City spending on Plaza obelisk lawsuit nears half million dollars

June 11—The Santa Fe City Council approved investing nearly half a million dollars in legal representation to fight a lawsuit demanding the restoration of the Plaza’s toppled obelisk.

Costs could continue to rise beyond the more than $454,000 approved so far for an outside law firm if the civil suit — filed by Union Protectíva de Santa Fé against the city and mayor Alan Webber – will be judged as planned in September.

“Ideally, we would get a summary judgment, which would keep the case from going to trial,” said City Attorney Erin McSherry.

Union Protectíva President Virgil Vigil, one of Webber’s harshest critics, said in an interview Tuesday: “The city is paying a lot of money for this.”

Known as the Soldiers’ Monument, the obelisk was built in the late 1860s to honor Civil War Union soldiers who died on the battlefields of New Mexico.

An inscription on the monument’s base also dedicates it to U.S. soldiers who died fighting against “savage Indians” — language that drew criticism for decades, even after the word “savage” was struck out in the 1970s. The obelisk was toppled by protesters on Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2020, amid a national movement calling for racial justice.

Union Protectíva, a Hispanic fraternal organization, sued the city and Webber in state district court in June 2021, accusing Webber of violating state historic preservation rules by calling for the obelisk’s removal a year earlier, several months before his overthrow.

The mayor’s call to remove the obelisk and two other controversial monuments from the city came as indigenous activists planned a protest in the square. However, only one of them – a statue depicting Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas – was removed from the public domain in June 2020. A nighttime effort to dismantle the Plaza obelisk that month was halted when ‘a crew damaged the top of the monument; an obelisk on federal property honoring Kit Carson remained standing.

As the costs of the lawsuit continue to rise, the obelisk has remained in pieces and its base is approaching its fourth year, encased in a large wooden box in the middle of the square.

Meanwhile, the Kit Carson monument, also enclosed in a wooden box to protect it, was damaged in August 2023. No one has been charged for this crime.

The trial date is set for September 9, with a pre-trial conference on July 22.

While the city seeks to avoid a trial, Kenneth Stalter, an attorney representing Union Protectíva, said he believes it is “very likely” that the case will go to trial.

A judge initially ordered both sides to mediate, an attempt that was unsuccessful.

In addition to representation by city attorneys, Webber and the city are represented by outside attorneys from the Modrall Sperling law firm. In December, the City Council approved a $40,000 increase in the company’s contract, bringing the total to about $324,000.

McSherry said that would be enough to get the city through the discovery phase of civil works…

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