BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Although currently without an executive director and still not receiving the annual $100,000 grant from the Department of Energy, the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities board seems to be trying to move ahead and regroup. From discussions during the virtual Sept. 18 RCLC board meeting it seems as though the board feels it is time to actively seek input from member communities and incorporate that input into a request for proposals for executive director services to be issued in the coming months.
Recent discussions of study conducted by the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) on behalf of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) on the fiscal and economic impact of the Lab on surrounding communities have triggered more cohesion among board members as well as desire to reevaluate the RCLC’s mission. The BBER study indicated that some counties experience an negative impact from LANL.
Board Secretary Espanola Mayor Javier Sanchez led the discussion when he said he wanted to see if the RFP process might be a good time to look into who RCLC wants to be as an organization and put that into effect through the RFP.
“I think this is a great opportunity to be as introspective as possible. I think we would have to look at the charter, the joint powers agreement, etc., to see if it’s possible. I think now is a good time to refocus our energy not just on the redistributive properties of taxes, but how we have to ask the question, how does the Lab help its communities and how do we get us there for the long-term, with or without it,” Sanchez said. “In other words what kind of economic development can be produced as off-shoots, as ancillary or completely new development?”
He said he thinks there are other communities throughout the country that are facing the same dichotomy that the RCLC is in with a tremendous amount of money coming to a small place affecting people disproportionately
“But at the same time we have to turn that around and leverage it in a way that creates success for all of us. So I think that is one direction I truly would like to go. Another thing that we need to address is the way we educate the people who work there. We see large inequities in money and without trying to say that we need to pull from one and give to the other, we need to first recognize that our kids need education and they need opportunities and if there’s some way that this Coalition can address that in a significant way, maybe we could think about that and see if that’s an opportunity,” Sanchez said.
He said he wants the breadth of the Coalition to include not only advocating for greater funding for the removal of nuclear waste and ensuring cleanup.
“We see lots of money coming to the Labs to produce things but they always want to make sure to cut money when it comes to removing the nuclear waste. So we want to certainly advocate for a cleaner environment. We want to advocate for leveraging that economic development engine and improving our educational systems. Me personally, I think that is a direction of focus that we can all agree to. Whether it’s feasible, is another story, but I would like to entertain that discussion at the very least,” Sanchez said.
Board Secretary Los Alamos County Councilor David Izraelevitz said he thinks it is important that the board has a clear expectation for the new executive director in terms of what the RCLC’s role is.
“Public comment brought up some important issues for discussion and I hope that we can take the time to have communication about those issues,” he said.
Earlier in the meeting under public comment, the board heard from Tom Allen of Arroyo Seco in Taos County who read a letter into the record that was published September 17 in the Los Alamos Reporter under the heading, “Regional Coalition of LANL Communities: Watchdog or Lapdog?” and may be read in its entirety here: https://losalamosreporter.com/2020/09/17/regional-coalition-of-lanl-communities-watchdog-or-lapdog/
Allen expressed concern about RCLC funding, responsiveness, inclusivity, transparency, follow-through and effectiveness. He noted that the majority of the RCLC’s funding comes from the Department of Energy and Los Alamos County which contributes $60,000 annually.
“It just seems obvious that on its face, this is a conflict of interest. If the purpose of the Coalition is to be a mouth piece for the DOE, LANL and the National Nuclear Security Administration, to communicate to the surrounding communities that all is well on the hill, then that’s fine. To make the whole situation a little more correct, the DOE and Los Alamos County should just completely fund the Coalition and it should be called what it is – a public relations firm,” Allen told the board.
Susan McCarthy, also of Taos County, commented that she had focused her attention on the RCLC’s mission statement.
“If the RCLC is a conduit for our regional communities to make a direct impact on local, state and federal government decision-making in regional economic development and nuclear cleanup at Los Alamos, I find it hard to detect positive results from your supposed efforts on our behalf,” she said. “Before adequate and comprehensive cleanup of nuclear waste can be undertaken, a Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement to assess the present conditions and extent of nuclear waste currently in place there must be completed. Doesn’t RCLC recognize as a significant aspect of its role as a conduit, the advocacy of this vital process, the SWEIS, will meet the needs and requirements that the regional communities demand before any increase in pit production commences at the Lab.”
Erich Kuerschner of Arroyo Seco in Taos County said he shared Allen’s opinion.
“In my experience, following it for the last 10-15 years, it’s acted more as a PR agency and was totally founded originally by Los Alamos County. That was what started it. I think they saw it as a PR process to get more funding for LANL since its major mission was nuclear weapons, they supported that. That’s where some of the problems came in,” Kuerschner said.
He complained about the concept of an economic region as represented on the RCLC website saying that rather than prove whether or not LANL helps the RCLC communities, the board asserts that it does help without any basis of facts. He said a study conducted for LANL by the UNM Bureau of Business and Economic Research on LANL’s impact “came up with the fact that LANL is an albatross around the neck of everybody but Los Alamos”.
“It makes Los Alamos one of the richest counties in the United States. We all get that. Some of our friends can work off this money but it doesn’t do anything for the rest of us. It’s impoverishing the rest of us,” Kuerschner said. He went on to say that all the board seems to care about is “getting Los Alamos more money”.
