election.

Benton said he would not characterize the incoming council as more "conservative," saying he prefers to describe it as "independent-thinking."

"That might be a good thing right now," said Benton, who represents Downtown.

In recent years, the council has rarely found itself divided along strict party lines, but other fractures exist, and 5-4 votes have become commonplace.

Councilor Trudy Jones, a Northeast Heights Republican who has been in office for 14 years, said the last year has been as contentious as anything she's experienced during her council tenure. She said she looks forward to the new perspectives the turnover will bring.

"I think it will be a council that is more thoughtful about their legislation rather than just following their leaders," she said.

Mayor Tim Keller — a Democrat who handily won reelection in November — often easily moved proposals through council during his first term, but that could change as new faces supplant some of his biggest allies on the legislative body.

"There's going to be more checks and balances," Grout said of the incoming council. "(The mayor's) unchecked power is going to be different."

Keller, meanwhile, says he has a history of successfully working with people across the aisle, citing his experience in other elected offices before becoming mayor.

"This council will be no different just because the rhetoric and partisan landscape may have changed," he said in a statement. "What it comes down to is this: we all got elected this cycle to work on our city's challenges, not to point fingers or play the accountability blame game; we need proactive ideas and solutions to our problems. As long as the new Councilors follow that mandate from voters, we are going to have (a) great relationship."

With the exception of Lewis, who served two terms as a councilor before stepping down in 2017 in an unsuccessful bid for mayor, none of the incoming councilors has served in elected office before.

Jones said that has advantages.

"It's always beneficial to a council to have some new blood and new vision — people seeing the good and the bad of how things are running and perhaps some great new ideas," she said. "I'm very optimistic about it."

Grout said she would use her early days in office to research, ask questions and listen.

Fiebelkorn said she would spend her first month working to secure capital outlay funds from the Legislature, which convenes Jan. 18, and getting to know her peers better.

She said she is taking office with "full confidence" in city leaders' ability to come together to make Albuquerque a better place.

But, she added, "talk to me again in three months and see if I'm still saying that."