Chandler: Los Alamos’ Unique Form Of Government

Los Alamos County Council Candidate
Former Charter Review Committee Member

People often refer to Los Alamos as unique. I sometimes think that the “uniqueness” adjective is overused. But there is one area where Los Alamos is truly unique – the structure under which we govern ourselves. The county is a H class, incorporated home rule county. By constitutional and statutory design there is no other community in the state like us.

Los Alamos County was created in 1949 from lands located in Sandoval and Santa Fe Counties. The county has a total area of approximately 110 square miles. In 1955, the N.M. Legislature established the classification of H class county to include any county which covers an area of not more 200 square miles.  We are the only county to fit this criterion. 

The state uses county classifications as way to identify counties that may subject to certain legislation. For example, Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties are class A counties. There are laws that apply to class A counties that do not apply H counties. And conversely, certain rules apply to class H counties that do not apply to other class designations.

Los Alamos is also an incorporated county. The New Mexico Constitution (Article X, Section 5), adopted in 1964 by the state’s voters, allows a county that is less than 144 square miles and that was in existence at the time of Section 5’s adoption, to incorporate by adopting a charter approved by county voters. Obviously this constitutional amendment was drafted and adopted exclusively for the benefit of Los Alamos County.  

Under Article. X, Sec. 5 of the state constitution, incorporated counties have all powers granted to New Mexico municipalities. This constitutional provision also allows an incorporated county a lot of latitude in defining its structure and form of government. Specifically this provision allows Los Alamos to adopt a charter that “designate[s] those officers which shall be elected, and those officers and employees which shall perform the duties assigned by law to county officers.” 

The citizens of Los Alamos chose to form a county government that is unlike any other in the state.  We have seven councilor selected at-large, instead of three or five county commissioners elected by district.  Los Alamos’ charter eliminated the office of treasurer and surveyor as elected positions and instead assigned those duties to the county manager (then called the county administrator). The charter also allows the county council to define and limit the powers and authority of the sheriff.

Another distinct feature of our county government is it that exercises home rule authority. Normally only municipalities can exercise home rule by adoption of a home rule charter but under the Municipal Charter Act, incorporated counties – only Los Alamos is an incorporated county – is allowed to adopt home rule status.

We are like every other community interested in ensuring the welfare of its families and in fostering an enjoyable and safe environment for its residents. Our ability to achieve these goals is enhanced by the latitude vested in our local government that was created by our 1968 county charter. The charter, although perhaps not perfect in all respects, was ahead of its time.