BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The Los Alamos County Community Development Advisory Board will again be seeking new members after receiving the resignation of Aaron Walker in November and Anna Dillane’s announcement of her resignation at the December 20 meeting.
The meeting began with a statement from former Los Alamos County Councilor Antonio under public comment concerning the publication of a photo of his property being used in a survey on code enforcement issued by the County. (See separate story)
A discussion ensued about possible harassment of members of the community because of the current system that allows anonymous complaints to be made to the code enforcement about properties in the County. Community Development Department Management Analyst Adrienne Lovato explained that if code enforcement gets calls about a possible violation, code enforcement officers respond. She said they take photos and if there is no code violation, they don’t take it any further.
“If we go out and don’t make a finding, they might have a conversation with the person who keeps calling. If they are valid complaints, and there are violations, then we are going to take action on them,” she said.
Asked what is the rationale behind allowing people to me anonymous and make anonymous complaints, Lovato responded that when the board started up it was one of the questions asked to Council – if anonymous complaints were to be allowed and staff was instructed to allow them.
Adrienne, when this started, it was one of the questions asked to Council, if we would allow anonymous complaints and we were instructed to allow anonymous complaints.
“That’s the directive we have received and that’s the process we go with,” she said.
Lovato said she thinks the anonymous complaints are a way to give the community a way to express their concerns to code enforcement and report issues that may be unsafe. She gave an example of a vehicle that was up on many blocks that was completely unsafe.
“Luckily we had the anonymous complaint because we were able to go and get that vehicle down before it injured somebody. I think that if we didn’t have that it might not have been reported and somebody could have very well have been seriously injured. If we don’t allow that, people might not report things like that to us,” she said.
Assistant County Attorney Katie Thwaits said the ability to report anonymously is just a policy call that was made and that it has been the continuous policy.
“As far as the charter of this board, if that would be a recommendation to Council, well then that is well within CDAB’s purview to make a recommendation to change that policy,” she said.
Lovato noted that the homeowner can have access to the complaint letter.
“Anything that comes through this office or the County for the most part is public record. Therefore any time a homeowner can ask to have emails and anything else that comes through this office, as a public information request to pass that information over.
Dillane asked Thwaits what the mechanism is for people who want to pursue a full on complaint about harassment. Thwaits responded that she didn’t know specifically how that would play out. She suggested going to the department head first, then the County manager and if not happy with the action after that, she suggested consulting with an attorney.
Walker noted that with consultants Dekker/Perich/Sabatini (DPS) on board for the re-writing of Chapter 18 of the County Code, one of the things the board could to address the stress of some of the people who might be feeling harassed is recommending to Council that they put a pause on the complaint system until the re-write is done or until some more work is done by DPS to find a better avenue for ir
“I do want to stop the anonymity but I don’t want to cancel the complaint system entirely because I think it has its use and its function but I think we need to have a mechanism in place to try and minimize the potential for harassment,” Walker said.
Board member David Hansen said certainly neighbors can contact neighbors if they’re nice neighbors.
“But certainly we don’t want to instigate confrontations. Those can be really terrible and there may be some legal aspects to the County if that were written into a code that people were supposed to do that,” he said.
Walker addressed the need for the board to start addressing some very serious topics and obtaining data it doesn’t currently have so that it can decide which is the best path forward.
Chair John Gustafson said with the code re-write going forward, CDAB needs to start getting its act together and deciding exactly where it stands on a lot of the issues.
“We shouldn’t just respond to the Chapter 18 text as rewritten; we should be figuring out now, where do we stand on weeds and all these hot button topics we know are going to come up through the re-write so that we have a firm position to present to Council when the re-write is completed and we know what the heck we’re all about as a body. I think this important – I think figuring out where we stand on the complaint system is an important part of that,” Gustafson said. He added that Walker is the only remaining original member of CDAB and really knows the history, and that the reason he was agreeable to taking on the chair role was because he knew he would have Walker backstopping him.
Walker said his decision to resign from the board was not made lightly.
