Letter to the Editor: Charter Amendment 2 Puts In Failsafes And Backstops Not In Place Now

Los Alamos County Council

I am voting FOR Amendment 2 on the upcoming ballot about our Utilities Board. 

Contrary to the opponent’s dire depictions, it does not give unchecked power to Council, or radically change the government structure established in the 1960s. It does, however, put in some failsafes and backstops that I think most of us would actually assume are in place now.

Our local government has two parts. One is the Department of Public Utilities, which provides water, sewer, gas and electric. It is managed by a Utility Manager, policy decisions are set by a citizen Utility Board, and neither the Board nor the Manager reports to Council. 

The second is the County government, providing police, fire protection, libraries, parks, and the jail, for instance. These are managed by a County Administrator, policies are set by the County Council, and you elect the Council.

With Amendment Two, the changes:

1- Require the Utility Board to abide by the Sunshine Laws of New Mexico – to announce all meetings and agendas.

2 – Require the Board to report once a quarter to the community – in a report to Council – any issues that might be of concern.

3 – Require the Board, once every 5 years, to hire an outside utility consultant to review their processes.

4 – Require a member of Council to be an ad hoc Board member, who can speak at a meeting, but not vote.

5 – In the most contentious change to the Charter – Allow the Council, with a super-majority, to replace a member of the Board – requiring 6 of 7 votes. 

Board members serve for 5 years, and are appointed one a year by Council. There is no ability now for Council to remove a Board member. 

If a Board member makes poor decisions, acts inappropriately, or opposes something the community wants – there is nothing that Council can do, now. 

Although the ability to remove a Board member is a big change, it would have to be voted on in public, with public input, and with a minimum 6-1 vote.

6 – Establish a Dispute Resolution process.  If Council and the Board disagree on something, there is no resolution process now. 

7 – Establishes a process to add a new utility. The new process aligns with State law. Currently, there is no ability to add a new utility. (Like, Broadband.)

Some issues in the foreseeable future include: 

  • Past Boards have opposed Broadband as a Utility, in any case, and opposed running a permanent water line to the Ski Hill. Both these items might be under consideration in the future.
  • Past Boards, over the decades, prioritized low rates at the expense of charging for infrastructure replacement. We now have old and failing infrastructure, and the current community will be asked to pay for that.
  • Prior Boards chose low rates over reliable power. We had outages literally when the wind blew. This was not necessary; it was a choice of prior Boards. It was expensive to address, and will continue to be.
  • We have one substation where electricity comes in to town. Most communities our size have at least two. The substation is old; if it fails, we will be out of power for a week, need to rent a portable substation for six months, and build a new one; the charges will be passed on to you.
  • The Board is considering arbitraging our power – selling it to other communities at one rate, and hoping to buy it at a lower rate. We might make $4 million a year. Or, lose money. Losses will be passed on to you.

To be clear, it is good to have a Board focused on Utilities; it is a big job, members are to be commended. But there is real liability to the community in having an unchecked system.

These changes were proposed by three different citizen committees who reviewed our government structure.

So we can believe nothing will ever go wrong, and as an homage to the 1960s, change nothing.

Or we can acknowledge that democracy is an experiment, and sometimes a decent system needs slight adjustments and oversight to fortify it for the future. 

Please vote FOR Amendment 2.