Leadership Los Alamos Session Examines Local Government

Leadership Los Alamos panelists from left, DPU Charter Review Committee Chair Susan O’Leary, Utilities Board Chair David Powell and DPU Manager John Arrowsmith. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

Leadership Los Alamos participants listen as DPU Charter Review Committee Chair Susan O’Leary presents details on her committee’s recommendations to County Council. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com


Los Alamos Daily Post

Session Co-Chairs Pat Casados (Magistrate Judge) and Chris Chandler (Probate Judge) led the Dec. 13 Leadership Los Alamos session, which focused on Los Alamos County government. Participants explored the structure and function of the local government, reviewed roles, responsibilities and linkages to regional, state and federal entities, and considered key issues and challenges facing the community.

During a provocative panel discussion, DPU Charter Review Committee Chair Susan O’Leary, Utilities Board Chair David Powell and DPU Manager John Arrowsmith discussed the relationship between the Utilities Department and how it fits into County Government. At issue is the fact that the County Charter, written years ago, leaves the County at risk should the DPU manager or a member of the Utilities Board behave in a manner that leads to poor decisions, violations or law suits.

As the discussion progressed, Chandler, who is an attorney as well as Probate Judge, called on Arrowsmith to concur that if the DPU had a violation, the New Mexico Environment Department would go after the County with fines and penalties – not the DPU. After a bit of back and forth with Chandler, Arrowsmith agreed that would be the case.

O’Leary explained that the County Council gave her committee three questions to consider in reviewing the DPU Charter:

  • Review Article V for accountability and liability issues;
  • Review the monetary transfers between DPU and the County as described in Article V; and
  • Determine what the County needed to do to add a utility.

The committee found that the County holds all responsibility for the actions of the DPU Board, but has no authority over the Board. Under current Article V, Council has no authority to remove a Board Member once he/she is appointed except if the Board Member moves out of the County, doesn’t attend meetings, or is convicted of a felony.

“This means Council cannot remove a Board Member for repeated poor decision making, poor coordination with Council or other County departments, a health condition that impairs decision making, being accused of a felony i.e. the Mayor of Toronto, or unprofessional and unacceptable behavior i.e. the Mayor of San Diego,” she said. “This is a critical accountability issue because of the importance of the Board in its oversight of the County’s utility business — a business that generated about $60 million in 2012 and has an estimated replacement value of more than $400 million. Board Members need to be productive and effective in order for the Board to be a successful overseer of the policy and operations of the County utility business.”

The CRC Charter Review Committee recommended language be added to Article V that allows Council to remove a Board Member on a vote of no confidence with a super majority of six in favor; and/or the Board vote to remove a Board Member with a super majority of four in favor and then an approving Council majority vote.

Current Article V is silent on a process to resolve disputes between the Board and Council on key issues like rates, budget, strategic plan, and hiring of the DPU manager, O’Leary said. The committee recommendation was to add language to Article V that defines a specific process for the Board and Council to follow to resolve disputes on these four issues. In the event a compromise is not reached at the end of the process, Council would have the authority to make the final decision with a super majority vote. 

“Identifying the final decision making body is a critical accountability issue,” O’Leary said. “Under current New Mexico law, Council can’t transfer its own accountability for the County’s utility business to the Board; it is Council and the County – and the taxpayers – that are liable for decisions made by the Board. On these four issues, the committee’s recommendation is to give Council the final decision making authority, which also would align the Charter with current law.”

O’Leary said that in order for the complicated organizational structure to work well, and the County’s utility business to be aligned with County procedures, policies, and strategic objectives, strong communication between Council and Board, the County Administrator’s Office and the DPU is imperative. Current Article V does not provide much guidance on how this communication is to occur, she said.

“This is an important accountability issue because of the DPU’s unique organizational structure. Other County departments report into the County Administrator, who can ensure that departments follow procedures, align with Council’s strategic objectives, and share relevant information,” O’Leary said. “BPU and DPU operate without supervision from the County. BPU and DPU’s primary operating manual is Article V and related legislation that outline their responsibilities. Therefore, the Committee felt it appropriate to include communication-related recommendations in Article V to ensure that certain management practices would be required and implemented.”