“I don’t want to leave this board. I want to continue serving in any capacity I can on this board, however, certain issues got to the point where I felt like we aren’t respected. I feel like the boards and commissions aren’t respected. I say this because I gave a chair presentation in early 2020 and during that presentation another board member was brought on to give their specific opinion. That had never happened before that I could recall and I thought it was way out of line,” he said.
Walker said later in 2020, before Dillane was on the board, CDAB was trying to get her appointed but the nomination was blocked by Council because there were not enough applicants.
“Then two weeks later, another board got all of their applicants nominated and approved without enough applicants to fill the open positions. (The Environmental Sustainability Board told not too long ago by a specific councilor that what they are doing is useless. The Arts in Public Places Board – recently there was a vote by councilors having questions about their processes that could have easily been brought up during the process that they were going through. To me this is a direct failure of leadership from the Council in order to fully appreciate the work these boards and commissions do.”
Walker said with the amount of time and effort board members as volunteers put into CDAB, it’s hard for him to continue to do work when Council is going to potentially ignore everything the board does.
“Council not giving APP the dignity of an up or down vote on the recommendation they brought was an insult. It was Council telling them that they don’t do enough. And that was the last straw for me. I won’t be considered useless anymore. I worked my butt off on this board since its conception. When I was chair I was putting in probably 7-10 hours a week for this board trying to figure things out and making sure that we had a solid plan moving forward. The work that you all do is important and it is valid. What I urge moving forward, is for you not to be afraid to bring recommendations to Council but back it up forcefully and meaningfully,” he said. “Continue to put the effort in. I won’t continue to be bullied or pushed around, that’s not the person I am. I’m going to miss this board. I’m sorry I’m leaving you early, John, it’s not what I wanted to do but Council needs to get its act together and realize that the work volunteers put in is meaningful and it’s useful and it helps them significantly and until they realize that, I can’t continue serving on the board.”
Dillane noted that she had witnessed the disrespect of Council when Walker was CDAB chair to the point where she actually filed a complaint for improper behavior by a councilor. She said this disrespect can be seen in videos in the public record.
“It is extremely frustrating as a board member who is putting in the time and energy trying to make this community be a better place to see that disrespect towards us as board members. I encourage us all to be aware as we move forward of every way that we might be disrespected by Council,” she said. campaign.
Going back to the survey itself, board members expressed concern that the photos of properties that were used were not completely obfuscated and that properties were recognizable. Some expressed concern that improper posting of photos undermines trust in the way the survey was conducted.
Dillane said she had asked DPS to phrase their questions neutrally so that the participants in the survey could express either side of the issue.
“Not yes I find it a nuisance – how egregious is it. The question is – is it a nuisance at all – do you think the government has any business regulating this? There were a couple of questions in the survey that I couldn’t even answer because they were so biased. I feel that this entire survey is invalid because of the biased nature of the questions, the fact that properties are identifiable, I have absolutely no confidence in this consultant, unless what’s happening is they’re being directed by County or the Council, I’m not sure, but at this point they’re not getting back our true represented feelings. They’re asking leading questions, they’re providing us with the answer they want and they are not giving us an opportunity to say, ‘No, we do not want this at all’. I’m extremely frustrated by it,” Dillane said.
Board member Anna Marie Solomon said she took the survey and did not look at it the way Dillane had.
“Now that she has expressed he thoughts and stuff, I kind of have to agree with some of the things she was saying. And my other thought is why did they have to use pictures of the city or the County. I’m quite sure they probably had a number of pictures like that in their portfolio or whatever that they could have used that would not make people say, ‘Oh, I know whose house that is, I know who lives there’. That way it’s anonymous. That’s what this whole survey was supposed to be about; anonymous. They’re asking us, no names, no nothing, but Aaron said I recognize some of these houses. I don’t know why they just didn’t bring generic ones in which would have been a lot easier, a lot nicer to all of us,” Solomon said.
Dillane made a motion have the consultant redirected to start the survey over with truly unbiased questions and unidentifiable properties and Solomon seconded.
Lovato said she wanted to remind the board that DPS did have meetings with representatives of the board regarding the survey “and everything”.
“So it was brought to the board regarding the sample questions and photos before the survey went out,” she said.
