EDGEWOOD — Edgewood landowner Gino Ackerman thinks most residents of the community just want a clean slate in Town Hall.
Over the past two years, the little town, located at the southernmost edge of Santa Fe County, has been the scene of squabbles that have led to big shake-ups in government — a judge’s removal of the mayor in a lawsuit claiming nepotism and corruption, lawsuits against town councilors, public outbursts and general infighting at public meetings, and even an overhaul in how the town is run.
“There have been some things that have happened that have been unexplainable,” said Ackerman, who lives in nearby Moriarty. “I think it’s time for change.”
Come Nov. 2, Ackerman will get his wish.
Edgewood voters will choose their first elected officials since they decided in strong numbers in a special election in August 2020 to switch the town’s form of government from a mayor-council style to manager-commission. A group of residents who circulated a petition calling for the special election had raised concerns about then-Mayor John Bassett. Even after the vote, Bassett intended to remain in his seat until new commissioners took office. Instead, a state district judge in October ordered his removal from office in a civil case alleging he’d violated state law and a town ordinance by appointing a relative to a planning board and advocating for the extension of a sewer line to property owned by his mother.
While some residents were hoping the upcoming election would end what Ackerman described as an “exhausting” saga in Town Hall, Bassett, a key figure in the Edgewood government’s muddied past, could become part of its future.
He is aiming to make a return to public service by winning one of the five seats on the Town Commission.
Bassett could be the most controversial figure on a ballot that includes six other names, including current Town Councilor Audrey Jaramillo and Jerry Powers, one of three people who filed the lawsuit that resulted in Bassett’s ouster.
Elected in 2016, Bassett refused to immediately end his term following District Judge Maria Sanchez-Gagne’s order. He ultimately left office in November.
Bassett has since appealed Sanchez-Gagne’s ruling to the New Mexico Supreme Court. A hearing on the appeal initially was set for Sept. 1, but it later was canceled.
Bassett called the lawsuit a “political stunt” by people with an interest in portraying him as a corrupt public servant.
“You talk about cancel culture?” Bassett said in a recent phone interview. “They are trying to cancel me out of the entire universe, no less.”
He denied the allegations against him and said a judge hasn’t found him guilty of anything.
Sanchez-Gagne entered two summary judgments in favor of the plaintiffs after Bassett failed to show up in court and didn’t respond to the complaint.
Bassett and Town Attorney Marcus Rael Jr. argued they didn’t receive proper notice of the case, but the judgments stood.
Even before the lawsuit, Bassett raised eyebrows in the community after pushing to condemn and acquire Edgewood’s water system from Edmonton, Alberta-based Epcor Utilities. Some members of the Town Council argued the move was done without their consent.
The decision in part led to the formation of the grassroots organization Citizens for an Open and Responsible Edgewood, known as EdgewoodCORE, which Bassett said has remained a thorn in his side since it formed. Three members of the group — including Powers, who is one of three candidates running unopposed for commissioner seats — filed the lawsuit against Bassett and circulated the petition that called for the special election on revamping the town government.
Bassett said the group is trying to stir up issues in an otherwise quiet town.
“We’ve done a good job here,” Bassett said. “Paid the bills and met all our requirements and everything. But it’s just this little group that is making a mess out of things, and they are succeeding.”
Powers pointed to a higher-than-usual turnout in the special election. While an election in Edgewood typically draws about 500 of the town’s 4,000 registered voters, about 1,600 voters cast ballots in the special election, and about 70 percent of them favored the switch to a manager-commission government.
“Those are pretty overwhelming numbers,” Powers said. “I think people have pretty strong feelings about John Bassett.”
Powers said he feels Basset’s position in the commissioner race will drive voter turnout in the upcoming election.
He and others thought the judge’s ruling would have prevented Bassett from holding office again.
However, County Clerk Katharine Clark wrote in an email Friday her office is limited by law to use only documents provided by a candidate and their voter registration to determine if they are eligible to run in a race. “No nominating petitions were required for Town of Edgewood Commission. Mr. Bassett met the filing requirements based on statute,” she wrote.
“It is up to the voters to determine whether to remove a candidate from the ballot by filing for removal in court within 7 days of candidate filing day … or simply not to vote for them,” Clark added.
Powers said there are no plans to challenge Bassett’s candidacy. “I think it’ll just play out at the polls.”
Gail Smith, an Edgewood resident, hopes that happens.
While standing outside the Walmart in the town, Smith said Bassett’s place on the ballot “just blows my mind.”
Jaramillo, who is running unopposed, said she sees the Nov. 2 election as a light at the end of a long tunnel but believes Bassett could affect the town’s ability to move on.
“Most comments I get are from people who are shocked and surprised,” Jaramillo said of his candidacy. “They thought they made it pretty clear already by changing the whole darn form of government.
“They are bright people,” she added. “They are sophisticated. They see through the corruption, and they will not allow it to continue.”
Powers said town government issues have continued into 2021.
In January, Town Councilor Sherry Abraham was removed from a council meeting by police Chief Darrell Sanchez at the request of Mayor Pro Tem John Abrams after she tried to raise concerns about the sale of Edgewood’s old Town Hall building.
Abraham, who decided not to run for office again, said she was aware of a better offer for the property that was not being considered. She emailed her concerns about the sale to other town officials, she said, but her messages were ignored.
Abrams said he removed the councilor for having “ex parte” communications about the sale. Ex parte typically refers to prohibited one-sided communications in a legal proceeding or criminal case between a judge and only one party.
In February, Abraham and Jaramillo filed a lawsuit to compel the town to start the process of reorganizing the town government. The lawsuit argued a pair of fellow councilors, Abrams and Linda Holle, were not taking the proper steps to prepare the town for the transition.
Neither Holle nor Abrams is running for a town commissioner spot.
More recently, an ethics complaint was filed against town attorneys Rael Jr. and Jessica Nixon, accusing them of violating conflict-of-interest laws for defending Bassett in his removal case and Holle and Abrams in the case filed by Abrahams and Jaramillo.
New commissioners will not take their seats until January 2022.
State District Judge Kathleen McGarry Ellenwood sent a letter to town officials in March asking them to stop using the courts to settle “petty disputes” and to begin the redistricting process required under the shift to a manager-commission government.
Jaramillo said Ellenwood’s letter and the series of lawsuits create a perception the Town Council is dysfunctional, which she doesn’t believe is the case. She pointed to a number of unanimous decisions by the council on a number of issues.
The lawsuits she filed were simply to compel the council to follow the law, she said.
“The spats?” Jaramillo added. “Those were driven by the people.”
Ralph Hill, a commissioner candidate who participated in the town’s push to incorporate, said he isn’t a fan of Bassett’s tenure as mayor but thinks voters want to get back to normal and put the battles behind them. He said he hopes the election is the first step on that path.
“We have had some bad administrators,” Hill said.
But, he added, Edgewood is facing pressing issues that have taken a back seat: a faulty sewer system, a need for more economic options and miles of poorly maintained roads.
Bassett said he plans to be involved as Edgewood addresses those problems.
“Edgewood is my hometown,” he said. “I am interested in making it the best it can be. All this stuff that has put me in a legal bind is a load of crap.”