BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Taos County Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday morning to withdraw from the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities. Commissioner Candyce O’Donnell, Darlene Vigil, AnJenette Brush and Jim Fanbro voted in favor of withdrawal, and Commissioner Mark Gallegos voted against.
Taos Town Councilor and recently elected Chair of the RCLC addressed the Commission prior to its vote
“I just want to put out there that over the past couple of years, we’ve worked really hard to put in place some stronger accounting practices and be very inclusive of the different viewpoints that constituents in all of our member communities have. I fully recognize that a lot of the (Los Alamos National) Lab’s work is opposed by many people, and I personally oppose the pit production as well, but the RCLC works on a consensus basis to advocate for the interests of the communities and there are some issues that we agree on such as diversification of the Lab’s mission and there are other missions that member communities won’t ever completely agree on,” Fernandez said.
He said many constituents in Los Alamos who are pushing for more of the pit production work, for example, at the Lab, and of course in our communities and in Santa Fe we in our commissions and councils have passed resolutions opposing pit production,” he said. “I’ve met with many of the constituents time and time again and I understand their concerns and I’m trying to make sure their concerns are heard more consistently and in various places on the agenda at RCLC. We’ve invited them to our retreats and really tried to reach out and let people know that their voice is heard as we continue to advocate for the Lab’s mission.”
Fernandez said the Laboratory is not going away anytime soon.
“What we’re hearing from the Lab director is there is going to be expansion of a lot of different activities at the Lab and we’re seeing that with the federal budget, we’re seeing that from the federal delegation and the question remains, the Lab is going to be here, what type of a seat do we want to continue to have at the table. And if there’s a better way that we can all advocate for the interests of all of New Mexico with respect to the activities at the Lab, then I’m all for it,” he said.
Fernandez said if the Commission’s decision is to withdraw from the RCLC, “then that’s understandable”.
“I think every community that’s involved in it really should be looking at what future involvement means and hopefully making a commitment to remain involved for another year as we work on getting our grant funding back and work to make the organization relevant and a stronger voice for citizens of Northern New Mexico. If the Commission does decide to withdraw at this time, I understand that’s a possibility and we would hope that the County would still stay involved if the County decides to withdraw and join at another time, that is acceptable too,” Fernandez said.
Commissioner Fanbro moved to “approve and send notice to withdraw membership from the RCLC joint powers agreement with the addition of if things change and there’s a true benefit to Taos County down the line, that we could revisit the issue”. He said he didn’t want a timeline.
“Let’s just monitor it. I believe in Darien (Fernandez). He is someone I trust. Maybe it will be a few months. Maybe it will be a few years. I’m not sure,” Fanbro said.
Vice Chair Darlene Vigil agreed that the Commission should continue to monitor the RCLC.
“I have faith in our chairman Fernandez but let’s just monitor it,” she said.
Surprisingly, Commissioner Mark Gallegos did not agree. Gallegos was the County’s representative to the RCLC but on April 27, 2018, he abruptly stopped attending RCLC meetings. In fact Taos County was only represented at two or three meetings by alternate representative Commissioner Tom Blankenhorn from when Gallegos stopped attending until Commissioner Darlene Vigil took over in January 2021.
“Respectfully, Mr. Fernandez, it seems to me that we’re expecting you to carry the burden of the whole County on your shoulders to readdress or align what the mission of the RCLC is going to be. I was a member for the County for a couple of years and at that time the mission was to continue to support cleanup around the communities that were affected, whether it was the pueblo communities or if was going to affect the lower portion off the hill. I think maybe there weren’t as many programs that benefitted Taos County as a whole or the Town of Taos as a whole, or any of the other surrounding smaller communities,” Gallegos said. “But I think for there to be change there has to be engagement, and for we as a County to be disengaged, there’s no reason to come back in when it’s all fixed and ready to run and all cylinders are working”.
He said if the County’s representative was to continue to be on that board, “you make those changes within, not wait for somebody to make the changes and then jump on the bus and get on the ride. It does kind of bother me that we’re making a motion to step away from this, respectfully, to all the commissioners, I understand where you’re coming from but sitting on the board for those couple of years.”
Commissioner Brush said she knows some interests don’t always align among the communities.
“But I know here in our community and to the south of us as well, there are some serious concerns and issues that we would like to see influence over whether that’s influence over the Department of Energy or LANL itself such as the serious water issues, cleanup issues, the idea of having the (Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement) done before expansion happens, she said. “Have we over the years gotten any reports about any progress, any results or benefits in those major areas that the constituents were really concerned about?”
Fernandez responded that the Lab cleanup contractor (N3B) has reported to the Coalition about cleanup activities and “the status of particular areas and in particular with respect to the water monitoring wells that are looking at the hexavalent chromium plume affecting the water going towards San Ildefonso Pueblo”.
Fernandez mentioned a report conducted by the UNM Bureau of Business and Economic Research, commonly referred to among RCLC board members as the BBER Report. He said the report showed “the discrepancy in terms of tax collections versus what communities have to put out to support Lab employees and the disparity that shows that Los Alamos is the only county benefiting economically and Taos and Rio Arriba are not”.
Fernandez said that study was actually paid for by the RCLC.
“That study was actually paid for by the Coalition. It was contracted by the Coalition so that we could get a better understanding of what the discrepancies and issues are, so we can work to address them. We can’t fix a problem unless we first know what it is and if the Coalition has done one solid thing in the last couple of years, it’s been the commissioning of that report which has shown us where specifically where member communities need to be more engaged in terms of a more fair tax policy surrounding the Lab,” he said. (It was later pointed out that Los Alamos National Laboratory commissioned the report which analyzes economic and fiscal impacts of LANL on the region.
“It definitely takes more than one person to advocate for the community and to push for more of these ancillary opportunities at the Lab to be brought here. One thing the Coalition has done to help that along is in unity these communities reaching out to Lab directors, outreach partners, and insisting that more of these contracts are looked at in our communities and also presentations on major contractors here so that they can better understand the procurement process,” Fernandez said.
Commissioner Brush asked Fernandez if the RCLC has taken specific positions or actions based on the updates or public input received at meetings.
“The RCLC hasn’t always been a very active body to be frank – one of the shortcomings of it over the last couple of years. The drafting of the new JPA was a means to start addressing that and to shift more of the fiscal management away from just Los Alamos County, which obviously benefits, and more on some of the member counties so they can have a stronger role in the organization,” Fernandez said. “In addition to that, we’ve heard from Lab representatives who want to answer a lot of the questions that are being posed by members of the public but unfortunately these Lab representatives have to go through a process and clear everything that is going to be discussed with their superiors higher up in the Lab’s hierarchy and in Washington. What we’ve committed to do as an organization is to work with constituents, get their concerns to the appropriate members of the Lab so that they have the time to get the questions answered and cleared to present them to the Coalition so that more of our constituent concerns can be answered.”
Asked by Commissioner Brush if he had any insight into why the City of Santa Fe and Jemez Pueblo have not signed the amended JPA, Fernandez responded, “Politics?”
When it was pointed out that the BBER study was actually funded by LANL, Fernandez said he stood corrected.
“It was largely funded largely by LANL and where the RCLC did come in, was at one point, representatives of LANL did try to have the study amended to remove the mention of the discrepancies that LANL (sic) benefits from at the expense of the other communities and that information is still out there. Because of the RCLC’s advocacy, we do know that there is a discrepancy and that member communities do need to be looking at a more fair tax policy around the Lab,” he said.