Walker pointed out the photos seen by the board were not obfuscated in the DPS presentation given to the board members.
Gustafson said the presentation was not the final survey but more the areas the survey was going to cover.
“You are correct. We did have an opportunity to consider the conduct of the survey even if we didn’t have the specific final questions. Those were generated in consultation with Polco which happened after the DPS presentation to CDAB, I believe,” he said. “They gave us some of the questions. I don’t believe they gave us all of the questions and they said that the wording would be changed slightly. I believe at one of the meetings I gave feedback on making the comments more neutral and I do recall at a previous meeting that board members had stated that the questions needed to be made neutral so that feedback was missed somehow.”
Board member Bob Day said he liked that the survey photos were from “our town” so that people from here could evaluate the way their town looks.
“I did not think personally that the questions were leading, I may have got that a little bit at one point or other but when I took it I thought this was an opportunity to see the way I lean personally in as far as am I one that is more restrictive or one that is more liberal in the way that I look at this kind of thing,” Day 3said.
Board member David Hansen felt Dillane’s motion was really premature and was concerned about the cost in County time available to do another survey. Dillane said the reason for her motion was that there is a process.
“It’s like a train that has left the station. They’ve sent the survey out to the 5,000 people. The 5,000 people have received this and been influenced by it one way or another. The questions I deem leading, perhaps other people don’t maybe because you essentially agree that code enforcement is a good thing, so there is a bias involved if you don’t see a bias because you agree with it,” she said. “I think it would be useful to talk about the survey and to look at it. I don’t have samples of the survey. My concern is if we wait to talk about it and to do the research and figure out what would happen and how much it would cost if we decide to ask the Council to do this, is that the process would continue without our concerns being heard. We’ll be talking about this and it won’t matter anymore because the survey will have gone out to the rest of the town,”
Dillane expressed a concern that the perception going out to the entire County is that code enforcement is a done deal.
“This re-write really doesn’t matter because they’re just going to tweak the existing laws and that’s my problem because there’s a real question among the people of this town about what we want code enforcement to look like. Personally, I don’t feel like the County government has any right to tell me that I can’t have a few things stored in my front yard. According to this survey, that’s not even on the table. It’s a done deal. I will be told I can’t have things in my front yard. It’s a question of how egregious it is. That’s my concern,” she said. “I want us to put a survey out that asks this community, do you agree that code enforcement is a good thing. If this community comes back and says, ‘Yes we do. We want Anna to be told she can’t have that on her front lawn’.
Dillane noted that her house is lovely, that she does not have any notices of violation. She said she does not want the survey to be the mechanism by which that is formulated because we aren’t actually asking the community if we’re asking biased questions.
Dillane went on to say that when she has tried to deal with Council, she wonders why bother.
“They have an agenda; They’re doing it their way anyway. I am not alone in this thought. I am actually representing a huge chunk of the population in saying this out loud. Transparency is a massive problem in this town. This survey is a huge example of the lack of transparency in this town. If you’re going to put out a survey and say it’s neutral, and then you give us leading questions and identify properties it’s a big problem. So why bother? Why are we paying this DPS $50,000, $100,000 to come up with information that’s biased?” she said.
Board members asked if the re-write would come back for public hearing and if the CDAB would have the opportunity to look at it and make recommendations or seek changes. Chair Gustafson said there would be a draft that will be promulgated publicly and CDAB will have a chance to look at it. Lovato noted that there will be public hearings and the re-write will probably come back to CDAB as a draft review.
Board member Allen McPherson said he doesn’t disagree with the comments about the lack of transparency in the County.
“I’ve felt pretty much the same thing for the last 30 years, but having said that, the notion of putting out a survey and then torpedoing it ourselves with people in our board thinking that the questions are slanted would seem to give ammunition to somebody saying, ‘There they go again. They ask for public comment and then they torpedo it’. I’m a systematic guy so if some people think the questions were leading, we should analyze the survey with accepted methods and determine if that’s true or not. I don’t think we sitting here in this board can make that determination. We probably won’t agree would be my guess. So once again, I would need a lot of additional time to think about this. Seems like a lot of additional burden on the County and us – the horse has already left the barn kind of thing ,” he said.
