Friday evening, March 11, Mayor Tim Keller announced in a statement that his appointed Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Sarita Nair is resigning her position. According to the statement, she will be leaving in April, less than 4 months into Mayor Tim Keller’s second term. Nair has been the city’s chief administrative officer since late 2017. The city’s CAO is the city’s senior executive manager overseeing all 19 departments of municipal government and a budget of over $1 billion. Nair is the very first woman to have served as CAO.
The city declined the Albuquerque Journal’s request to interview CAO Nair on Friday evening.
The link to quoted news source material is here:
In the statement announcing her departure, Nair had this to say:
“I have loved my time as CAO, and I am deeply grateful to the amazing team of diverse, smart, dedicated, compassionate people who make City government great.”
Mayor Tim Keller for his part had this to say:
“[Sarita Nair has had] transformative impact shepherding our city through the pandemic, revolutionizing our social justice efforts and championing both modern crime fighting and police reform. I join our whole community in expressing gratitude for her dedication to the Duke City.”
CHIEF ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICER SARITA NAIR
Nair is credited with helping create the Community Safety Department, assisted with significant economic development projects like Netflix, and open the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion.
Sarita Nair was appointed Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) by Mayor Tim Keller in December 2017. As CAO, Ms. Nair is the City’s top senior executive manager, overseeing all 19 departments of municipal government and a $1.1 billion dollar budget. Sarita Nair is the very first woman of color to serve as Chief Administrative Officer for the City. Originally from Pittsburgh, Ms. Nair earned her bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University, a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico School of Community and Regional Planning, and graduated magna cum laude from the University of New Mexico School of Law. As Chief Administrative Office, Sarita Nair was paid $196,773.12 in 2021 and likely received a raise of at least 6% in December.
Prior to being appointed as the CAO, she was appointed by then State Auditor Tim Keller as the State Auditor’s Chief Government Accountability Officer and General Counsel. Prior to that, Ms. Nair was a shareholder at the law firm of Sutin, Thayer & Browne, representing private companies and public entities in business and governance matters since 2004. As a business lawyer, she worked for a wide range of small and family businesses across New Mexico, to represent both companies and governments in industrial revenue bond and Local Economic Development Act transactions. Prior to her law career, Nair worked in the field of international development and consulted on policy initiatives for a number of organizations including the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the New York City Parks and Recreation Department.
CAO Sarita Nair has been at the center of controversy, along with Keller’s other top appointees, between Keller and city councilors over which city appointees are required to be confirmed by the city council in Keller’s second term. City Councilor Dan Lewis, who lost to Keller in a landslide in 2017, insists the City Charter gives the city council the right to vote and confirm or reject the CAO, the APD Police Chief and Fire Chief. After being elected once again to the City Council on November 2, Republican Dan Lewis vowed, along with newly elected Democrat City Councilor Louis Sanchez and Republican Renee Grout, that the council would hold Tim Keller and his top appointees accountable and had every intention to conduct hearings on their confirmation and ask the hard questions.
Mayor Tim Keller strongly disputes that another confirmation vote is necessary, proclaiming all have been previously confirmed during his first term. Keller claims the fact that voters reelected him last fall in a landslide is a sign his team deserves reconfirmation. Notwithstanding his objections, Keller forwarded to the city council a single nomination “executive communication” nominating CAO Sarita Nair, Police Chief Harold Medina, Fire Chief Gene Gallegos, Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael and Chief Financial Officer Sanjay Bhakta. Keller expected the council to vote on the team as a whole rather than hold individual hearings.
Keller spokesman Daniel Jiron said the reconfirmation question was not a factor in Nair’s departure and had this to say:
“The reconfirmation has nothing to do with this decision.”
NAIR NO STRANGER TO CONTROVERSY
CAO Sarita Nair is no stranger to past controversies at City Hall and especially when dealing with the Albuquerque Police Department.
