BY BRANDI ENGEMAN
It is no secret that I have been, in the past year, critical of many decisions our local County Council has made. Most of these have been policy or procedural decisions, hiring of county staff, the treatment of small businesses in our community and the treatment of volunteers who put in time and effort on county boards and commissions.
I have never been so saddened, angry, and, in fact, scared, by the decisions they have made as a body until last night’s appointment of Keith Lepsch to the seat vacated by Sean Williams.
Many of those who’ve engaged in public conversations surrounding council, their lack of transparency, their anti-business tactics and the repeated need for some councilors to ignore public input, have asked me to take a good faith stance when viewing these decisions. I can no longer do that. The process by which a vacated seat is filled is already incredibly anti-democratic: voters do not get to pick the person that will represent them and must rely on the goodwill of those they have already elected (or that others elected) to choose someone with the same or similar values as the person who left the seat. Our only recourse is our voice and we utilize that by writing to the council and writing letters to our local papers and encouraging others to do the same.
I had a bet with a friend over the vacancy left by James Robinson. I said “I bet you a dollar they will select Melanee Hand.” We had a lengthy discussion about how there were other applicants with more experience, better resumes, no resumes by service on council, and several younger, non-retired progressives with their names in the hat. I told them I didn’t think it mattered and that Ms. Hand would be picked. I got my dollar.
Last night only three applicants were interviewed for a seat that will be filled for nearly 2.5 years. That’s a long time for someone to steer the direction of our community. Whoever they selected needed to have the experience to do the job and the support of the community. Trust in county government is at a very low point and whoever they selected needed to be someone that could help rebuild that trust.
During the proceedings, there were good statements by all candidates. However, many of us agreed last time, and again last night, that Aaron Walker was the most logical choice. He’s done the work, there are plenty of letters supporting him (you can find those in LTEs here and other local papers). While the other applicants had good things to say, none seemed as ready to breach the divide or step in prepared for the role as Mr. Walker. I know this is just my opinion and perspective, but I do believe it was shared by many watching.
Instead of choosing Mr. Walker, or even Mr. Hall, with his years of experience in our community, they chose Mr. Keith Lepsch. Now, I do not know Mr. Lepsch and I will give him a chance to show us that he’s up to the task, but he was publicly endorsed by someone known to favor the local landlords over small businesses and who has had a very interesting take on what “affordable” housing looks like and seems to think that recreation is the key to a better quality of life in Los Alamos when we already have so much recreation available. He did not impress me with his reasons for wanting to be on council, and seemed to rely heavily on his hospital experiences as to why he’d make a good government official. I hope that if he reads this, he knows I’m looking forward to a new perspective, but I will be watching how he makes his decisions.
During the selection process, Chair Randy Ryti revealed that emails had come in from the public and the counts of those emails in support of each applicant. Mr. Walker received almost four times as many in support of him than Mr. Lepsch. Mr. Hall had one. Mr. Ryti was also the only councilor to select Mr. Walker during the process, proving again that he is listening to the people who elected him.
Maybe this does not seem like an issue to many of you, but for those watching carefully, consider what Ms. Denise Derkacs said after selecting Melanee Hand and thanking the applicants for their time during the last vacancy filling process. You can find this at around 3:16:05 in the meeting video from January 25th, 2022. After stating that they did hear from a number of people in person and through email she then says, “We’re not ignoring public comment…the overwhelming number of letters we received were in support of the winning applicant.”
If they were not ignoring public comment last night, and this was a metric used to select the previous candidate, Aaron Walker would be our new County Councilor today.
It is time to hold this council accountable for their contempt for their constituents. It has become apparent this is not a County Council led in any democratic way, but rather, a council led by a small special interest group who will only act for their own benefit. I consider last night’s appointment to be a proverbial slap in the face to those who have consistently engaged in the ways that they have asked us to, only to be repeatedly ignored, disrespected, and told that WE are the problem, sometimes utilizing outside organizations to attack our speech and manners.
I encourage everyone who wrote in for Aaron Walker, to write to them today. And, if you want to join me in holding each of them accountable from now until they are all out of office, I’ll see you at upcoming meetings.