Gustafson said CDAB had its opportunity to do due diligence and it’s unfortunate that the DPS presentation was made at the meeting where only Gustafson, Day and Walker were present so they didn’t have a whole lot of input from CDAB members but that they did have an opportunity to ask questions about how the questions were going to be phrased to avoid bias, how properties were going to be masked to avoid identification.
“And if we missed the ball on that, bad on us.
Walker noted that the pictures the three board members saw were not the final product in the survey. He felt that it was fair to ask DPS to re-do the survey. Bob Day said what would be nice would be if DPS gave CDAB the survey beforehand so that the members could look over the questions so that “something like this doesn’t happen again”.
In response to questions from Board member Anna Marie Solomon about how DPS came up with the questions for the survey, Gustafson said there was no interaction between the Council and DPS in formulating the survey that he is aware of – that it was done in consultation with CDAB and CDD and Polco who are the professional surveyors.
“They put together a framework for a survey and they presented that to CDAB. They shared with us a sort of generic survey of the areas they were going to cover in the survey and how they were going to go about it,” Gustafson said.
Asked who told DPS what areas CDAB wanted to survey, Gustafson responded that DPS is a consultant hired because of their professional experience and capabilities.
“We certainly didn’t direct them. I don’t know what CDD had with the consultant in terms of putting them on a path towards the survey they came up with,” he said.
Walker commented that Polco put an ex-elected official’s property in the survey.
“That’s opening this up to all kinds of scrutiny and all kinds of biases from the get-go. I think that’s a very dangerous prospect. Whether they did it intentionally or not , that’s up for debate. I’m not saying they did it intentionally. They didn’t obscure and obfuscate the properties well enough that an ex-elected official of this County identified his property in this survey. Problematic, very problematic, at the very least we need to revisit this survey,” Walker said.
Dillane noted that if CDAB made the recommendation she proposed to Council, it would be going on the record as saying that the board has a problem with the way the survey is being done and that there is a problem. She said standing behind the survey feels really, really wrong.
Lovato said she wanted to address the way the survey was compiled.
“DPS requested that we give them a sampling of our photos that were taken so we supplied DPS with a sampling of code case photos. They in no way had access to whom the photos belonged, who the homeowners were, what the addresses were or anything like that,” she said. “… We supplied them with many photos. Photos were just randomly selected. DPS in no way had access to the owners of those properties or addresses.”
Bob Day asked if there is anybody from the County that would have made sure Maggiore’s property was put in the survey for malicious reasons which he said is a question that has been alluded to.
David Hansen said what CDAB was being asked to vote on was to send a statement of no confidence in the survey to the County Council.
“This body has had oversight over the contract that was given to make that survey. So it seems like this is destined to make this board look sort of ridiculous – that we just screwed up and we noticed that we messed up and now we want to start over again. I just don’t see how the County Council is going to take a very generous view of that at this point,” Hansen said.
Walker said CDAB hasn’t had total oversight over the survey.
“We haven’t had total oversight over this. We have input but we haven’t had total oversight over this process. That is not us saying that we have no faith in what we’re doing. That’s that we gave input and this product was flawed,” he said.
Board members Gustafson, Day, McPherson and Hansen voted against the motion while board members Walker, Dillane and Solomon voted in favor.
As the discussion would down, Gustafson noted the need to identify the areas CDAB wants to consider as a board.
“As a body we have some homework to do and it’s probably time to be doing it,” he said.
At that point, Dillane announced that this was also going to be her last board meeting.
“I am so frustrated. I want to read again the thing we couldn’t pass as a board. We couldn’t direct Council to have the consultant start the survey over with truly unbiased questions and unidentifiable homes. To me, that should have been the starting point for any survey going forward and the fact that we couldn’t agree that that was an absolute essential – that we would not stand behind a survey that was biased, it had identifiable houses – I can’t do it. You guys are great people and I’ve enjoyed my time a little bit, but I’m done. So best of luck, and I’ll see you all later,” she said and with that she logged off the virtual meeting.