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Albuquerque voters could give councilors more say in selection of city police and fire chiefs

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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — Albuquerque voters could decide whether city councilors have more say in the hiring and firing of the police and fire chiefs under a proposal considered by the City Council.

The panel discussed the proposal at its meeting Monday and is expected to take a vote on it next month. If approved, the measure would wind up in an election resolution and after another vote on the October ballot.

The proposal comes as Albuquerque works to reform its troubled police department.

The city and the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to a settlement after a scathing federal report last year outlined a pattern of excessive force by the police department.

According to the report, officers too frequently used deadly force on people who posed a minimal threat and used a higher level of force too often on those with mental illness.

A similar city charter amendment was previously approved by the council last year but Bernalillo County did not put it on the general election ballot.

So, some council members are trying again and if the council majority agrees, the question will be put to voters.

"Especially with the crisis that we're in," said Councilor Ken Sanchez before the council meeting, "It will help (with police) reform in that when the name is brought before the council, we can ask questions about potential nominees that the mayor has brought forward" to ensure that the right person for the job is tapped to deal with changes to be implemented at the Albuquerque Police Department.

Currently the mayor does not need council approval to appoint the police and fire chiefs.

The proposal to change that came from Councilors Sanchez and Isaac Benton, although the latter did not want to include the fire chief in the charter amendment but failed to muster enough votes to exclude the position. Sanchez said it was best to include both chiefs as they're both part of public safety.

Calling it a "slippery slope," Councilor Trudy Jones said she would not support a charter amendment to undo a decades-long practice that has worked.

If put to the voters and approved by the electorate, the proposal would require the mayor to get confirmation of his nominee within 45 days of the mayor taking office or after a vacant appointed position is filled.

If the council does not confirm an appointee, the mayor will then have 60 days to tap someone else and go through the process again.

Removal of a police or fire chief would require agreement of 2/3rds of the council or six of the nine councilors.

The council has supported Mayor Richard Berry's past appointments and the change in the charter to include the chiefs is not designed to curb his authority, Sanchez said.

"But again there's a confirmation process; especially with public safety, you've got nine other people who get to have their say on the appointee" and thoroughly vet the person, he said.

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