BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Council has approved the funding for an intergovernmental affairs specialist for the County Manager’s Office and an additional attorney for the County Manager’s Office.
County Manager Harry Burgess, who is retiring at the end of May, said during last week’s budget hearings that the County has all sorts of interactions with both governmental committees and other entities throughout the state.
“Our participation in some of these various committees has not gotten the attention it necessarily deserves and I can tell you it often falls to the person in my position to fill in those gaps and that’s either personally or finding someone else in the office who can attend such a meeting,” he said.
Burgess said he believes the focus of all these inter-government conversations will increase the County’s ability to work with its neighbors and its efficiency as an organization.
“I originally anticipated because of some past issues that there would be a need for what I termed to be an environmental specialist – somebody who could be over our various New Mexico Environment Department violations or requirements or other related things. I was thinking also about our EPA lawsuit and they all kind of fell under the guise of an environmental specialist. But as I though more about it, there are a number of other issues where the same entities would be involved, and it’s kind of a broad issue where they relate to other governmental agencies rather than just specifically environmental issues,” he said.
He noted that there is a parallel with some of the County’s sister communities that are also Energy Communities Alliance members where they have a person in this position and that upon looking at that, it appeared to be something that Los Alamos County would benefit from.
“Clearly, this is not something to reduce the load on my plate, because I will not be the one that executes this, but I do believe it’s important for the ongoing operations of the County to have somebody who focuses specifically on these issues so that the County Manager and other staff can focus specifically on their already designated duties,” Burgess said.
County Attorney Alvin Leaphart asked Council to approve a budget option of $150,000 for outside professional legal services for the pending lawsuit filed by the EPA against the County. He said traditionally his office has managed with about $70,000 for outside counsel when there is no significant litigation going on.
“As you know, we’re currently in litigation with the EPA and that is expected to continue and that is one of the budget options we are requesting – $150,000 to be set aside for use in that litigation effort if needed,” he said. For FY2021, we had a budget of $168,000 as opposed to the $70,000 and that budget was for an additional basically $100,000 for the EPA litigation.”
Leaphart said the office is also seeking to add a new entry level attorney position. The office currently has four levels of attorneys. The associate attorney position requires 0-5 years of legal experience.
“The basis of the request is basically workload…. Over the past couple of years we’ve been in discussions with the County Manager, the Chief Financial Officer and our Procurement Officer to try to figure out this sort of lockdown in our procurement process. We have noodled this logjam a lot and it seems to boil down to needing an attorney more involved in the procurement process from the get-go,” he said.
Leaphart said the way the office has traditionally worked is the attorneys essentially divide the departments and they all work on contracts from different departments. What they noticed was they are really working more with procurement, requests for proposals and quotes process that leads to an award that leads to a contract being drafted and presented to Council.
“Overtime, it became clear to us that we need an attorney that primarily focuses or it’s significant internal client is procurement,” he said.
As things now stand, Asst. Attorney Kevin Powers primarily handles the Department of Public Utilities, Asst. Attorney Katie Thwaits’ largest client is probably Human Resources and Community Services, and Leaphart deals with the Council and the County Manager’s Office.
“We all do a lot of et cetera and there are other departments we work with too. We call carry one of the bigger areas of the County where there are more legal issues. It’s become apparent that we need someone working for procurement to help undo that logjam,” Leaphart said.
He noted that the other issue that’s always a chronic problem is the Inspection of Public Records Act.
“In order to fulfill our duties under that statute, there’s a lot of work that our office has to do to help (Information Management) in reviewing those documents. A lot of IPRA requests are quite straightforward and quite simple but more often than not, there is one pending now where we have in excess of 5,000 responsive documents. Through IM and our office we have to go through those documents and review them to make sure things possibly health information, confidential information, all kinds of information that’s otherwise protected from release by statutes or appropriately redacted. That is an extremely time-consuming process, so those two areas are generating the need for a new attorney,” Leaphart said.
Council approved $149,112 for the new position.