THE ONATE STATUTE PROTEST
City Hall confidential sources report that Mayor Tim Keller was in constant contact with CAO Sarita Nair during the June 15, 2020 Onate Statue Protest at the Albuquerque Museum where a person was shot. According to confidential sources, both Keller and Nair were contacted by a Keller political campaign advisor who was involved with the protest and who demanded that Keller and Nair give Chief Geier and Deputy Chief Harold Medina instructions on how they wanted the protest to be handled and how city property was to be protected. Neither Nair nor Keller have prior management experience with any law enforcement department and have no experience with law enforcement tactical plans nor how they are implemented. The Keller and Nair involvement, and especially listening to a political advisor, and giving instructions on how they wanted APD to handle the June 15 protest infused politics in the management of APD.
PUSHING AN APD CHIEF OUT TO REPLACE WITH A POLITICAL CRONY
On Thursday September 10, 2020, APD Chief Geier and Mayor Keller quickly called a joint news conference to announce that APD Chief Geier was retiring for a fourth time from law enforcement after a 47-year career. During the September 10, 2020 press conference, Geier announced he was retiring and Mayor Tim Keller announced First Deputy Harold Medina as Interim Chief. Keller announced a national search would be conducted to find a new chief.
Within a few days, it was revealed that former Chief Michael Geier was indeed forced to leave by Mayor Tim Keller and Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair. It was then First Deputy Chief Harold Medina that helped orchestrate Geier’s removal. Medina and Nair had formed a strong working relationship primarily because Medina was to act as an informant to Nair of virtually everything APD Chief Geier was doing in order to undercut Geier and for Medina to curry favor to become Chief.
Confidential sources provided information that APD Chief Michael Geier was summoned to a city park by Mayor Tim Keller and CAO Sarita Nair during the September 5 Labor Day Holiday weekend. The purpose of the meeting was that Keller had decided to let Geier go, that his services were no longer needed and it was time for Geier to leave APD. According to sources Keller told Geier he wanted to take APD in a different direction. Geier was given the choice between termination or retirement and Geier agreed that it was time for him to retire.
Soon after their walk in the park, sources say that Geier met CAO Nair in her office at city hall and the meeting became very hostile. On Thursday morning, September 10, the details of Geier’s “retirement” were worked out and the press conference was held by Keller where Geier read his statement.
A related blog article report is here:
KELLER’S CITY HALL EXECUTIVE STAFF AND DEPARMENT DIRECTORS IN TOP 250 WAGE EARNERS
According to the 2021 enacted budget, the City of Albuquerque employs 6,259 full time employees with an annual budget of $1.2 Billion dollars. The link to the enacted 2021-2022 budget is here:
City Executives and Department Directors are considered “at will” employees and serve at the pleasure of Mayor Keller. There are 26 city departments. There are 30 City Hall Executive Positions and Department Directors identified in the top 250 wage earners for the 2021 calendar year. Each are paid a set salary they can negotiate or they take whatever is offered by the mayor. When Keller was first elected 4 years ago, beginning pay for Department Directors was approximately $116,000 but over the last 4 years, the pay has increase to roughly $130,000 a year.
Executive salaries and Department Directors individuals and what they were paid in 2021 are as follows:
MAYOR’S SENIOR EXECUTIVE STAFF
Mayor Tim Keller is paid $125,278.72 a year and Albuquerque City Councilors are paid $35,860 a year with their salaries determined by the Citizens’ Independent Salary Commission.
Mayor Keller’s top senior executive staff were paid the following salaries for all of 2021:
Chief Administrative Office Sarita Nair: $196,773.12
Chief Operations Officer Lawrence Rael: $191,600.30
Chief Of Police Harold Medina: $177,562
Albuquerque Fire and Rescue Chief Paul Dow: $155,677 (NOW RETIRED)
City Attorney Esteban Aguilar Jr.: $150,724.32
Chief Financial Officer Bhakta Sanjay: $150,224.31
Chief Administrative Office Associate Kevin Sourisseau: $130,261.91
Chief of Staff Chief Michael Puelle: $139,445.91
Chief Investment Officer Daniel Christopher: $128,545.11
City Clerk Ethan Watson: $124,877.91
City Budget Officer Lawrence Davis: $116,733.91
EDITORS NOTE: There are at least 22 other Department Directors and Deputy Directors with those names and salaries for 2021 listed in the below postscript.
