Letter to the Editor: Time Has Come To Make Some Changes To Charter

Los Alamos

On Nov. 4, we will be asked to vote on two questions on the ballot related to the county charter, a document that was adopted by the voters and that has served us well for many years.

I am a long time resident of Los Alamos. I grew up in Los Alamos, have served on a county board and on the county council, and I have spent quite a few hours of my life since 2010 serving on the Charter Review Committee (CRC), where we went through the current charter very carefully before recommending to the council the changes now before you. The people who crafted our current charter, passed in 1968 when Los Alamos was completing the transition from a government-run community to a self-governing, home-rule community, were friends and acquaintances of my parents. They did important work and I respect their efforts.

However, the time has come to make some changes to the charter and I will support the two questions when I go to polls. The first question, which has to do with the structure of government, goes into a little more detail about the duties and responsibilities of the council chair, specifies that the council chair must be elected annually, and strengthens the recognition of the council chair as the head of the government. It also changes the name of the county administrator to county manager and reflects the duties of the manager as being responsible for all operational requirements of the county and for executing the vision, strategic goals, and policies of the council.

The rewrite of sections 202.1 and 302 reflect the belief that the council should focus on policy and the manager should take care of operations. The change to Section 205.2 clarifies the authority of council to appoint members of standing boards, commissions, and ad hoc advisory committees. Finally, Section 305.2 is needed because of a change in state law that now considers poll workers to be county employees. Many people who offer to work as poll workers during an election also serve as volunteers on county boards, commissions, and ad hoc advisory committees. Without this change, those volunteers would be unable to serve as voting members of those bodies.

The second ballot question, the one concerning Article V of the charter, has caused considerable controversy. I have spent many hours listening to all sides of the arguments on this question, and I will support it because the rewrite includes all of the substantive issues addressed in the current charter, is better organized and more clearly written, and addresses some additional issues not currently covered in the charter. Since the charter was passed in 1968, the business of the Department of Public Utilities has become a much larger portion of the county’s budget, and the issues are far more complex than they were 40 years ago.

While the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) is well equipped to deal with these issues, when lawsuits arise, and they do, it is the county council that gets sued, not the BPU. I was on the council in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a protracted suit was brought against the county, and while the council relied heavily on the advice of the BPU, it was the council that ultimately was responsible for the resolution of the lawsuit.

I truly believe all the controversy stems from only one part of the rewritten Article V, and that has to do with the mechanism it provides to ensure accountability from the BPU, something the current charter lacks. It proposes a way to resolve conflicts between the BPU and the council and, in the highly unlikely circumstance where a BPU member should be removed, it grants the council authority to do so if and only if six of the seven council members vote in a public meeting to remove that member. That is a very high bar indeed.

As one who has served on council, I can assure you that getting six members to vote yes on anything extremely controversial, and this would be, is not easy. I stress the words “open meeting”because the council is accountable to the public and would have to do this in front of you, the citizens. Only a really good reason would justify such action, certainly not the “politically inspired” tactics that some allude to.

Finally, I would like to say that all the people who serve on the council, boards and commissions, and ad hoc committees, just like those people who wrote our original charter, are good people who are trying to serve our community in the best way that they know how. While I have spent many hours working on the CRC, so have many others who don’t agree with me. I respect the opinions of everyone, even when we reach different conclusions, and am grateful that there are people in the community willing to do this work.

I do believe the changes proposed in these two questions are necessary changes, they will serve us well if you choose to support them, and I think they will stand the test of time, perhaps even as long as another 40 years.

For additional information, contact me at ktw@newmexico.com or review the website at goodgovla.com.