Los Alamos County Community Development Advisory Board chair Aaron Walker makes his presentation at Tuesday’s virtual County Council meeting.
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The tone has gotten testy a couple of times at recent virtual meetings of the Los Alamos County Council and Tuesday’s meeting was no exception. Although the meetings are held virtually, videos of them are available on the County website and may be reviewed after the fact.
Tuesday evening’s interaction between Community Development Advisory Board chair Aaron Walker and Councilor David Izraelevitz prompted Councilor James Robinson to later say that councilors should not be using their dais to “scold or diminish” the people they appoint to their boards. The chairs of County boards and commissions typically make an annual presentation to Council on their activities and Tuesday it was Walker’s turn as CDAB chair.
Walker told Council that the CDAB met five times in the last 12 months with four meetings canceled due to COVID-19 and another three due to the lack of a quorum. He complained that there had been an attempt to appoint three members that resulted in only two current members being reappointed. Walker also noted that the CDAB had updated the work plan for FY2021 and approved comments on the draft request for proposals for revision of Chapter 18 of the County Code.
“Approving the work plan is always a heavy lift for this board but this time it went by rather smoothly fortunately,” Walker said.
He added that lack of board members has clearly hindered the CDAB’s production.
“We missed a couple of months where we had the opportunity to meet but we couldn’t fill a quorum. The appointments to the boards without filling that board show a double standard when it comes to CDAB. Other boards can have appointments made without filling the board but ours has to meet additional arbitrary requirements that councilors come up with at that time,” Walker said.
Walker went on to complain that the CDAB members have largely been on their own since the board was established.
“We set our own goals and our own targets with very little feedback from Council other than that we’re not oversight. There’s been minor feedback here and there but we really haven’t had any kind of targeted paths to follow. We’ve basically set those up on our own and basically ran with that,” he said.
Walker also mentioned the significant turnover at the Community Development Department since CDAB was established which he said hinders consistency in developing a working relationship with the code enforcement officers.
“I think the board would be more effective if we were more comfortable with and had a recurring relationship with the code officers because we can establish a working relationship with them and understand where they’re coming from with code enforcement,” he said.
Going back to his double standards complaint, he said if the board is significant enough to exist then it are significant enough to be held to the same standards without deviation. Walker said portions of Chapter 18 are not enforced equally throughout Los Alamos County. He said answers from CDD are that “the code is the code” to defende a letter, or “part of the code is hard to enforce” is used to defend not writing a letter.
“This presents potential ethical or legal challenges for the County and they have to be addressed. As CDAB is not oversight, they have to come from Council,” Walker said.
He complained that there were lots of notices of violation issued for the White Rock townsite but hardly anything from Pajarito Acres and La Senda.
“The real question here is why. If the code is truly the code, then we should see significantly more enforcement of the code in Pajarito Acres and La Senda than what we see, especially for the weeds ordinance. If the code is truly the code that is what we should see,” Walker said. “For me personally, this is my personal opinion here, the optics of blank areas (on a map of places where notices of code violation had been received) raise an interesting question of if the code is written to prey on lower income areas.” He also noted that the Quemazon area in Los Alamos was blank on the map.
Walker said over the past year, the tension between the board and Community Development Department had decreased significantly and that there is “considerably less animosity” between the board and the CDD at this time. He noted that some weight has been lifted from the CDAB with the RFP for the Chapter 18 re-write.
Council chair Sara Scott asked CDAB board member and candidate for County Council Denise Derkacs if she would like to make comments. Derkacs responded that she would wait until after councilors made their comments.
At that point, Councilor David Izraelevitz brought up Walker’s reference to what had hindered the board during the past year.
“We had this discussion a year ago that I think it’s important to clarify what’s the personal opinion of the chair of the board. That view sets the tone of the board and I believe in terms of what has possibly hindered the process is some confusion between personal opinions versus a board opinion,” Izraelevitz said. “You have a very frank presentation, so I think I’d like to have a very frank discussion about it as well. With regard to the appearance of a double standard for board appointments, I can’t speak for anybody else, but is that the board’s view or is that the chair’s view?”