“It doesn’t matter how toxic the job is, who gets hurt by it or what happens. You won’t let us participate in the conversation to try to make Northern New Mexico work for us,” he said, adding that the comments he has made to the board over the years are never made available so that the public can decide that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about or he’s “right on”.
Although the Taos County representative has not been attending RCLC meetings, Vice Chair Town of Taos Councilor Darien Fernandez who attends regularly said he thought it would be good to incorporate some of the feedback from the communities into the RFP. He suggested moving ahead with the town halls recently discussed by the board for the various communities because he feels it is important to have more direction from them in the next contract so that the board can “have some efficacy”.
Seeking input from town halls may be more difficult than it sounds. During the past two years or more, participation by members of the public in RCLC meetings has been very sparse – rarely more than two or three people, usually from Taos County. At many meetings, the board has struggled to have a quorum and even when DOE officials or legacy waste cleanup contractors were on hand to give presentations, there were few attendees. Other than limited media coverage, there has been no attempt to inform the public about the RCLC and it goals.
Council Izraelevitz raised the issue that the executive director services can only be funded at 50 percent from the RCLC’s funds and would only be able to fund a fulltime executive director if the DOE grant is restored.
“We would have to find someone that is willing to work half time until if and when the grant comes in and then be committed to take on that additional 50 percent time,” Izraelevitz said. “That might be a hard thing to impose on applicants to have that future conditional commitment…. As we have talked before, we cannot afford an executive director just on our own internal funds. We would run into the ground rather quickly.”
Chair Roybal noted his agreement with Sanchez’s earlier comments. Leo Marquez, representing Rio Arriba County, said he had just bought his ticket for the “Javier Sanchez bandwagon”.
“Everything he said is exactly how I feel,” Marquez said.
Councilor Izraelevitz said he really appreciated Sanchez’s comments.
“I echo like Mr. Marquez says, ‘I’ll get on your bus wherever you drive it’, Mayor, because you seem to be going in the right direction,” he said.
Izraelevitz said public comment at the meeting has raised some important issues but that he also wanted to address whether some of the interests of some of the public comment are really aligned with what the Regional Coalition is supposed to do or can do.
“Every organization fundamentally has to decide what it is that it’s there for – that’s the primary question. So we need to be able to give answers to the public and to our own constituents and our own governing bodies as to what is it that the RCLC does and also importantly, what is it that the RCLC does not do. That’s as important,” he said.
Chair Roybal agreed saying the board is going to have to weigh out all the different public comments from all constituents because not everybody agrees and the board needs to try to find the balance on where it needs to be.
Subcommittee members Fernandez, Sanchez and Izraelevitz are to meet to work on the wording of the RFP and hope to have the wording for the next board meeting and in advance of town hall meetings with member communities.
Izraelevitz noted that there is a lot of conversation the board needs to have as it embarks on a new direction for the RCLC.
“We are in a critical point where we have to refine what that direction is because we have spent a couple of years having to address things that were not mission-critical, that were just trying to get our house in order. Now we have our house in order, let’s figure out what it is that we want to do,” he said.
Chair Roybal said the board had received a lot of good feedback from our constituents during the meeting.
“I appreciate the feedback. I know it can be frustrating but right now I know that the board is on a mission to put some things in perspective so that we can actually work on what our constituency would like to see on the Regional Coalition. We’re on the right track. We’ve got a great board that will come together and get us to that next level so I appreciate that,” he said.
Councilor Fernandez said looking back on his five years on the board, he sees where the RCLC has come from and where the board wants to go.
“I see that there has been a lot of value and that there has been progress made in the organization. Change doesn’t always happen as quickly as some of our constituents hope that it does and it’s not always the result that our constituents want it to be, but it’s the reality of an organization like ours that is really trying to work on a consensus model and has consistently brought people from disparate communities together to honestly discuss the issues surrounding the Lab, whether those issues are economic development or expanded pit production or cleanup efforts,” Fernandez said. “I certainly hear the call for the RCLC to take more of a side with these different issues and I agree wholeheartedly with that.”
Fernandez said he also thinks it is incumbent on the individual communities to speak up as well.
“In Taos for example, we have spoken out against expanded pit production as a Council. We are working with constituents right now to put together a letter that would hopefully be approved by Council calling for a Site Wide Environmental Impact Statement for LANL. We in our communities, we see that, we hear that and we act as best as we can to represent the interests of our constituents. We do bring that to the RCLC,” he said. “Without the RCLC we wouldn’t have this BBER study based on LANL data that’s forcing us to have this reckoning. We wouldn’t have these conversations and these regular presentations about the status of cleanup efforts at the Lab and it’s information that comes about because of the RCLC, that allows us to go back to our communities and have more information to make these statements.”
Fernandez said as a group, the RCLC might not agree because of the interests of the various communities in what the direction is going to be for the RCLC.
“But it is important that we continue to work forward together and have these honest discussions so that we can improve the region together rather than trying to go it alone,” he said.
Fernandez thanked all the board members for their service and dedication to the board to see it work.
“It would have been easy to throw in the towel two years ago or months ago and say, ‘You know, you’re right, let’s forget about this’, but we’ve decided to stick it out and work together because we do realize that there’s an importance in dialog from a regional perspective,” he said. “I want to thank those constituents that show up consistently to our meetings and speak out because you’ve really helped us improve many of the processes and shown us what we need to be doing better and are helping us formulate a better and long-term vision and mission for the RCLC.”