ABQ City Council struggles over Environmental Planning Commission appointment

By: - November 17, 2021 5:55 am

The Albuquerque Land Use, Planning & Zoning Commission heard the nomination of Jana Pfeiffer (center) to the city government’s Environmental Planning Commission on Nov. 10. Councilors and Commission members Trudy Jones (top left) and Diane Gibson (bottom right) oppose her appointment. (Screenshot via the Council’s website)

The Albuquerque City Council will consider a historic appointment to the city government’s Environmental Planning Commission next month. But the person up for the job is opposed by some councilors, who are questioning her qualifications. 

If appointed, Jana Pfeiffer (Diné) would be the first woman and the first Native person to ever serve on the Environmental Planning Commission. Outgoing Councilor Lan Sena nominated her and says Pfeiffer’s history of working on environmental issues would make her great in the role.

On Monday, the Council voted to hear Pfeiffer’s nomination at their next meeting on Dec. 6, though Councilors Trudy Jones, Diane Gibson and Pat Davis each voted in opposition. In the same meeting, councilors unanimously appointed two other people to board seats without any debate.

“I think for us being on Tiwa land, it’s important to recognize that really, in some ways, we should be renting this land and giving back to community,” Sena told the Land Use, Planning & Zoning Commission’s initial hearing about the appointment on Nov. 10.

The city’s District 1 is on Pueblo land, Pfeiffer said, and it borders the Sandia Pueblo and Santa Ana Pueblo, which should be taken into consideration when it comes to who sits on the Environmental Planning Commission.

“For me, having someone with the experience like Ms. Pfeiffer to serve on this commission is really critical and essential and something we have never had,” Sena said. “In fact, if she does receive this appointment, she’ll be the first woman and first Indigenous voice to actually be at this table.”

The D1 seat on the Environmental Planning Commission has been vacant since Jan. 1, 2021, according to an Oct. 25 memo from Mayor Tim Keller to Council President Cynthia Borrego. Sena said she took a long time to find the right person for the position and she believes Pfeiffer’s experience working on Bears Ears National Monument in Utah makes her a strong candidate.

Credentials questioned

Pfeiffer is a Navajo Nation citizen originally from Cahone Mesa, Ariz. She grew up in Farmington, New Mexico and moved to Albuquerque in 2008.

Her great-great-great-grandfather was born in the area now called Bears Ears, she told the land-use commission, and she was compelled to work on the land dispute there because the tribal community next to the monument still has rights to gather wood and herbs, and conduct ceremonies on that land.

Navajo Nation selected her to “articulate and process the public land use” within the Bears Ears, the mayor’s memorandum states. She said she helped her relatives understand what was happening to their ancestral homelands.

“Pfeiffer understands the importance of advocacy and education when it comes to the environment, the rights of community members, and issues of public safety and tribal communities,” the memo states.

Pfeiffer is also a member of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force.

Councilor Diane Gibson told the city’s land-use committee that in her experience, the Environmental Planning Commission is one of the hardest city panels to serve on.

“I think we need to look at, you know, as we have in the past for this board, people who come on who have professional experience or some educational experience on this,” Gibson said.

She said she was surprised to see Pfeiffer on the executive communication notifying the land-use committee of her nomination.

“So I’d like to ask her if, did you seek this out, ma’am? Or did somebody tell you about it and you decided to seek it out?” Gibson asked Pfeiffer. She responded by saying Sena nominated her.

Pfeiffer said the Environmental Planning Commission needs a diverse voice and a diverse perspective. She pointed to a resolution city councilors unanimously passed on Oct. 4 saying they would “support the development of and implementation of strategies to address issues, concerns and health disparities Native residents of Albuquerque face due to the impacts of historical trauma and racism.”

That resolution explicitly includes the environment as one goal in that strategy.

I truly believe as an Indigenous Native person, that is an important value to the multi-diverse city that we have here and it should be a reflection within the commission.

– Jana Pfeiffer (Diné)

On Wednesday, Pfeiffer declined to comment on this story.

As of press time Wednesday, Councilor Gibson had not responded to an email seeking comment for this story.

“My hesitation is that this particular board is really, really technical,” Gibson told Pfeiffer. “I would love to have you, you know, working with the city in a capacity where you have some, you know, prior understanding and prior background.”

Gibson said she thinks Pfeiffer would be a really good advocate “in a position where you do have some knowledge and background” because she could use her skills as a representative and an advocate more effectively than she may be able to on the Environmental Planning Commission.

“This sounds like a criticism and it really isn’t,” Gibson said. “I don’t mean it to be a criticism and I don’t feel critical of you at all. It’s just that I do feel like you could be a much better advocate working in an area where you do have some experience or education or whatever.”

Councilor Jones asked Pfeiffer for her employment history. About five-and-a-half minutes later, Jones interrupted Pfeiffer and said “we have to move on with this.” She said Pfeiffer’s job experience is fantastic and very impressive, but the Environmental Planning Commission interprets laws related to development in the city.

Pfeiffer said she truly believes she is the right person for the position. “I don’t believe that what Councilor Diane was talking about—the professional, technical responsibilities—will be a challenge, but I can say that I am willing to learn,” she said. “I am willing to come forward and to be able to discuss these things with my fellow commission members as well.” 

Sena said in an interview after the hearing that she doesn’t see why Pfeiffer would be seen as unqualified.

“It’s important that we actually have the full discussion as a full Council to recognize our commitment that we passed as a Council to have diverse voices,” Sena said. “Not only that …  how we should value Native American studies, how we should value her experience. And it really was discounted at committee. I mean, she was interrupted. She was not given the proper respect, in my view.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.