CITY CLERK ETHAN WATSON CONFIRMED
On March 7, City Clerk Ethan Watson was confirmed on a 7-2 bipartisan vote of the city council, but not until Republican City Councilor Dan Lewis and “Democrat in Name Only” Louis Sanchez crossed examined Watson over his job performance during the 2021 municipal election. Both Lewis and Sanchez questioned Watson’s impartiality in administering the city’s taxpayer-funded public campaign finance system.
Lewis focused on Watson’s move to reject mayoral candidate Manuel Gonzales’ application for the money on the grounds he’d submitted fraudulent documentation, questioning if he’d applied the same scrutiny to Keller’s campaign. Lewis ignored that a state judge ultimately upheld Watson’s decision. Lewis at one point became very condensing and mean spirited when he asked Watson “how we can trust you moving forward in future elections?”. This coming from Dan Lewis who engaged in smear tactics and lies against his opponent and paid Republican Political Operative Jay McClusky to run his campaign.
Not at all surprisingly, Sanchez claimed his own 2021 city council campaign race against incumbent Lan Sena was treated unfairly, even though Sanchez won the race. It was Sanchez who proclaimed he was the rightful city councilor to have been elected and demanded that Watson swear him before the term he was elected began on January 1, 2022. Sanchez wanted to vote against legislation that was pending and sponsored by Lan Sena, and his demands essentially was an effort to shame former city councilor Lan Sena.
Other councilors went to Watsons’ defense including Republican Renee Grout and Democrat Tammy Fiebelkorn who participated in the city’s public financing program as candidates and they both said they had a good experience with Watson’s office. Democrat Councilor Karissa Peña said Watson’s office was “incredible” during the election and said the scrutiny he faced during the confirmation hearing made her “uncomfortable”.
The link to quoted news source material is here:
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
CONFIRMATION VOTE WITH AXE GRINDING CITY COUNCILORS
The positions of Chief Administrative Officer, the Chief Operations Officer, the City Attorney, the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief of Police and the Fire Chief are all potions that have cross over duties and responsibilities to the Mayor and the City Council. The city council also has unique oversight authority when it comes to public safety such as the Police and Fire departments.
Cross over duties and responsibilities is not the case when it comes to Department Directors with little or no cross over duties. Given what Keller is paying the top 6 executive staff, Keller should not be at all reluctant to summit the names for another vote.
Keller should aggressively go to the defense of his appointments and call out “shaming tactics” and “grandstanding” from the likes of Republican City Councilor retread extraordinaire Dan Lewis who has an axe to grind against Keller after losing to him as Mayor in a landslide in 2017. Keller should do the same with the shaming tactics of “Democrat In Name Only” Louis Sanchez who also has an axe to grind.
Once Lewis was elected on November 3, 2021 to a third term on the City Council, Lewis made it known he intends to hold Keller and all of his appointees accountable for their conduct by asking the hard questions. Lewis has already made it known privately to many of his supporters he is running for Mayor in 2025. Lewis is also being enabled by “Democrat In Name” only City Councilor Louis Sanchez who has demanded Keller fire City Attorney Esteban Aguilar and City Clerk Ethan Watson for their refusal to swear Sanchez in before his term began on January 1, 2022 and his efforts to essentially shame former City Councilor Lan Sena who he defeated last November.
WHERE ARE THE DEMOCRATS?
Democrat’s hold a 5-4 majority on the City Council. After the December 7 City Council runoff elections, the Democrat majority went from a 6 to 3 majority to a 5-4 majority. The new city council as of January 1, 2022 is:
District 1 Louis Sanchez (Elected on November 2 defeating Lan Sena.)
