County Councilors say the Pledge of Allegiance at the opening of Tuesday’s meeting in Council Chambers. Screenshot/LADP
A presentation during the June 12 Los Alamos County Council meeting by representatives of the law firm of Adams & Crow resulted in a lengthy and intense discussion among Council members, which appeared to reveal underlying internal struggles with communication.
The law firm is under a $30,000 contract with the County to conduct an independent investigation into allegations of improprieties of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities and what, if any, role Los Alamos County had in the recent controversy over reimbursement for travel expenses for Coalition board members submitted by former executive director Andrea Romero.
The investigation was requested in March by Councilor Susan O’Leary and former Councilor James Chrobocinski, who resigned in May.
Attorney Alana DeYoung told the Council that it has taken a while to figure out what actually happened because of the vast volume of information and documentation that is more than initially expected. She said to date Adams and Crow has “not found any evidence that there was knowing violation” of the three areas being investigated. She said the $30,000 limit on the contract is being approached and the firm is requesting an increase of $20,000 to finish the investigation but was unable to breakdown the $20,000 figure when questioned by Councilor Christine Chandler.
Councilor Rick Reiss, attending the meeting via phone, pointed out that the net amount of reimbursement discrepancies appears to be between $1,800 and $2,000, “which provides relative magnitude to the cost already” of the investigation and that the initial finding is clear that there is “no evidence of concealing misconduct, not intentional misconduct”.
“It seems to me the investigation should be terminated or postponed until we have the results from the state auditor to determine if it’s necessary to complete. We could be looking at a grand total of $60,000 to solve a $2,000 problem,” Reiss said.
O’Leary said she looks at it differently.
“I don’t look at it as an issue about the reimbursement. I look at it as an issue of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that this County has put into the Regional Coalition since 2011. And because we have done that we haven’t done other things and I think that one of the most important responsibilities we have as councilors is to make sure our tax dollars are spent appropriately,” she said. “…I think if we continue to fund this organization we have an obligation to ensure that our contributions are going to an organization that is following the law and providing the desired benefits for our community.”
O’Leary said another reason the investigation needs to be completed is for transparency.
“We need to explain to the public what went wrong and what we are going to do to address these issues” she said. “My recommendation after we complete this investigation and get a final report, is that as we accept it, if we do, that we agree that within 15 days or 30 days or whatever we form a plan on how we’re going to address these issues within our county and that is a way to convey to the public that we know what’s happened, we know what went wrong, we know what we do to fix it and then we do it. Without the investigation we cannot take that path and we can’t be transparent with our citizens.”
O’Leary went on to mention that the Coalition “did not appropriately bid out contracts, per diem violations occurred, noncompliance with travel policy, absence of expense policy, anti-donation clause violations”. She called the issues “very troubling” and said that during this year’s budget talks after the investigation was initiated, the Council voted to continue funding for the Regional Coalition.
“We didn’t even discuss whether we should reconsider out financial support for this organization given these leadership failures. I personally had no problem voting to fund this organization because I believe in its mission and that it can bring good things to our community. But I do insist that we fully understand its problems so that we can make sure they’re fixed and that we need to assure our citizens that this organization is no longer improperly spending our tax dollars,” she said.
O’Leary said the Council needs to clarify the responsibilities associated with the County’s liaison and staff related to the Coalition.
“I say that because we did have a RCLC Los Alamos board member who was treasurer. I know that person, Councilor (Kristin) Henderson, and she didn’t mean to do this. She didn’t get up in the morning and say let’s see how many dinners I can get the Regional Coalition to take me out on. She wanted to do a good job,” O’Leary said, adding that she bets there are no guidelines and that Henderson “didn’t know her role and didn’t understand what she needed to do”.
“We need to make sure that never happens again and our next board member can be successful,” O’Leary said.
She said the Council needs to complete the investigation to address communications issues that exist within the County Council.
