It’s a shame that elected officials believe the world so unsafe that the citizens who paid to build the new Santa Fe County courthouse won’t be able to park at the site. But that’s the decision from Santa Fe County Commissioners, who agreed with District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco that letting the public mingle with prosecutors and other officers of the court in a parking lot is dangerous.
We’re on the side of Chief District Judge Raymond Ortiz and the other judges. They rightly remind the commissioners and the DA that the public, in approving bonds to build the $63 million-plus courthouse, was promised additional parking. Right now, at the current courthouse, only six public parking spots are available. The new courthouse would have had 40 public slots out of the 159 spaces in the underground parking structure. Part and parcel of the campaign to persuade citizens to approve the bonds, in fact, was the assurance that more people would have a place to park. To renege on that promise is shameful (as well as shortsighted, because citizens angry over a bait-and-switch might well say no next time). Sheriff Robert Garcia agrees with Pacheco, though, and said he doesn’t have enough deputies to secure the courthouse and the parking lot. (Patrolling a parking lot is one time that hiring private security guards makes sense; security doesn’t have to be sheriff’s deputies, who presumably have more important tasks to deal with.)
What troubles us about the decision last week by county commissioners is their seemingly blind acceptance that the public is a danger to judges and prosecutors — without any evidence. As with other recent discussions by local government — most notably in the city of Santa Fe paying for private patrols in the Santa Fe Railyard — these claims lack substantiation. We understand that prosecutors can be threatened, judges can be attacked and that cases heard in a courthouse are fraught with emotion. After all, a lawyer was shot and killed outside (not in the parking lot) of the Santa Fe courthouse in recent memory. This is a dangerous world. Still, just once, it would be helpful if the person offering his opinion could say, “We get 10 threats a week,” or, “There have been five incidents in the current lot that are troubling,” or anything other than, “We think this is safer.” And who’s to say that the danger won’t come from a disgruntled employee? There is simply no way to know who will snap and when, and to brand all courthouse users as a danger is overkill.
Reading between the lines, it seems to us that county officials think it will be easier and cheaper to limit access to the courthouse lot using a card-activated gate and no parking staff. Plus, without the public, everyone who works at the courthouse will have a nice, covered parking spot. Everyone else can just park and walk. Convenience, as much as security, appears to be prompting this decision. However, Judge Ortiz, the other district judges and Commissioner Robert Anaya, who voted against eliminating public parking at the courthouse, are right to call foul. Citizens were told that in return for agreeing to tax themselves to pay for courthouse bonds, they would have parking access in what is their public building, built with their hard-earned money. Now, county commissioners are essentially saying, “Too bad, we changed our minds.” How disabled people will make it four blocks to the nearest public parking lot, considering the many uneven sidewalks, is a question that was not even addressed.
This newspaper believed it important for the health of Santa Fe to keep the courthouse downtown, in the heart of the original city. The loss of so many people from the center of town would have been difficult to absorb, both for the vitality of the place and the economic impact on businesses. Naysayers were correct — there would have been more space on the south side of town, enough for plenty of parking. We believed it essential, for the life of this city, to keep activity downtown. Taxpayers approved the bonds after hearing those arguments and being assured of parking. Now, those taxpayers deserve a place to park — just as the county promised.