Changes To Roles Of Council And Utilities Board In Charter Question #2 Debated At Forum Tuesday

League of Women Voters President Barbara Calef introduces forum panelists, from left, George Chandler and Susan O’Leary speaking for Charter Question #2 on the ballot and Robert Gibson and Chris Ortega speaking against it at Tuesday’s public forum sponsored by the County and moderated by the League. Photo by Carol A. Clark/
Los Alamos County Public Information Officer Julie Habiger at Tuesday’s public forum presents an overview of the Charter changes in Article V. Photo by Carol A. Clark/
Los Alamos Daily Post

The heated debate over proposed changes to Article V of the Los Alamos County Charter, which concerns the roles and interactions of the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) and the County Council, was the subject of a forum sponsored by Los Alamos County and conducted by the League of Women Voters, with assistance from the Los Alamos Hilltalkers.

The changes are to Charter Question #2 on the ballot, which goes before voters in the Nov. 4 General Election.

Those speaking in favor of the Charter change were County Council candidate Susan O’Leary who chaired the Charter Review Committee and former County Councilor George Chandler. Arguing against the Charter change were Robert Gibson, who has served both on the County Council and the Board of Public Utilities and Chris Ortega, former manager of the Department of Public Utilities (DPU), who has also served on the BPU.

County Public Information Officer Julie Habiger gave an overview of the Charter changes in Article V. A County overview can be accessed here.

Gibson argued that the autonomy of the BPU from the Council keeps it free of political influence. The Charter change provides for a dispute resolution process, which can be requested by either side, however the Council would be able to make a final decision by a majority plus one vote if no resolution can be reached.

“Politicians have agendas,” Gibson said. “The first responsibility of the utility is to its customers.”

Gibson said the Council could be tempted to raid the DPU for funds, which would not be perceived as increasing taxes. He said the Council often votes unanimously because of “group-think’ and that the super majority required in the Charter change was not really a very high hurdle.

Gibson also stressed that the Board, since it is responsible only for utilities, can have a more in depth knowledge of the DPU and issues affecting it than can Council members who must oversee the management of the entire County with its many departments, as well as deal with other issues.

“The Council is furnished with reams of material. I’m afraid they won’t get through it all,” Gibson said.

Gibson said that autonomous utilities departments receive higher bond ratings than those more directly controlled by political bodies because they are perceived as more efficient and business-like.

O’Leary and Chandler countered that the Charter changes bring the County and its department of utilities into compliance with legal and judicial rules governing the responsibility of the Council to oversee the DPU. Utilities account for 42 percent of County expenses and millions in assets, O’Leary said, and they are ultimately responsible for how the department is managed, and therefore must be fully able to make decisions and oversee the running of the DPU.  

The proposal calls for a working group composed of representatives from both bodies, with 90 days to reach agreement. There must also be two public hearings on the issue.

“The resolution of intractable disputes, which is not now possible, is made possible through a process that is so cumbersome it is guaranteed to be used in extreme circumstances,” Chandler said.

Ortega countered that the current process has worked well since its inception in 1968. He contended that the removal of a board member has never been necessary and there is no need for the Council to have that power (again through a super majority). He contended the Board is able to police itself.  

Ortega and Gibson said they felt the more informal process of negotiation in the current charter is more flexible and allows for creative solutions that can be implemented quickly.

“I’ve seen it work from both sides, and how the relationship really does work-and it does,” Gibson said.

O’Leary and Chandler argued that giving council a means to take action during a crisis is an important safeguard.

Chandler compared the policy to auto insurance. It may never be necessary, but having a mechanism in place is important in case a crisis ever occurs., he said.

With the current Charter, “citizens have to depend on the personalities and good will of the people involved to make decisions in a way that best serves customers,” O’Leary said. The Board is not an elected body, she pointed out.

Bringing elected officials into the mix is actually a positive effect of the Charter changes, according  O’Learly and Chandler

Chandler said that the Council had its eyes more clearly focused on public opinion in some cases.

“One example is the tone-deaf proposal by the utilities board to put wells in residential areas in White Rock,” he said. He also stated that the Board has not set rates high enough to provide for upgrading of infrastructure but instead has eaten into reserves for repairs.

The Charter changes still do not allow the Council to initiate changes to rates, set the budget or control the use of DPU funds. It can only approve or disapprove such changes, O’Leary and Chandler pointed out.

Question #1 will be addressed in a separate forum at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. A league-sponsored forum featuring incumbent U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and challenger Jefferson Byrd will follow that forum.

George Chandler and Susan O’Leary. Photo by Carol A. Clark/

Robert Gibson and Chris Ortega. Photo by Carol A. Clark/

Former DPU Manager John Arrowsmith. Photo by Carol A. Clark/

Kyle Wheeler. Photo by Carol A. Clark/

County Assessor candidate Ken Milder. Photo by Carol A. Clark/

County Councilor David Izraelevitz lightens the mood. Photo by Carol A. Clark/

Former council candidate Ed Birnbaum. Photo by Carol A. Clark/

Dr. Merry McIntyre. Photo by Carol A. Clark/

Council candidate John Bliss. Photo by Carol A. Clark/

Los Alamos High School Hilltalkers participate in the public forum and keep the candidates on time. Photo by Carol A. Clark/