BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Two years after receiving an amended joint powers agreement for the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities to consider, Santa Fe City Council on Wednesday evening voted down the JPA 5-3 with Councilor Michael Garcia, the Council’s representative to the RCLC abstaining.
The amended JPA was adopted by the RCLC board in March 2019 and although it has never been on the agenda, the RCLC has been awaiting the City’s response since then so that the amended JPA could be submitted to the state Department of Finance & Administration for approval. Councilor Garcia, who has been on the RCLC board for some 13 months, has collaborated with RCLC treasurer, Los Alamos County Councilor David Izraelevitz on recent presentations to the City’s Finance and Quality of Life committees. Izraelevitz, and City of Espanola Mayor Javier Sanchez, vice chair of the RCLC were on hand Wednesday evening as guests of Councilor Garcia.
The City of Santa Fe has belonged to the RCLC since its inception in 2010 and two former mayors, David Coss and Javier Gonzales have served as chair. Despite this, City Councilors and staff in general seemed to know very little about the RCLC and even expressed concern that they had not had reports on the organization’s activities.
Councilor Izraelevitz explained that the RCLC is a group of interested governmental entities very much like the New Mexico Municipal League, which he said is 106 cities, towns and villages that have certain things of interest in common that work as a unified voice for those areas to the legislature and the delegations.
“The same with the RCLC which is communities that have employment or are impacted by Los Alamos National Laboratory activities so we look for areas of common interest and we use that shared interest to inform our communities about areas of interest and also to work with our congressional delegations and legislature to advance those interests,” Izraelevitz said. “For the RCLC topping those interests is the expeditious cleanup of legacy waste at LANL and adequate or increased funding to be able to do that. Other areas have been economic development for the region, increased procurement for local businesses, and promotion of workforce development. We know that our schools and colleges are the pipeline that leads to Laboratory employment so we try to encourage funding for our local universities and colleges so that we can follow those common interests. So that in a nutshell is what the mission of the (RCLC) is.”
In response to questions from the City Council, Izraelevitz explained the changes involved in the amended JPA. He said the major change is that it allows the RCLC to vote on a fiscal agent other than Los Alamos County, the fiscal agent since the RCLC’s inception.
“Right now the current JPA is explicit that Los Alamos County is the fiscal agent. The RCLC wants the ability to assign that responsibility to another member,” he said.
He added that the amended JPA clarifies that the RCLC can enter into some kinds of contracts but not others and cannot incur debt or buy real property. He said it can contract with an executive director but is not allowed to have employees; it can lobby but only within the constraints of any grant requirements; and it sets when yearly budget and fiscal year is, deals with the Open Meetings Act and is more explicit about the termination process for member entities. He said a lot of these issues were implicit in the original JPA but when it was reviewed, it was decided to be more explicit.
Izraelevitz also explained the limits on lobbying for the $100,000 annual grant that was received from the Department of Energy for several years and that the contributions made by RCLC members could be used for lobbying.
“The DOE grant historically is to sustain a dialogue regarding cleanup activities so that the DOE understands what are the community needs and requisites or priorities. It’s for us to have a discussion forum among communities, contractors and governmental entities and to allow the governmental entities to evaluate in a focused way cleanup and other policies,” he said.
Izraelevitz was asked what the ramifications would be if the amended JPA was not approved by the Council.
“To be frank we would have to go back to our legal counsel, (Nancy) Long and see whether we would just stay with the current JPA or whether it would be the pleasure of the board to try to take some other path, but I think certainly all the other members have seen the advantage of this revision. As Mayor Webber said, this is not a question of participating in the RCLC but rather is this a better JPA than the prior JPA. I certainly think that it’s a better organization for the RCLC,” he said.
Asked what the RCLC dues structure is based on, Izraelevitz said that predated his time on the board. He said the earliest information he could find was in minutes from 2013 and that the dues vary from $2,500 to $60,000 a year which is what Los Alamos contributes and that the amount is roughly proportional to the number of people employed by LANL in the member communities. He said that was a rough historical assessment that has not changed since 2013 and that the minutes from that time are not very specific as to how those numbers were reached.
Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler complained that she has been on the governing body for three years and has yet to see a report as to what the RCLC has done for the City.
“This is the first discussion in three years about this board,” she said.
Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth said the JPA amendments correct the fiscal and governance issues that have plagued the RCLC.
“We are members and have paid our dues and those dues carry us through our fiscal year and possibly to the end of the calendar year. Since we are a dues-paying member and currently a member I don’t know why we wouldn’t support the coalition getting its fiscal house in order and making the governance changes to make it more effective and correct some of the past,” she said.
Councilor Renee Villarreal who has been the most vocal in her criticism of the RCLC said the process surrounding the JPA had been exhausting particularly with not getting the information to make informed decisions in a timely manner.
“I have expressed concerns about accepting the new JPA and continuing our membership since July 2020. And then it took seven months for us to hear it again. It has never been explained why that took so long. I asked publicly that we not renew our membership dues because we wanted a chance to approve whether or not we wanted the JPA updated, and yet they paid for those membership fees without our consideration that we still wanted to weigh in. That was extremely disappointing. Yes, we’re membership dues paying members now because we didn’t follow a process to look at the JPA first,” Villarreal said.
She complained that she was still not clear on what has been accomplished by the RCLC in the last 11 years and that she had not received straight answers. She noted that she had asked for the redline version of the amended JPA but what she received was a version prepared by the City Attorney’s Office that took it upon themselves to prepare.
“It shouldn’t be up to our City staff to provide that. RCLC should have provided that for us from the outset. We didn’t get the budget and bylaws requested two weeks ago until two hours before the meeting started,” Villarreal said.
Villarreal said while it might have been worthwhile back in 2010 when the Coalition first was formed to be part of it, she didn’t feel the Council had a very clear focus or a very good track record with the RCLC.
“Even in the JPA language I think it’s misleading. There are sections that talk about the parties sharing a common interest and assuring that LANL’s mission remains sustainable and diversified yet we have an imbalance even in the membership and what actually funds this entity. The Department of Energy and Los Alamos County provide 80 percent of RCLC’s funding. To me that seems like an imbalance because both DOE and Los Alamos County explicitly have sought to expand production of plutonium pits. I guess I still don’t think that fits our common interest,” she said.
Villarreal said there’s no reciprocity and alignment in the JPA with what the RCLC is doing and what the City has stated in its resolutions. She said the statements in the JPA are actually diametrically opposed to what the City said in its resolutions about calling for comprehensive cleanup, no expansion of pit production until chronic nuclear safety problems have been resolved and a new site-wide environmental impact statement for LANL.
“These are a lot of examples where our values have not aligned so I’m just trying to understand what changing the JPA changes. How does our voice actually get heard since it hasn’t been heard the last 10 years?” she said.
While acknowledging that the adjustments to the JPA were made to try and make the role of the RCLC more explicit, Villarreal said she still doesn’t the JPA is supporting what City Councilors expressed as their unified voice.
“That unified voice isn’t consistent. It just hasn’t been since RCLC started,” she said.
Villarreal voiced concern that the JPA states the agreement shall be perpetual subject to the parties deciding that they want to withdraw or that they want to terminate the written agreement.
“That means that this agreement will never be brought back to reevaluate to see if we’re on track or following what we said we want to do and achieve some of those goals that were stated in the new JPA. That to me is problematic. Why would we want an agreement to be perpetual? The other thing it’s not clear about is – we pay our membership dues and the added language says a withdrawing member shall not be entitled to refunds of any funds contributed to the Coalition prior to withdrawal. I thought it was interesting that they added that in so that if we decide to withdraw, we don’t get our money back,” she said.
Villarreal said it’s not clear to her how the RCLC has real influence over DOE and LANL activities or even prioritizing cleanup.
“I guess I don’t think we should just approve a JPA and just update a JPA because we went to go along to get along. Some of my colleagues say we need to have a seat at the table and I agree with that, but I think it needs to be the right table,” she said, going on to quote former Mayor Coss. “Mayor Coss said that in the case of the RCLC, we’re actually sitting at the kiddie table, not the main table and that we need a stronger voice.”
