Los Alamos County Councilors discuss the County’s membership in the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities Tuesday evening at their regular meeting which was held at Los Alamos Fire Station 3 in White Rock. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Eric Vasquez, executive director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities addresses the Los Alamos County Council Tuesday evening in White Rock. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Council voted unanimously Tuesday evening to affirm its support for the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC) and direct staff to assist the RCLC in its effort to effect the changes recommended in the State Auditor’s Report.
Reaffirming support was one of a total of 12 potential motions before the Council, however as the meeting held at Los Alamos Fire Station 3 in White Rock progressed, only half the motions were addressed. Despite the attention given to the RCLC issue during the past several months, few people attended the meeting for the agenda item and there were no public comments.
At the outset of the agenda item, recently-appointed RCLC executive director Eric Vasuez said the RCLC has been working very hard over the last few months to comply with State Auditor Wayne Johnson’s recommendations. He said some things have been easier than he was anticipating and some things have been harder.
“But I can tell you that outside Los Alamos County the interest in the organization is strong. I went before both Santa Fe County and the City of Espanola in the last month where I can tell you that there was a lot of questions and some concerns but especially in the area for Espanola there’s a decision that they very much feel that the RCLC is an entity that serves a purpose for their community and has a potential to serve a purpose for their community and so they chose to continue membership,” Vasquez said.
He said there has been a lot of talk about what is the proper role of the RCLC or “whether it has a proper role or not”.
“I just want to say, ‘Yes, it does’. The RCLC provides a voice to our local communities and local governments that they would not otherwise have, specifically to the Department of Energy, to inform them that their decisions that affect LANL affect people in the surrounding communities,” Vasquez said. “Los Alamos County for years has had a lobbyist voice in Washington, DC but a lot of our other member communities of the RCLC don’t. They have nothing and without something like this, they will still have nothing. So there’s a value to this because it provides our communities a voice. It creates partnerships that would not necessarily be there without.”
He said the partnership the RCLC brings to this region of the state is something that if it goes away it will not be replaced for decades and that he would be very sorry to see that.
Council Vice Chair Chris Chandler asked if there has been any discussion amongst the RCLC board members to try to recoup some of the improper reimbursements that have been made to individuals. Vasquez said the discussion thus far has been centered around meeting the State Auditor’s recommendations about bringing in an accountant and an accountant, with the plan being that “in coordination with the contractors through their guidance to decide what are our next step.
Under discussion of the affirmation motion, Councilor Susan O’Leary said she couldn’t agree more with Vasquez’s comments about the importance of the organization in Northern New Mexico and the opportunity to give a voice to the numerous communities that share common interests and concerns in a similar relationship with DOE and other entities.
“I wanted to preface my comments by saying that I think the mission and the purpose of the organization is spot on. It was a great idea back when it was created and I think most people in Los Alamos would be happy to know that our community is working collaboratively with other Northern New Mexico communities for the betterment of us all,” she said.
Councilor O’Leary said she doesn’t disagree with the need to assist the RCLC with the auditor’s findings.
“But I’m concerned about how much the organization has cost the County financially since its inception. It’s really not a lot on an annual basis but when you add it up over the last eight years, the County has spent almost $1 million cash and if you added in the staff time that was spent over that time period I think that amount would be a lot bigger,’ she said. “My concern is that I don’t see why we need to be funding this organization in this way when I believe the intentions of the organization could be met by a working group of elected officials that fulfills the mission of the organization and that by funding an executive director and specific travel it has complicated the operation of the organization in a very negative way.”
Councilor O’Leary said she really doesn’t support continuing funding for organization and wanted to be very clear about that.
“Continued funding is not something that I think our community would support if we were able to ask them and as a representative government we need to do our best to try to assess that question. I think when you look at one year’s budget line item of $60,000 in the scope of road projects or other types of initiatives it’s not such a huge number but when you look at all of the money the County has spent on lobbying – We pay for a lobbyist in Washington, DC, we pay for the RCLC, and then we send our own delegation to Washington, DC every year,” she said. “I think we’re spending this money to reach our federal legislators who really have the obligation to come to us and most likely would want to if we asked them and arranged an opportunity for them to come and speak to our community and hear our concerns. The goals of the organization are great and important and should be supported but we need to find a way where we’re not spending money to achieve that.”
Councilor Chandler said just to clarify she has been on just one trip to Washington just recently but that she is familiar with what they involve and they don’t involve just speaking to the delegation.
“They involve speaking with high level officials at DOE and NNSA where we can bring attention to things that are happening here. We don’t have that voice just going through the local office and that sometimes it’s bringing the attention to some of the things that are happening at the local office that are not satisfactory to the County or the citizens or the region,” she said. “Just to clarify, it’s not just asking a senator to come and talk to us. There’s an array of people that are involved including staffers at Senate Armed Services, the Energy committees, under-secretaries at the Department of Energy, deputy administrators at NNSA and they often don’t know what is going on around here and it’s very important that they have a direct voice with us.”
