BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Council Chair Denise Derkacs was the guest speaker at this month’s League of Women Voters Lunch with a Leader. Councilor Derkacs had been asked to speak on three issues but the one that drew the most commentary was transparency.
Started by mentioning the Council’s strategic planning exercise.
“This year Council took a new direction in establishing five overarching goals with supporting strategic priorities. The five overarching goals we agreed to are quality governance, operational excellence, economic vitality, quality of life and environmental stewardship. Under each of these goals we identified multiple new priorities that built on our past priorities. Our final planning document should go back to Council for approval at our Feb. 7 meeting,” she said. “With this framework, County staff will now be able to proceed with building a public dashboard to track performance on the County’s new website, which is currently under development.”
Delving into the transparency issue, Derkacs noted that Council follows the requirements of the New Mexico Open Meetings Act in its decision-making.
“All Council decisions are made by public vote and must pass with a majority of four affirmative votes. Each councilor cannot discuss upcoming votes with more than the sub-quorum of two other councilors. We typically do not know how any vote, controversial or otherwise, will play out at any upcoming meeting. Interestingly, these restrictions do not apply to our state legislators,” she said. “It would be nice if we could discuss things behind the scene in my perspective but that is not in compliance with the Open Meetings Act so that is how we function. Council does meet occasionally in closed session to discuss legal or personnel matters but all votes are always taken in an open session.”
Derkacs described how Council adapts a resolution each January establishing standards of notice for Council, boards and commissions and other bodies created by Council. She noted that Council agendas are issued 72 hours before meetings and are published on the County’s website.
Each January at our first meeting of the year Council adapts a resolution establishing the minimum standards of minimum notice to the public for all meetings of the Council as well as meetings of County boards, commissions and other bodies created by the Council.
“Once the agenda is posted we councilors begin doing our homework to prepare for the upcoming meetings. This January, the tickler which includes a detailed list of agenda items for upcoming meetings is now being included in Council agenda packets. From a councilor’s perspective we are being transparent and are in compliance with the Open Meetings Act but I’m certainly interested in hearing from all of you regarding what more the public would like us to do with respect to transparency,” Derkacs said.
She said the next thing she was asked to address was public comment and feedback.
“Council accepts comments from the public at the beginning and end of each meeting and also before every vote during the meeting in accordance with Council Procedural Rules. These rules are reviewed by our Rules Committee, which consists of three councilors and they are approved by the full Council,” she said. “Council also receives emails from constituents and protocol calls for the chair to respond on behalf of Council, although individual councilors may also respond on their own. Emails are typically more numerous when a controversial topic is coming up for a vote. Every councilor certainly considers these general comment, comments they receive individually from constituents, any additional public comments at the meetings as well as the background materials, the presentations, the discussions at the public meeting in determining how to vote on each issue”.
Derkacs mentioned that occasionally Council is presented with a citizens’ petition on a particular topic and in accordance with its Procedural Rules, Council has four options for responding to a petition.
“We can acknowledge receipt of the petition and take no further action or we can acknowledge receipt of the petition and take the requested action or a different action addressing the subject. Or we can refer the matter to an appropriate board or commission or Council subcommittee or we can decide to investigate the subject and set a future date for presentation of additional information, discussion and possible action,” she said.
Regarding social media, she noted that posting on social media platforms is not the most effective way to voice opinions to Council as not all councilors use social media.
“Additionally the County’s 2020 Community Survey indicated that only about 69 percent of the County’s population visits social media sites and only about 27 percent actually share their opinions on social media. People should obviously bear this in mind that there’s a limited audience on social media. The 2022 survey is not yet available,” she said, adding that she is interested in hearing from those at the meeting regarding the handling of public comment.
“The final topic I was asked to address was the environmental review of proposed projects. The County’s approach has been to introduce proposed projects beginning with the public information meetings to determine if there is sufficient interest in a particular project before investing significant amounts of County funds. Once public interest is determined, then the County will bring in external consultants with relevant expertise,” Derkacs said. “With respect to our trails, the County is maintaining an inventory based on types and usage with the intent to improve and better maintain our trails for public use. I would note that plans for the Pueblo Canyon mountain biking trail are on hold.”
