Voters in Bernalillo County are gearing up to elect a new commissioner in next week’s general election.
The race could shape the county’s policies on industrial pollution and community health.
Whoever wins the race will be stuck with a conundrum that’s been around for a long time: How do you bring jobs to this low-income part of the South Valley without impacting public health?
Unemployment is high here—around 17 percent. Much of the land in the district is zoned for heavy industrial use. The area is home to a lot of the county’s polluting businesses—things like gas terminals and asphalt plants—and a many of those businesses sit right next to the San Jose and Mountain View neighborhoods. But people there complain of illnesses from industrial contamination and say pollution goes on unchecked.
“It’s sort of a catch-22,” Quezada said, because the zoning allows industrial businesses to be there.
But Quezada added that some of those businesses are breaking environmental rules. “I bet you if me and you went up right now, we’d find a lot of discrepancies,” he said.
Quezada, a local actor who played DEA agent Steven Gomez in "Breaking Bad," said his solution is to create film industry jobs in the district and, at the same time, push for more oversight of industrial business.
“We have to make sure that we’re there and we’re checking on them all the time, and that they adhere to the rules. If they’re not, we close them down,” he said. “Those rules are in place for a reason. Because we do have health issues in the Mountain View area. We have to really take that seriously.”
Quezada said he’ll support businesses who are following environmental regulations.
In a lot of ways, the candidates’ answers to the jobs-versus-health question in the South Valley break along traditional party lines.
Quezada’s Republican opponent is former Albuquerque police officer Patricia Paiz. She says she’ll make job creation a priority if she’s elected—by supporting industrial businesses and small businesses alike.
“We need all kinds of jobs. We need all kinds of businesses down there,” she said. “Now, the Mountain View area is zoned, properly, for those kinds of businesses.”
Paiz said people living near industrial businesses knew what the zoning rules were when they moved there. We need to embrace those businesses as long as they follow the regulations, she said, and her focus will be to cut red tape and streamline the permitting process.
“We’re not really business-friendly,” Paiz said. “I’m a realtor, and I’m talking to people who are wanting to relocate into the community, and they’re saying that going through Bernalillo County’s permitting process, it’s just not friendly.”
And then there’s the question of Santolina, the big, controversial development planned for the West Mesa. Outgoing Democratic commissioner Art De La Cruz is reaching the end of his term limit and was a strong supporter of Santolina. That was a position that drew loud criticism from farmers and activists in his district.
Paiz hasn’t made Santolina an issue in her campaign and hasn’t said if she’d support it going forward. But she said she’s suspicious of how quickly it was approved by the county.
Quezada said development on the West Mesa, in some form, is inevitable. “You know, to think that this city isn’t going to grow that way is unrealistic,” he said.
Quezada defeated his anti-Santolina opponent in the primary race thanks in part to financial support from a political action committee tied to Santolina’s developer. He said he didn’t ask for that help, and opposed the development during his time on the Albuquerque school board, but it could be a good thing if it’s done right. “It’s an opportunity to probably do a planned community better than anyone else has done it, because it’s a blank slate,” he said.
Still, Santolina has been a lightning rod, and the developer’s support could be a liability for Quezada.
But he’s embracing other issues opponents of Santolina are pushing in the South Valley—things like reconsidering a community-developed plan to limit industrial business, and taking into account existing air contamination in the neighborhoods before issuing new permits to polluting businesses.
Paiz said she might support that idea, too.
“I’d need more information on it, but to me it’s important to make sure our community has a safe place to live,” she said.
The winner of the Bernalillo County Commission District 2 race will inherit some tough problems of poverty and public health. But the race will also determine which party has a majority on the commission—and that could have implications beyond District 2.
KUNM's Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the WK Kellogg Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Find out more at publichealthnm.org.