Letter To The Editor: Open Letter To The Council

By Vice Chair Susan O’Leary
Los Alamos County Council

Fellow Councilors:

I’ve given the many large dollar value lawsuits settled by the County’s insurer a lot of thought. I have a few observations and suggestions to share with you in the spirit of seeing the Council move forward in a productive manner.

There is no doubt in my mind that each of us serve on the council because we care about our community and want it to be the best it can be. I respect each of you for your commitment to public service. Each of us will have different ideas about how issues need to be addressed and each of us deserves to have our ideas considered fairly and respectfully. It’s important that we focus on the merits of our ideas, despite the passions that a particular issue may evoke.

Several weeks ago, I requested that all the documents relating to a recent multi-million dollar personnel-related lawsuit settlement be provided to each member of the Council for review. I was asked to rescind that request because of the logistical burden it would have created for staff, and also in deference to the argument that Council members were not necessarily technically qualified to evaluate these documents.  I agreed to withdraw my request based on a counteroffer to make the documents available for review at the County Attorney’s office, and based on my understanding that the Council would vote on whether to hire a truly independent outside expert to evaluate the spate of recent settled lawsuits so that the effectiveness of our personnel policies and our compliance with those policies could be evaluated.

The decision to hire an independent outside expert is one that should be made in a public meeting with the standard public meeting rules to include public comment.

To put it in the simplest terms, it seems to me that if the County has sound personnel policies and is consistently following those policies; then we should not be seeing millions in repeated settlement payments, and we should not be seeing the unnecessary damage we have seen to the careers and lives of our employees. If we have policies that need improvement, or if we have good policies that we’re not following; then we need to improve. I don’t know what could be more obvious. 

I said when I ran for the Council and have consistently repeated since that the Council has three primary duties; setting policy, allocating resources, and evaluating the County’s management effectiveness. From that perspective, seeking to understand this situation, working to adjust our practices, and putting an end to this stream of costly lawsuits is the Council’s inescapable duty.

I continue to believe that our steady stream of losses themselves are a convincing argument that we have a problem. The stack of prior self-validating internal reviews and reviews that have reported to the County administration on this issue don’t move me off that position. The situation is serious enough that I think we need a truly independent review of our personnel approach by an employment attorney or other expert reporting directly to the Council. 

As I have stated previously, my only agenda for this request is to ensure that our employees are being treated fairly, and that our management team is conducting itself in a way that protects us from large judgements and settlements. If there are areas that need improvement, I want to see the County make those improvements and be a stronger, healthier organization going forward. This is about continuous improvement.

Under Council Rules, each Councilor has the right to pursue their ideas and place items on council meeting agendas for consideration. I continue to believe that we need an independent audit of the County’s personnel policies and of the execution of those policies, with an eye toward ensuring that County policies are appropriate and are being implemented consistently with fairness toward our employees and in a way that minimizes lawsuits. I consider the tens of thousands we would pay for such a review to be a sound investment, considering the millions in payments and the damage to reputations and lives we have endured. 

I believe that undertaking this review is a prudent and necessary action that the Council should take to fulfill our duty to perform County management oversight. Based on those positions, I ask Chair Reiss to place a discussion and vote about hiring an independent expert to audit the County’s personnel policies and compliance with those policies on the next possible Council Meeting agenda. 

I look forward to a public discussion and a public vote on this important issue.

Respectfully submitted.