With respect to the golf course, she said Council has approved maintenance for all 18 holes to include increasing the fence at the driving range but not to include the expansion of the course at this time.
“The County has also formulated a tree mitigation plan and set aside funds to replace our dying tree canopy and younger trees at the golf course and also Ashley Pond. The County’s new Sustainability Coordinator is expected to engage in county-wide projects to help minimize environmental impacts,” Derkacs said. “In other environmental matters the County is conducting a comprehensive baseline greenhouse gas emissions study from which it will set rejection targets against which it can measure progress.”
Once the question and answer portion of the event commenced, LWV Co-Chair Becky Shankland made the first comments.
“We hire consultants quite frequently it seems to me who are a bit tone deaf to the community – maybe ‘a bit’ is too mild – sometimes very tone deaf. In particular I found that true with the golf course consultants who just seemed to not listen to what people were saying. I think sometimes our County staff could do a better job at least ahead of time gauging public opinion,” she said. “Pueblo Canyon was the other place where the consultants came up with plans before they had consulted the public, so I wish there was better coordination between the staff and the consultants and the public. You know better, Denise, than I about how that could be achieved but I think it would surely help, first of all with how the public feels about County staff and in accomplishing the goals that really seem to be important.”
Derkacs responded that indeed counties can do a better job of coordinating between staff and consultants and trying to anticipate public reaction.
“All that’s honestly not always possible, that’s why they begin with a public meeting to solicit input, but I will certainly pass on these suggestions to staff for future and ongoing projects,” she said.
Kevin Holsapple mentioned a recent letter to Council from community member Richard Skolnik asking County leadership to work on a variety of governance issues to make improvements.He asked Derkacs what is her response to that letter and what she sees as any actions the Council will take to better understand and address the issues it raises and how can citizens do that.
“It was the letter having to do with governance issues that was sent to all the councilors. It addressed a number of governance issues. I never saw any particular response to it. I’m curious what the Council made of it and if they don’t understand it, if they’re going to try to better understand what Skolnik is getting at and try to work on those things,” Holsapple said.
Derkacs responded that both the Council and County government can always do better.
“The suggestions are specifically to listen better to the community, be more transparent in decision-making, establish standard procedures for major projects, ensure that there is an analysis of major projects, and hold the County Manager accountable for consistently engaging in technical work and with the community and so on,” Derkacs said. “Yes I think these are excellent recommendations. I don’t have a specific response to what the County can do in these areas. I did touch on the things that we are currently doing and I did specifically invite suggestions about how you think we can improve in these areas.”
For follow up on the concerns Derkacs said they could be sent to her or to all of Council.
“I’m only one of seven votes so the chair has no more authority than any of the other six councilors,” she said.
Jean Dewart said she thinks the County has done a good job in meeting the legal requirements of public notice such as the 72-hour requirement of the OMA to post agendas and things like that.
“However I think citizens – and this dovetails with what Becky Shankland had to say – I think our citizens’ primary interaction with the County is with the County staff and I think the County staff would benefit by some training in public involvement with some leadership from the Council,” she said.
She gave a specific example from when the County began the process to update the Chapter 16 Development Code.
“A steering committee was created to support the consultant to help them with some ground truth kinds of information about the County. There was no public outreach to say the steering committee was going to be established and some people felt like the County staff were just picking their friends in the development community. That’s an example of where some public outreach was really needed so that citizens could participate and learn about it,” Dewart said.
She noted that at the time she was on the Planning & Zoning Commission and that there was one mention in one meeting about the steering committee.
“Unfortunately I was not at that meeting and the County staff did not inform the P&Z Commission of this steering committee. It was going for about six months before I became aware of it. As a P&Z Commission member, I would have really benefited from all those meetings and discussions. I think you can look at the Planning staff, you can look at Parks & Rec, you can look at Community Services and the kinds of things Becky Shankland also mentioned, where there is a disconnect. I think it’s because we have too narrow a view of public involvement. It’s more than the 72-hour notice of an agenda. I would recommend some training in public involvement for our leading County staff,” Dewart said.