“This situation has raised several issues for me about the roles and responsibilities of the Council chair and the Council representative on the Coalition or any representative that’s serving on an external board on behalf of the County and the Council. We need to talk about them and understand them so that we’re all on the same page because I don’t think we’re all on the same page right now,” O’Leary said.
She said her understanding was that the Council chair was to keep the Council informed of significant information he obtains in his capacity as chair. She referred to Chair David Izraelevitz’s weekly meetings with the County Manager, which give him more access than the rest of the Council and that she has a different opinion on his role. She complained that she believes Chandler is not keeping Councilors informed on what’s going on with the Coalition.
“The benefits of this investigation go beyond the financial issues and the policy issues. They go to whether or not our Council rules are being followed and whether they’re appropriate for these kinds of situations. We need to see the investigation to know what happened and that is why we have to follow through with this investigation,” O’Leary said. “This is not fun, and I have six months left. I’m doing this for the people coming after me because I don’t want them to have to go through wondering whether information is being withheld from me because somebody doesn’t like me or because somebody is confused about the rules or I don’t understand the rules. We need to put it on the table and work through it. It’s not the $2,000 it’s the hundreds of thousands of dollars and I can tell you if we don’t I can never support this organization.”
Chandler said many of the issues O’Leary has raised are good things to talk about – the roles and responsibilities of Councilors, how they work together as a team and share information.
“But we’re talking about an ethics complaint that was filed with a newspaper so that’s the initial clue to me that there might be something else going on here beyond a desire to clarify rules and responsibilities and to engage in a communication process that will enhance our processes and improve our ability to work together. It was framed as intentional misconduct and frankly it has to be framed as intentional misconduct because that’s what ethics violations are. They’re intentional things that people are doing wrong,” Chandler said. “What I heard Councilor O’Leary say is, ‘I know very well that Councilor Henderson had no intention to do anything wrong. She probably had a misunderstanding as to what her responsibility was as the treasurer’. And we have it right there on the record that we all know that Councilor Henderson has done nothing intentionally wrong. We have that from the complainant, who still wants to continue with an ethics violation investigation.”
Chandler said she was happy to have a work session where Councilors could walk through Council rules and talk through what their concerns are in terms of what’s not working well.
“But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about continuing something where the initial findings are no indication of wrongdoing, no indication of intentional wrongdoing and by the person who filed the complaint that she fully understands that the treasurer of the organization probably did nothing wrong because we know she wouldn’t do that. We still want to spend $20,000 that we haven’t received any justification for. And I might be willing to support pursuing it, but I want to know how that number came up because I don’t believe it’s based on anything that’s looked at carefully by the investigators but just a number. We could be looking at another number once they find out its going to take a little more time to do something else,” Chandler said.
She said she is a little disappointed that instead of working together, sharing information and talking with one another, Councilors file complaints “because that seems to be the tool of this council and it’s not the first one”.
“I would love to have a sit-down session where we all get together. We could have a retreat where we talk about what everyone’s concerns are and what we think people’s roles and responsibilities are. Let’s do that,” Chandler said. “This is framed as intentional misconduct, and nothing has been shown yet, and the councilor who filed the complaint doesn’t believe it was intentional.”
O’Leary immediately told Chandler that the portion of the investigation that has not been completed is pertaining to “your roles”.
“I was talking about Councilor Henderson in terms of your statement about whether or not she did anything intentional. We need to finish this investigation, so we know what actually happened and then move on from there. I am comfortable with every action I have taken,” O’Leary said.
Chandler said she is disappointed in the lack of communication and willingness to work as a team.
“Given the fact that a complaint was filed by a councilor, the Council needs to bring it to resolution. So, let’s move and move quickly,” she said. She also questioned what would happen if the state audit and the Adams & Crow investigation have different results.
The Council voted 6 to 1 to recommend to the County Manager that he amend the contract with Adams & Crow subject to receiving a breakdown in the cost per task under the $20,000 for completion of the investigation. Reiss voted against the amendment saying he was “a voice of conservatism” on whether or not the Council should spend the money.