District 2 Isaac Benton
District 3 Klarissa Peña (Ran unopposed on November 2 .)
District 6 Pat Davis
District 7 Tammy Fiebelkorn
After the November 7 runoff election, the 4 Republicans on the new city council are:
District 5 Dan Lewis (Newly elected)
District 4 Brook Bassan
District 8 Trudy Jones
District 9 Renee Grout
Ostensibly, with a Democrat Majority, Democrat Mayor Tim Keller should have had no problem in getting all of his top city hall appointments approved by the City Council with a 5-4 vote. But that is probably not the case when it comes to CAO Sarita Nair. Confidential sources have said that Sarita Nair does not have the confidence and support of Democrat City Councilors Isaac Benton and Pat Davis and when you add Republican’s Dan Lewis and Renee Grout and “Democrat In Name Only” Louis Sanchez to the mix, it’s likely that CAO Sarita Nair would not have been confirmed.
WHY NOW WITH NO EXPLANATION
There is no getting around it, Sarita Nair’s departure from City Hall is a major blow to Mayor Tim Keller and how he conducts business. Keller is known to be more interested in the attention he gets as Mayor while he lets Nair manage the minutia and the day to day work of the city. Without question Nair is Keller’s right-hand person and number one confidant.
It is common knowledge amongst elected officials and top government officials that whenever there is a controversial announcement or damaging story that a late Friday press release is used as a way to down play the story. Another way to down play a bad story is to simply not hold a press conference and to refuse press interviews. It is called “damage control”.
All three “damage control” measures exist with the departure of Sarita Nair: press releases, no press conference and the Keller Administrations refusal to allow Nair to be interviewed.
The fact that the city declined the Albuquerque Journal’s request to interview CAO Nair on Friday evening raised more than a few eyebrows and serious questions as to why now. This coming from a Mayor that never misses an opportunity to go on camera for his self-promotion. The general public deserves more that departing platitudes and compliments to Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair as to the reasons she is leaving.
The biggest question for Mayor Keller to answer is did he actually force Nair out as he did former Chief Michael Geier and are there any others, including Chief Medina, he wants gone?
DEPARTMENT DIRECTORS AND DEPUTY DIRECTORS
Following are the names and salaries of other Department Directors:
Osterloh, Brian, Technology and Innovation Director, $144,118.55
DiMenna, Mark, Environmental Health, Deputy Director, $132,786.87
Leech, Mark , Technology and Innovation Deputy Director, $135,419.97
Simon, David, Parks and Recreation Director, $135,204.31
Ortega, Carolyn, Animal Welfare Director, $130,549.91
Martinez, Jennifer Renee, Finance Admin Svc Director, $130,041.12
Pierce, Carol, Family Community Services Director, $130,041.12
Martinez, Jennifer Renee, Finance Admin Svc Director, $130,041.12
Montoya, Charles, Municipal Development Director, $130,041.11
Daniel, Christopher, Chief Investment Officer, $128,545.11
Whelan, Matthew, Solid Waste Director, $124,877.92
Van Etten de Sanchez, Cultural Services Director, $124,877.91
Romero, Anthony, Human Resources Director, $122,747.91
Sandoval, Donna, City Controller, $125,989.90
Sanchez, Anna, Senior Affairs Director, $124,877.90
Rogers, Paul, Municipal Development Deputy Director $123,362.71
Varela, Alan, Municipal Development Deputy Director, $123,180.37
Stowell, Stephanie, Cultural ServicesE20BioPark Administrator, $122,468.86
Flores, David MPR-Parks and Recreation Deputy Director-Parks & Rec, $118,959.95
McCurley, Richard, Aviation Deputy Director Aviation, $118,005.92
Smith,Dean, Assoc Director Library, $116,776.07
Truong,Loc, Human Resources Deputy Director, $113,739.92
The link to the entire listing of the top 250 wage earners is here: