BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Comments made by Regional Coalition of LANL Communities exectutive director Eric Vasquez during an agenda item at the Espanola City Council Zoom meeting Tuesday evening that the RCLC is “very Los Alamos centric” have drawn a response from Los Alamos County Councilor and RCLC Treasurer David Izraelevitz.
Vasquez’s comments at time seemed critical of Los Alamos County however he assured the Los Alamos Reporter that that was not his intention.
Vasquez attended the virtual meeting to present the amended joint powers agreement to the City Council for their approval. He noted that the Espanola has been a member of the RCLC since 2011.
“Last year, we passed an amended JPA to meet some of the requirements and suggestions that came out of the previous audit by the Office of the State Auditor and we are now taking it in front of our member communities to have our governing bodies ratify it,” Vasquez said.
Los Alamos County approved the JPA in August and the Town of Taos approved it in November. The Los Alamos Reporter asked Vasquez in a May 5 email how many of the nine member communities had signed the amended JPA, however no response has been received at this time. With the addition of the City of Espanola, it is believed that all the RCLC communities except for the City of Santa Fe have signed the new JPA.
Vasquez told the Espanola City Council that in general the RCLC serves as “a joint voice for standing up our communities to be able to speak about issues that affect all of us regarding Los Alamos National Laboratory”.
“As we all know there are benefits to having LANL in our area and there are also costs. So it’s important that we have a joint voice of our local community that’s able to speak on this,” he said.
Councilor Peggy Sue Martinez asked what the specific changes and why was the JPA amended.
Vasquez responded that in early 2018 the RCLC came under extensive scrutiny both for some of its spending practices.
“And then in the ensuing process of what happened then under the former executive director and former board members, it was decided that the joint powers agreement was a little bit too loose. It did not specify the roles of the board clearly. It did not specify what the powers of the community members or the powers of the board were, whether they could enter into contracts, whether they could form relationships, so this JPA spells that out in much more clear detail than what the former one did,” he said.
Vasquez said the amended JPA “also removes Los Alamos County as the de facto fiscal agent for the organization”.
“Under the JPA we are currently operating under, Los Alamos County is actually named in there as always going to be the fiscal agent, controlling the money and everything like that. This will remove that so we can move the fiscal agent to another place,” he said. “…I can tell you that it went after an extensive public process of review that lasted probably about 10 months in total for us to get to the language that was finally adopted and we’re now coming to you.”
Martinez asked why Los Alamos County was being removed as they fiscal agent and if there was an issue or what the situation was with “not having them continue as the fiscal agent”.
Vasquez responded that “there’s actually a few things going on there”.
“One of them is Los Alamos County actually decided they no longer wanted to serve in the role as the fiscal agent. If you followed the news during the 2018 cycle and what happened there, they got dinged for the way they handled some of the finances. All those issues have been corrected, I need to make that absolutely clear. We’ve been cleaning it up, but they got dinged for that and it became something that they just were done with,” he said.
He said Los Alamos County served as fiscal agent for a variety of different organizations, “even national organizations that deal with the Department of Energy, and they have removed themselves from those roles as well”.
“They’re still serving as our fiscal agent because they’re still in the JPA but they are interested in leaving and I think this is very important. When the Regional Coalition was founded, its stated purpose was to represent the region on issues around LANL and around DOE access and everything like that. Sometimes, as someone who was not part of the Regional Coalition back then but worked around it when I worked around it for the (Regional Development Corporation) and when I worked with the major subcontractors and things like that, you could see that the Regional Coalition was very Los Alamos centric. And if we’re able to make sure that it is a truly regional organization, I think it will be stronger and better to represent all of us,” Vasquez said.
When presenting the JPA was before the Town of Taos Council for approval in November, Vasquez said that organizations like the RCLC insert themselves to make sure that the local communities have a voice and are heard, and that that was what the RCLC was formed to do.
“It’s not enough that we just rely on others’ good will or good intent to stand up for us. It’s important that our communities have a seat at the table and so that’s what we’re attempting to do here,” he said. He went on to say that the RCLC was originally formed with that intent, but when it was stood up originally, it was in large part very Los Alamos focused, where the actual joint powers agreement listed Los Alamos County as the fiscal agent and mainly in control of operations.
Vasquez told the Taos Council that the amended JPA is intended to “move the focus away from Los Alamos into the region”.
“We’re stripping that provision there that puts Los Alamos right in the middle of the mix and making it more centralized to the region. We’re opening it up for other communities to have more say in what happens,” Vasquez said.
At Tuesday’s meeting Espanola Mayor Javier Sanchez he thinks the amended JPA makes the RCLC more independent.
“Like you (Vasquez) said, we don’t want to be dependent on any one particular county, particularly not one that is associated directly with LANL. I think it’s important to recognize that this organization brings a voice, not just locally, but at a national level,” Sanchez said. “One of the biggest efforts that the Coalition does is really ensure federal dollars because as we all know, the federal government is very interested, and in particular in this administration, in one thing and that’s building nuclear missiles but it’s less interested in cleaning up after itself.”
He noted that LANL is where the employment base is.