Derkacs said she appreciates the recommendation.
“I guess I would have to admit it is not the first time Council has heard this. As far as the Development Code steering committee, I don’t recall off-hand how many people were on there but there was a diverse group of people with differing viewpoints. I appreciate your comments that this committee was not broadly advertised before it was engaged. I will pass that on and we will make sure that doesn’t happen again in the future,” she said.
Reid Priedhorsky asked what principles should govern the use of public funds, for investing in things like recreational facilities. Derkacs said she was not sure she could point to a simple set of principles but that certainly her approach and she believes the approach of Council as a whole has been to look for investments that can benefit broad segments of the community.
“We have to keep in mind that we have a diverse community. We have small children all the way up to senior citizens and it’s important to provide services and facilities for these various segments. Unfortunately some public projects are more costly than others so we can’t approach it in terms of always specific amounts of dollars for each project. We do have to consider just the cost of the facilities. My personal perspective and I believe all of Council’s is to provide a balanced approach to serve a broad spectrum of the community so that no particular segment is neglected,” Derkacs said.
She said one of the things that come to mind is a center for middle school students.
“The County has facilities for young students, it has facilities for teens but the Middle School students don’t have their own space so we are still looking into that and exploring some options and hopefully we can come up with a solution in the near future,” Derkacs said.
Akanna Peck noted that when the Chapter 16 Development Code was approved it was with a side note that Council was aware that there were some serious problems with the re-zoning and would revisit that in January. She asked Derkacs if she knew when that’s going to happen.
“We did give them a deadline and I don’t recall exactly what that deadline was. The County kept the zoning maps separate from the Development Code so that they could be amended without having to go back and do a whole ordinance to amend the code,” Derkacs said, adding that some of the things that came to mind were open spaces and additional parking.
Eduardo Santiago commented that Council has a long tradition of deferring to staff recommendations, staff perspective staff perspectives, priorities that differ to those of citizens.
“How will you as chair encourage non-confrontational critical thinking amongst Council?” he asked.
Derkacs spoke about her personal preparation for upcoming Council meetings – reviewing materials, checking in with staff and reaching out to people throughout the community.
“Council does not always follow the recommendations of staff. It is a balancing act and it is really on each individual councilor to do their homework and be prepared and informed before they vote,” she said.
Los Alamos Reporter asked Derkacs if she believes there is a difference between transparency and publicity. She also commented on the practice of the County Manager giving updates on important issues under the County Manager’s report rather than separating them out on the agenda so that the public would have notice that those items would be discussed.
“I appreciate your concerns about the level of detail in the County Manager’s report. One of the options Council would have is after the agenda comes out on Friday we can amend the agenda. There’s the touchy area there of having sufficient advance notice of something that’s going to be discussed,” Derkacs responded, adding that she would look into this further and discuss it with the County Manager to see if Council “can get more things actually called out specifically on the agenda, particularly those that are likely of broader interest to the public”.
“Publicity versus transparency – there is certainly a difference. Sometimes there are topics that the County staff are working that are, for lack of a better term are not ready for primetime. Internal discussions that are about potential land purchase or sale is one thing that comes to mind because you wouldn’t want to interfere with the negotiations. That’s the one thing I can think of that I could see some constraints on discussing prematurely,” she said. “As far as the councilors talking ahead of time about how they’re thinking of voting, that gets into that touchy are of the Open Meetings Act because of the restrictions, we can’t talk about an upcoming agenda item with more than two councilors. If we then discuss it with the media, that could potentially be and then say the media then posts comments from four councilors that could lead us then into a gray area with compliance with the Open Meetings Act. I will talk about this further with the County Attorney.”
Editor’s note: In a follow-up to the LWV, Council Chair Derkacs said, “The Open Meetings Act, per the County Attorney, does not restrict Councilors from talking with the press, except on matters discussed in closed sessions”.