She said she actually thinks the Council’s participation diminishes its political clout and that there’s other ways that it could express how it feels about cleanup and prioritizing including working with the congressional delegation in a more direct way.
“I think maintaining this membership through the updated JPA doesn’t make sense. It’s not a worthwhile endeavor at this time. That’s why I’m introducing the resolution to consider withdrawing from the RCLC as directed by the attorney’s office. I would have done that earlier if would have known that was what needed to happen and that it wasn’t specific to the JPA. I think we should consider alternative coalition models. I don’t think this model is working for us. It doesn’t align in the past 10 years.
Councilor Vigil Coppler raised an issue about different versions of the amended JAP she had received by email saying she was not really sure anymore what she was voting on. She said there had not been much discussion or helpfulness from the RCLC.
“We have as a governing body been very specific about what we want, what we expect from LANL and what value positions we have and so this is the opposite of that and it’s not being a supportive group that’s helping us get there,” Vigil Coppler said, adding that she didn’t know if the RCLC has ever seen the Council members’ resolution on what is important to them as a city.
Councilor Signe Lindell asked Councilor Garcia as the representative to the RCLC for his opinion on the direction the organization is going at this time. She noted that she had been on Council a few years longer than Vigil Coppler and had never had a report about what is going on from the RCLC. Councilor Garcia said during his 13 months on the board, the RCLC had been cleaning house and putting systems in place as a product of the investigations and audits it had. He noted that he sees the RCLC having to step up and beef up its game in regards to cleanup efforts at LANL. He apologized that there had been no reports from him noting that it was never directed to him when he stepped into the appointment or he certainly would have reported to Council.
Mayor Alan Webber in wrapping up the discussion noted that the larger question is whether or not Council believes the RCLC and the City’s participation in it is worthwhile.
“Is voting on the JPA without considering the larger question of continuing participation – does it make sense to simply try to clean up the working of the organization without prejudging whether we stay or go as we consider Councilor Villarreal’s upcoming resolution,” he asked Councilor Garcia who responded that the JPA is working as a tool to fix the system and that revisions are tools to improve it. Garcia said the larger question is the value which is a valid conversation that needs to be had.
Councilor Villarreal responded that she thinks the JPA as the tool is not sharp enough and has been in conflict for a while.
“I appreciate that there’s new leadership and optimism, however, during the time even when it wasn’t dysfunctional and when Mayor Coss was the chair and there were many trips made to DC to lobby about what we cared about for the City of Santa Fe as it related to RCLC, it fell on deaf ears to DOE. Nothing has really changed and the budgets show that we’re actually spending more money on plutonium pit production and less money on cleanup,” Villarreal said.
Villarreal, Windell, Vigil Copper, Councilor Ramon Abeyta and Councilor Chris Rivera voted against approving the amended JPA. Mayor Webber, Councilor Romero-Wirth and Councilor Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez voted in favor. Council Garcia said that as an individual who sits on the RCLC he was abstaining to “avoid a conflict of interest”.
Councilor Izraelevitz said Thursday morning that he is very passionate about the power of regional efforts to bring all of Northern New Mexico forward.
“So I was disappointed by the decision by the City of Santa Fe not to support the RCLC in its efforts for better governance and financial structure so it can better further these efforts. I have personally seen the power that a collective voice can bring to Washington DC and the Roundhouse. Nevertheless, I want to thank Councilor Garcia for his invitation to make the case last night. Mayor Sanchez of Espanola was clear and eloquent in explaining the value and impact of such a collective voice, and I don’t think we could have made a more compelling case,” Izraelevitz said.
Newly-elected RCLC Chair Taos Town Councilor Darien Fernandez told the Los Alamos Reporter Thursday morning that he also did not know what the Santa City Council’s decision meant for the JPA. He said he would be discussing the path forward with the RCLC’s executive committee and legal counsel.
The Santa Fe City Council is expected to address a resolution introduced by Councilor Villarreal to withdraw from membership of the RCLC completely.