“We house the people that work there to help clean that place up and it is our best interest to recognize that that labor force lives in our communities and we have to represent them the best way we can. That’s why I think this JPA helps us to become a little bit more independent in that respect and also join with other groups that are very similar to these in Oak Ridge, Washington and other places where there is federal cleanup. I think one thing that’s really clear is that the more we’re able to lock horns and make sure that the federal government is listening to our demands and to our needs, that all of those voices get louder. So I think that’s a really good initiative,” Sanchez said.
Asked Thursday morning about Vasquez’s comments, Councilor Izraelevitz noted that Los Alamos County was instrumental in establishing the Coalition over a decade ago, that now consists of nine municipalities, counties and Pueblos.
“Our County volunteered to be the fiscal agent during the Coalition’s formative years and to provide most of the start-up funding, but over time, the RCLC has received funding from DOE, hired its own executive director, and more recently contracted for stand-alone accounting, auditing, and legal services. We are glad that we are reaching this maturity which was always the goal for this organization”, he said.
“I believe the RCLC has been from the beginning and continues to be, a regional organization, based on the development of consensus positions, and with a diverse board of directors, so I don’t know what Mr. Vasquez means by ‘Los Alamos centric’ or ‘Los Alamos focused’, unless that means that the focus of the Coalition is on the activities and economic impact of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is absolutely true. The positions taken by the RCLC board, whether in policy, finances, or otherwise, were never directed by Los Alamos County. I am confident the rest of the board agrees with me,” Izraelevitz said.
Izraelevitz said the changes in the proposed JPA are part of the maturation process of the RCLC, and although the deficiencies in the original JPA came to the front recently, it was high time for its revision regardless.
“There is no longer a need for Los Alamos County to be the fiscal agent of the RCLC. The JPA should be explicit, rather than implicit, that the RCLC can contract for services itself, etc.” he said.
Izraelevitz noted that the RCLC was modeled after organizations in other DOE communities, like Hanford and Oak Ridge, where governing bodies surrounding a DOE facility get together to develop consensus positions on areas such as cleanup funds and workforce development that they can inform and advocate for to decision-makers.
“I am delighted that the City of Espanola is the latest governing body to sign on to the new JPA, and I look forward to a re-invigorated RCLC. Once the current COVID crisis passes, there are many opportunities for expansion of work areas, regional economic development, vigorous support for cleanup funding, and other areas where the RCLC can, and should, take a strong, regional, leadership,” he said.
The Los Alamos Reporter asked Vasquez by phone Thursday morning about content and tone of his comments related to Los Alamos County during the Espanola meeting. He initially responded by saying the organization needs to be much more centered on the wellbeing of all of its members. Later in w written statement, he said the RCLC is a regional advocacy organization.
“It is a fact that more than half of the LANL workforce lives in communities outside Los Alamos, and those communities share both the benefits and burdens of hosting LANL in our region,” Vasquez wrote. “By including other communities in the day-to-day operation of the Coalition, we all have more buy-in and understanding of the need to maintain consensus. Following the consensus model, the group adopted a two-prong approach towards that goal; focusing on cleanup and on the economic health and growth of all our member communities.”
He said originally the RCLC was formed at the request of Los Alamos County, substantially funded by Los Alamos County, and largely administered by Los Alamos County until 2018.
“However, the RCLC’s mission has always been to represent all of our communities on issues where the impact of LANL affects our region,” Vasquez said. “Los Alamos County has been a strong partner in this effort. Just this year Los Alamos County donated $10,000 to census complete count activities in Taos and Rio Arriba. In addition, the county is now planning to invest up to a $1 million a year into a regional capital fund. The timing of their efforts could not be better, because as was posited in a recent study reviewed at the RCLC retreat earlier this year, some of our region’s communities carry a heavier burden for hosting LANL than others do.”
“And while we can all agree the RCLC has had many successes—advocating for a community commitment plan, more cleanup funding, greater regional buy-in, we also have to acknowledge that the benefits have not always been equitable throughout the region,” Vasquez concluded.
Efforts to reach RCLC chair Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal Thursday were unsuccessful.
Current members of the RCLC are:
- City of Santa Fe
- Santa Fe County
- Town of Taos
- Taos County
- City of Espanola
- Rio Arriba County
- Los Alamos County
- Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo
- Jemez Pueblo
Representatives of Ohkay Owingeh and Jemez Pueblos do not attend the RCLC board meetings. The City of Santa Fe has not yet signed the amended JPA.
Over the last five years, member communities have contributed to the RCLC as follows
- City of Santa Fe: $10,000 in FY16, FY17 and FY18
- Santa Fe County: $10,000 each year from FY16 to FY20
- Town of Taos: $3,500 each year from FY16 to FY20
- Taos County: $3,500 in FY18
- City of Espanola: $3.500 in FY16 and $5,000 in FY19
- Rio Arriba County: $10,000 in FY16, FY17, FY19 and FY20
- Los Alamos County: $60,000 each year from FY16 to FY20
- Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo: $10,000 in FY17 and $5,000 in FY18
- Jemez Pueblo has not contributed to the RCLC as of this time.