The Committee recommended the Charter include language to:

  • Require the Board to provide Council with quarterly updates on significant issues;
  • Require the Board to annually review and approve DPU’s strategic plan and long-range planning needs;
  • Require the Board to conduct a review of its own operations in conjunction with the DPU management audit done every five years;
  • Clarify responsibilities of the Council Liaison and the County Administrator as ex-officio non-voting members of the Board and communication conduits to Council and CAO; and
  • Require that the Utilities Manager comply with county-wide policies, including the personnel code and the procurement code, and create a process for the Utility’s Manager to adopt special policies as necessary for the unique nature of the utilities business.

The Committee recommended that no changes be made to the current arrangement but did recommend that language be added to Article V that clarified what was permissible if Council or the Board wanted to transfer a currently owned utility to DPU or add or sell a utility. In the case of a transfer, the Committee views this as an administrative issue that could be decided by Council with a majority vote, she said. In the case of adding a new utility to DPU, or selling an existing utility, the Committee believes that a public vote is required before such action can be taken.

Leadership Los Alamos participants also heard presentations and discussions from Deputy County Administrator Brian Bosshardt on the structure of Los Alamos County. General Counsel Randy Van Vleck of the New Mexico Municipal League, Executive Director Steve Kopelman of the New Mexico Association of Counties, Executive Director Daniel Ivey-Soto of New Mexico County Clerks, and Council Chair Geoff Rodgers, County Administrator Harry Burgess, former Council Chair Mike Wismer and former Council Chair Sharon Stover presented an overview of Los Alamos County governance.

Santa Fe Mayor David Coss, Executive Director Kathy Keith of the Regional Development Corporation and Councilor Steve Girrens discussed regional partnering. County Boards and Commissions Liaison Libby Carlsten, Transportation Board Chair Richard Dunn and P&Z Chair Anne Nobile and Art in Public Places Chair Carolyn Bossert presented a panel discussion on the role of boards and commissions: Citizen Policy Advisors. Casados and Chandler presented a talk on Los Alamos County courts.

Leadership Los Alamos held its first session of 2014, Friday at the Betty Ehart Senior Center. That session focused on Community Organizations. Its next session is scheduled for Feb. 21 at the UNM-Los Alamos Student Center and will focus on the varying types and levels of education provided in Los Alamos and the surrounding communities.

Leadership Los Alamos is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3), tax exempt organization founded in 2003 to identify current and emerging leaders in the Los Alamos community, enhance their leadership skills, and deepen their knowledge of the challenges and opportunities facing the area. The program is open to anyone who lives or works in Los Alamos. Leadership Los Alamos selects a class each year of 24 or so leaders or potential leaders who represent a cross-section of the community and surrounding area from public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Special consideration is given to ensure diversity of occupational background, race, gender, and community involvement. For more information, visit About Leadership Los Alamos.

DPU Manager John Arrowsmith, right, discusses his department as Utilities Board Chair David Powell and CRC Review Committee Chair Susan O’Leary look on. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

Government Session Co-Chair Chris Chandler stresses to DPU Manager John Arrowsmith that it’s the County – not the DPU – that will be held responsible by the New Mexico Environment Department in the event of a violation. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

RDC Executive Director Kathy Keith, Santa Fe Mayor David Coss and Councilor Steve Girrens discuss regional partnering. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

District 43 Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard discusses the New Mexico Legislature. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

Art in Public Places Chair Carolyn Bossert with panelists from left, County Liaison Libby Carlsten, Transportation Board Chair Richard Dunn and P&Z Chair Anne Nobile discuss the role of boards and commissions. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

Former Los Alamos County Councilor Mike Wismer speaks to Leadership Los Alamos participants as session Co-Chair Pat Casados looks on at left. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

Members of the 2013-14 Leadership Los Alamos class listen to presentations on local government during December’s session in Council Chambers at the Municipal Building. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com