Walker responded that it is his view and the view of at least one other person on the board. Izraelevitz said if it was a board decision the board needed to take some parliamentary action. He said he felt a certain sense of frustration that CDAB and the Council are back at the same place as a year ago. He asked walked if the allegation of lack of clear direction from Council referred to direction to the CDAB or the CDD.
“Lack of direction from Council to the board,” Walker responded. “I personally feel that there is also a lack of direction from council to CDD but that is not reflected in this presentation.”
Izraelevitz asked if there had been any CDAB statement or motion that had come to that conclusion or if it was “this kind of the chair’s understanding”.
“The board has largely been on our own since we’ve been created. We don’t have to make a motion for absolutely everything. I think that the appearance of a double standard as well as this lack of clear direction from Council is clearly evident in the work we’ve put out and in our meetings coming out in the form of frustrations as far as not being able to meet, as well as us basically coming up with our own agenda and our own path forward from the very beginning. We had to figure out how we were going to work through the entire Chapter 18 code on our own as a board. Council didn’t give any feedback,” Walker said.
Izraelevitz said the direction from Council to all its boards is and that’s where the CDAB should be looking for direction from Council.
“My feedback to you is you don’t need consensus, you just bring up a board motion and you vote on it and that’s how you settle things. “We get some comments that are not representative of the board and then we don’t get a recommendation from the board on something that you could decide on. If there are items you want to discuss, bring them up, discuss them, decide whether you want to vote on them or not,” Izraelevitz said. “On the other hand, if it’s a presentation by the chair it’s your responsible Mr. Walker to be careful that you only present those items that are representative of the board’s direction – not your opinion and maybe one or two others.”
“My answer to you, Mr. Walker is that Council does not have a double standard because it votes – because the opinion of the board is how we vote on it. If Council votes on it and it’s not in agreement with your personal view, that doesn’t mean it’s a double standard or arbitrary or whatever. That was the view of the Council to in certain times accept appointments and in other times not to accept other appointments. That’s not a double standard, that’s parliamentary procedure, that’s how the Council proceeds. I think that calling it a double standard is not an appropriate interpretation,” Izraelevitz said.
Walker responded that it was “an appearance of a double standard”.
“I’m all about optics and perception. Perception is reality if it appears as though the Council is arbitrarily deciding what boards to appoint members to and not appoint members to. There’s the optics, the perception of a double standard. Your perception but you presented as part of the board presentation and you did not qualify it,” he said.
Councilor Antonio Maggiore agreed that there is a double standard with CDAB.
“I think Councilor Izraelevitz is being a little disingenuous since he was the one who specifically chose not to accept the third recommendation when we had three candidates for three open positions. There is no way that Board member Derkacs should have been asked to speak ahead of Council questions or comments. That again is a double standard. We don’t ask that of any other board. And the only reason you were asking that is that you were trying to get a dissenting opinion voiced and I am frustrated by that,” Maggiore said.
Chair Scott asked about the council feedback and work plan and said there were a couple of other board members that wanted to make comments.
CDAB member and former chair Catherine Ozment said she had lots to say but wanted to echo Maggiore’s comment that this is really irregular.
“I have been involved in boards and commissions for four years now and to have board members speak during the annual presentation is not something I have ever seen. Happy to participate in conversation if that’s what we’re going to do but just want to add my concern about that to Antonio’s,” she said.
Scott said the idea was that if there were some additional comments that folks would like to make, “we’d like to make that opportunity”.
Denise Derkacs then made her comments.
“Since Mr. Walker pointed some of the hindrances that the board has faced, and he mentioned tension between the board and CDD, but he did not mention tension within the board between those members who are anti-code enforcement and those who support the moderate approach to enforcement, from my perspective, the anti-code enforcement faction has chaired and dominated the board since its inception,” she said. “For example, one member stated early on in our discussions that residents should be able to do whatever they want on their property. That left many of us feeling, ‘Wow, where do we go from here?’. In frustration we had one board member quit, one board member not reapply last year and another board member not going to reapply this year. I think the board needs some neutral leadership to be able to move forward, and I’m not suggesting me”.