Councilor O’Leary said she doesn’t disagree with that point at all.
“We have a lobbyist. We have our councilors going to Washington and we have the RCLC. We have at least three different efforts that we’re funding and I think it’s gotten too expensive. So let’s pick one and put our focus on that. How can we continue to agree to fund all of these. I actually don’t expect this Council to be willing to take that step but I hope the new Council will because we’re going to have to tighten the budget and that is definitely an area where I think there’s a little bit of that,” she said.
Councilor Pete Sheehey pointed out that the appropriate level of funding if any funding is something that the Council will take up in April at the next budget meeting. Councilor Morrie Pongratz said Councilors go to Washington, they are only speaking for Los Alamos County but when the RCLC there, they have the community regional support of the elected officials of a number of jurisdictions and that carries a lot more weight.
“They can’t divide us and conquer us,” he said.
The second motion which was proposed by Councilor O’Leary was that the County cease its role as fiscal agent for the RCLC by the beginning of 2019. She said her intention with the motion was not only to protect the County from the difficulties it has found itself to be in as a result of its role as fiscal agent but that she thinks it’s timely for the RCLC to step up and figure out how to manage its own finances and that perhaps this is a way to encourage that.
“I realize it requires a change to the Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) and if this motion is approved it would be a way to motivate that kind of result,” she said.
There was some discussion that to change the JPA it would have to go to all nine RCLC entities for discussion and approval which would take some time. The Council unanimously voted to have the County representative to the RCLC pursue the County’s removal as fiscal agent of RCLC.
A third motion made by Councilor O’Leary to have the County immediately adopt state travel mileage and per diem failed for lack of a second.
Councilor O’Leary introduced fourth motion saying its intention was to ask the County Manager to conduct an investigation of the prior expense reimbursements that were made to Los Alamos County and elected representatives from the inception of the RCLC and to “seek to get those funds returned to the County”. She said she put up a process for achieving that as an option with the need for there to be routine communication about it so that it’s not something that drags on.
“Ideally it’s something that can be resolved as soon as those kinds of reimbursements are identified and the requests are made,” she said.
Councilor Sheehey said if the RCLC improperly reimbursed someone and the County uncovers it, then the RCLC should be reimbursed not the County.
“Our county staff has already gone through quite a bit but the public still has questions. This is potentially a lot of work and Eric Vasquez has already pointed out that he is right now concentrating on the broader issues that have been pointed out. But locally and throughout the region these improper reimbursements are still an issue,” he said. He asked Vasquez if the RCLC had a similar intent. Vasquez said it is RCLC’s intent to “bring all financial issues up to complete clarity of where we are and what happened and then move forward from that point”.
“I just want us on record, and I would think that RCLC should be on record as well with what you have told me, that the intent of both of our organizations is to bring every issue to bear, clear the books and start anew with sound financial policies,” Sheehey responded.
Council Chair David Izraelevitz said he believed the investigation should be from the RCLC itself following their auditing procedures. Councilor said he understands the concerns.
“It is a difficult process. The books are there and the public wants this dealt with and to simply say it’s complicated and we should let the RCLC take the lead is passing the buck. We’re part of this organization. We have obligation to try to make these things right,” he said.
The Council voted to have the investigation completed by the County.
A fifth motion to have the Council’s Rules Subcommittee meet to discuss whether the rules need to be modified to clarify the communication responsibilities of any County Councilor who obtains material information about County business. Councilors Reiss, Chandler and Izraelevitz are the current subcommittee members.
Councilor Rick Reiss felt the issue should go to the next Council. Councilor O’Leary said the reason she suggested it for the current Council is that “it was material to this Council”. The motion failed for lack of a second.
Councilors then voted on the last motion which summarized several left on the list. Councilor Chandler moved that the council develop and adopt policies that outline the roles of both employees and elected officials regarding their participation in boards and committees external to the regular operations of Los Alamos County. She further moved that Council direct the County Manager to develop materials specific to each of these external boards and committees that will inform the assigned personnel as to the history of the parent organization, an agreements that exist between the organization and the County, the administrative policies of the organization and any additional information relevant to the participation of county employees and elected officials on such boards and committees.
Chandler said she thinks I think one of the root causes for some of the issues that arose for the RCLC and the County was that people did not understand their roles and policies were not clear to individuals and therefore those individuals could not act in accordance with those policies.
“So I think getting our arms around what is our function when we are acting on boards outside the County, what policies should we be applying, what are our responsibilities and so on, are very important and I think that was disclosed through the Adams + Crowe report and is in some ways very obvious given the discussions we have had on this point,” she said.
The Council ended the meeting with a unanimous vote on that motion.