When Socorro City Council OK’d hiring the lobbying firm of MJS Consulting for this year’s New Mexico’s legislative session, it prompted questions of concern from councilors.
MJS Consulting is a government and public relations consulting company based in Socorro. Matejka Santillanes told the council, this will be company’s 27th year she and her husband, Jay, have done consulting work for various New Mexico cities and counties as well as several school districts and the Navajo Nation. Jay Santillanes retired in December from the city of Socorro as its Transportation Director.
The $15,000 cost to hire the firm for one year, includes lobbying for the city in Santa Fe, including Jay Santillanes finishing the city’s flood plain management plan for FEMA, as well as serving as the primary contact for the flood plain issues in the city.
“The public should realize this has been a project we’ve been working on for 30 years,” said Mayor Ravi Bhasker. “The levee has not been certificated and there have been glitches with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. Jay (Santillanes) will help us get FEMA approval and he’s familiar with our situation. Dennis Engineer can’t do this.”
Currently about one-third of the city is in the flood plain, including the hotels the mayor owns.
While admitting the need for a lobbyist at the state capitol in Santa Fe, Councilor Michael Olguin Jr. inquired why the lobbying package including hiring back former city employee Jay Santillanes to finish the city’s flood plain management plan rather and an engineering firm to finish the project.
Olguin questioned why the city wasn’t working with someone in-house to get certified. “…There’s no succession plan should something happen Jay.”
Bhasker said it was in the best interest of the city to hire someone who has knowledge of our flood plain and it is “cheap.” The $15,000 lobbying fee includes Jay’s services as well as lobbying for the city in Santa Fe. Plus, in order for FEMA approval, the flood plain plan needs to be done by someone who is certified in flood plain management, Bhasker noted.
Prior to last week’s action, the city did not have representation on a day-to-day basis in Santa Fe.
“This concerns me,” said Olguin. “This hasn’t been done in years. We’re at the 11th hour and we didn’t have any options to choose from.”
Councilor Debra Dean agreed with Olguin noting down the road the council should be presented with options.
City Administrator Donald Monette told the council, Mayor Bhasker didn’t need council approval for hire MJS Consulting. The mayor has approval to spend up to $70,000 for professional services.
To be transparent, Bhasker brought the agreement to the council for approval. Bhasker also noted hiring a lobbyist generally costs local government entities between $50,000 to more than $100,000.
“I would welcome the council to put together a Request for Qualifications (ROQ) for a Flood Plain Manager and get that out in the public so that we’re covered in the future,” Bhasker said. “They can take the test. Jay took the test twice. That job is not a standalone job. Plus we need to get this levee certificated. We’re trying to do as cheap as possible. We can’t have a $65,000 engineer on call. And … I don’t see anyone coming forward, helping us with lobbying and flood plan management at this price.”
Bhasker also noted the city has decreased its payroll by 40 employees by assigning current city employees with more responsibilities to keep the budget under control.
City Administrator Donald Monette explained the city did fall into this agreement at the 11th hour.
But once the flood plain levee is certified, hopefully by April, the steps will be smaller for permits to be signed.
Councilor Gordy Hicks reiterated the flood plain certification needs to get done.
“We need to get this flood plan approved. The cost of $15,000 … I don’t see how we could go wrong plus we’d get some lobbying done," Hicks said.
Council approved the hiring of MJS Consulting in a 6 to 1 vote. Councilor Michael Olguin Jr. cast the lone dissenting vote.