Ozment said she would first like to say that no one on the board is anti-code enforcement.
“But that’s been discussed multiple times and one of the very early points of consensus we reached was that everyone on the board agreed that there should be some code enforcement – it was all a matter of degree. I think to characterize the views of the board or some faction of the board as anti-code enforcement is a huge disservice to the detailed and lengthy conversations that we have on that topic,” Ozment said. “I think Councilor Izraelevitz raised a lot of issues that I find concerning. The appearance of a double standard as both Aaron (Walker) and Antonio (Maggiore) mentioned is pretty clearly laid out when Councilors said they needed to have a choice. We need to have more applicants for the positions available which is a different standard than is used for other boards. Whether or that is an opinion or an observation based on available data, there are clearly very different expectations from time to time. Whether it is board to board is a different matter.”
Ozment went on to say Walker’s leadership has been outstanding.
“Again, this has all been highly irregular. I think it sets a really interesting precedent for other boards to bring in extra members to their conversations when there’s dissent among board members,” she said.
Walker said since he has been on the board he has been asking for public outreach.
“I’ve been asking for us to get the opinion of the people of the community. My personal opinions don’t interfere with how this board is run or who this board interacts with, or how I interact with other members on this board. My personal feelings get set aside in favor of what I get hear back from people in the community and what needs to be done is significant outreach. I’ve advocated for that since day one,” he said.
Izraelevitz said he appreciated how someone could be frustrated by how Council decides things. He noted that he had reviewed the minutes of the meeting where he was supposed to have imposed a double standard and that the vote had been 7-0.
“There are times when we do want additional candidates. There are times when because of a period of time or whatever reason is in the mind of Councilors, we decide to abbreviate the process and go forward. If that’s viewed as a double standard, I apologize for that perception but this is how Council has worked for years and years and years. A certain times we want additional candidates. Sometimes we don’t. The Council decides by voting on things,” he said. “In terms of Ms Derkacs participation, I think it was appropriate given the dissension that was highlighted. My answer to Councilor Maggiore is that he knows that we follow this parliamentary process and I know he understands his position as liaison. It’s not direction of the board, it’s a communication process. So his personal opinion as a Councilor should just be viewed as that of an individual councilor, not the direction from Council as Councilor Robinson’s presentation made very clear that it was just his personal opinion, and not a directive from Council . So that weight does not accrue any higher because of being the liaison to the board. I hope that answers some of the issues.”
Maggiore immediately asked if Izraelevitz attempting to imply, that Maggiore “was somehow derelict or somehow failed to perform my duties as liaison to that board.
“No, I think you understand very well. Over the last four years you have been liaison to many boards. I think you understand your position as the liaison. Now if certain board members decide to take your personal opinion and give it a certain level of weight, that does not necessarily accrue to it. I’m not saying that you instigated that. I’m saying that that’s an erroneous view,” Izraelevitz responded.
Maggiore continued, “Because there’s certainly a lot of inferences and implications in what you have said and I’m going to leave them there and let you stew on them and perhaps you can go back and listen to this meeting again and you will understand why some of this really rubs me wrong”.
Ending the discussion on the agenda item, Councilor James Robinson said he was a little disappointed in how the conversation went between Council and the CDAB.
“I felt that at certain points, Council was choosing to lecture an appointed and elected chair of one of our citizen boards. I can understand having some disagreements with those people however I don’t think we should take out position to sit and lecture them on how they should be running their board. They were elected by their fellow members and they were appointed by us,” Robinson said. “I understand personal opinions might enter the presentations, but personal opinions should be dealt with outside a Council meeting. We shouldn’t be using our dais to scold or diminish those people we put on our boards. I think it sets a dangerous precedence for people wanting to be appointed to our boards. I hope that this is just a one off and that we don’t have that happen again because it was very disappointing. As someone who has come up from the boards and commissions and has given presentations to Council to have that happen. So I just wanted to provide my two cents on that.”