A week after former Village of Questa Councilor John Anthony Ortega beat his electoral opponent, Mark Gallegos, the Questa del Rio News met with him at Rael’s Store & Coffee Shop in downtown Questa to talk about the priorities of his incoming administration.
“The election in a sense was the easy part, now the work starts,” said John Ortega. “The first thing on my agenda is to get settled in… I need to appoint somebody to replace me, and of course, the Council has to approve that person.” (Ortega was elected to the Village Council in 2020 to a four-year term and his replacement will serve until 2024.)
Many of Ortega’s supporters expressed their concerns about the Village of Questa’s lack of a police department to the point where it was arguably a top issue in the election for both candidates for Mayor. During the March 8 Council meeting, Questa voted to extend its contract with the Taos County Sheriff’s Office to continue regular patrols in Questa for another year.
“…we approved another year-long contract with the Taos County Sheriff’s Department. I voted to approve that contract with an option to opt out with a 90-day notice. I think we’re going to need them to at least cover the police needs of the community… My plan on day one is to start the hiring process for a police chief which might mean… advertising for the position to see what kind of applicants we get… and from there we can start rebuilding the department,” said Ortega on his apparent mandate from his voters. “Once we feel like we’re in a spot where we have a sufficient police department, we can give [the Taos County Sheriff] our 90-day notice and let them know that we’re ready to take over for ourselves.”
Rebuilding Questa’s police department will require a new budget from the Village of Questa. Ortega said that there are certified individuals in Questa who may be suitable for the position of Police Chief and he is confident that whomever is selected will develop a positive working relationship with our neighboring law enforcement agencies such as the County Sheriff and the Red River Marshall Office.
The Taos County Sheriff’s Office told The Taos News in a recent interview that crime has been reduced since they began patrolling Questa under contract.
The Questa Del Rio News inquired into the reason why Questa’s previous police officers and chief resigned their posts but Mayor Ortega, like his predecessor, was reluctant to go into detail. “That is a personal matter and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it, but it was not because of funding or lack of pay.”
The Mayor continued on his belief in our need for a police department. “I feel safer just knowing that [police] are there because the sight of the vehicle deters.” Ortega believes that having police officers from the community who know the people here is paramount to effective policing and that collaboration between police officers, medical organizations, and non-profit organizations are also crucial to building trust within a community.
“I’ve been a member of the Vida del Norte Coalition for six years now. Part of the problem is that before, they weren’t allowed in the schools… The new school board has been more willing to collaborate… and with that opportunity… I think they’re going to do some really good things.” The Vida del Norte Coalition is an organization dedicated to preventing substance abuse in northern Taos County.
“There is an alcohol problem here, and we need to end the cycle that has been happening for years,” the Mayor lamented. “Before I was with Vida del Norte I never realized how big of a problem it was… Our problem among our youth is worse than… in the rest of the state.”
“As far as I can remember, there has been very little opportunity for the youth of this community and I think we need to improve on that as far as having safe, drug-free environments to hang out in.” He also hopes to work with youth, particularly from Questa High School, to help with localized beautification tactics to make Questa roads and streets more aesthetically pleasing to locals and tourists alike.
The Questa Del Rio News pressed Ortega on prospects from the emerging cannabis industry moving into Questa, specifically on the idea that cannabis can keep younger people away from more dangerous substances. “I think that the state put the cart before the horse on this one,” he hesitantly responded. “I don’t think they should have legalized marijuana yet. I think they should have waited. I don’t see it working until the federal government, if they ever decide to legalize it, does it; it’s too much of a conflict.”
Ortega continued that a big problem with cannabis usage is that police do not have an effective, consistent method to detect the effects in drivers.
“What if the cannabis industry collaborated with the schools to educate kids on dangers of adolescents using drugs,” the Questa News asked Ortega. “If they’re [the industry] going to sell it in our community, they need to educate people on the dangers of it, particularly in regards to drug use while driving and any danger that might come along with it,” Ortega responded.
“One thing we have to realize,” the Questa News pressed, “is that if entrepreneurs can’t come into Questa to set up cannabis shops, they can still set up shops in Taos, and there are already two shops in San Luis up in Colorado. Taos and San Luis are not far from Questa; the industry will be all around us, and people will be able to get it regardless of what Questa may want or not want.”
“It doesn’t need to go near schools or churches or residences,” Ortega responded. “If the industry wants to come here, there should be an education component.”
One concern that the outgoing mayor, Mark Gallegos, has is the completion of current projects that began under his administration, specifically the infrastructure improvements to Cabresto Road and Kiowa Road. “Right now we have the money for paving Cabresto Road,” Ortega responded. “We’re going to pave from south Kiowa north and get that done this spring or this summer.”
Outgoing Mayor Gallegos’ strategy for attracting businesses to Questa seemed more geared for infrastructure improvements for the purpose of long-term growth and the new Mayor Ortega said he basically agrees with that premise.
“I certainly have a hard time seeing a new company coming into Questa with them having to drive down Cabresto Road, seeing it’s a mess, and then driving down the rough Embargo Road and seeing that it’s a mess. Cell phone service here is terrible and [businesses] are going to want those basic needs,” said Mayor Ortega. “People may want to move here and businesses want to be sure that their business is protected with law enforcement.”
The most significant differences between Mayor Gallegos and Mayor Ortega seem to reside in where the focus of Questa’s development should be: long-term economic development or short-term infrastructure improvements and beautification.
“We need to come up with a comprehensive plan for that business park, determine what we want that to be, and determine how we’re going to work it,” said Ortega, referring to the Questa Business Park. “And to date I haven’t seen that.”
Ortega hopes to see businesses currently in Questa come together in initiatives for beautification and marketing with the goal of making Questa a more desirable tourist destination as well as a safe place for locals to live and for new businesses to set up roots.