Q&A With Los Alamos County Council Candidates

Los Alamos Daily Post

The race is on to fill three open seats on the Los Alamos County Council.

The six candidates vying for one of those seats are Denise Derkacs, Dem; David Reagor, Rep; James Rickman, Lib; Rodney Roberson, Dem; Aaron Walker, Ind; and Sean Williams, Dem.

The Los Alamos Daily Post asked each of the candidates the same set of questions.

Q&A With Council Candidates:

How long have you lived in Los Alamos?

Derkacs: Los Alamos County has been my home for 38 years. I was born and raised in New Jersey and I have lived in 10 states, but together with my husband, I chose to live here in White Rock, to raise our three sons here, and to stay here in retirement.

Reagor: I have lived in Los Alamos County, White Rock, for 34 years. My children attended our public schools and received an excellent education. They have since moved away to continue their education.

Rickman: I have lived here for more than 40 years. I have experienced Los Alamos from numerous perspectives. I grew up in Los Alamos and went through the public school system. I lived here as a member of the “the missing middle”—someone who does not qualify for public assistance, but someone who found the cost of living in Los Alamos to be a challenge. But the things I have always found most compelling about our community are its beautiful open spaces, dark night skies, clean air and water, abundant recreational facilities, family friendly atmosphere, safety, small-town feel, and inclusive character.

Roberson: I have resided in Los Alamos County for three years. I live in White Rock.

Walker: A little over three years. In that time, I’ve gotten involved with the local government volunteering on the CDAB (Community Development Advisory Board), served as chair for over a year now, and loved living here. I want to continue to make it a great place to live, and improve on the way the County government interacts with the community, and the services it provides.

Williams: I came as a summer student in 2008, and moved here full-time after finishing classes in 2010. I’m a child of the Southwest: I was born and raised in Phoenix, went to graduate school at UC Davis, and have lived in Los Alamos ever since. Like many others, the lab drew me here initially, but the environment and community have kept Jordan and me here.

Where do you work or have retired from?

Derkacs: I am retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory as a chief of staff to senior management, after 20 years of employment. My past professional experience includes working as a technical writer at the Laboratory and as a journalist at newspapers in Texas, Iowa, and Hawaii.

Reagor: I worked for 32 years at LANL and retired in 2018. The laboratory is very important to the town, but the County Council must first serve the people of the County.

Rickman: I have experienced our community from myriad occupational settings. I have worked in retail and the restaurant and hospitality industries; I have worked as a skilled tradesman for a local retail business. I have experience working as a County employee. I worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer and learned a lot about the geographics, politics, and personalities of our community. I recently retired after a successful 24-year career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, working as a communications specialist, and then for the Laboratory director. This career familiarized me with nearly every facet of Laboratory operations, science, and support.

Roberson: I currently provide contract support to the U.S. Department of Energy Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office in Los Alamos.

Walker: I work for the lab at TA-53 operating the particle accelerator. It’s the most interesting job I’ve ever had. Prior to the lab, I spent 7 1/2 years in the US Navy operating and maintaining nuclear reactors. That experience has readied me for the rigors of public service, and I look forward to having the opportunity to represent the people of the community.

Williams: I’m co-owner of Automotive Professionals on DP Road, and an associate broker with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services. I take care of the back end of the auto shop: accounting, financing, long-term planning, and politics. I also serve on the Planning and Zoning Commission, where I try and bring a business perspective, along with a sharply analytical eye.

Why are you running for council?

Derkacs: I want to help Los Alamos County plan for growth and embrace the future while preserving the past and the amenities that make the County a great place to live. This is my first run for elected public office, but I have been a volunteer member of the Community Development Advisory Board since its formation in 2018. Since then, I also have been attending County Council meetings learning about how County government functions and about the issues currently facing the County. My decision-making always will be based on accumulating facts and analyzing options, and importantly, on input from the public.

Reagor: State law has created difficult barriers that we will need to overcome to provide reliable electricity to the citizens. Los Alamos County has recently entered into a Carbon-free power plan. I support the modular reactor part of the plan, as the current state law leaves us few options. As for solar and wind, we should and do allow homeowners to contribute their power to the grid, but will encounter endlessly escalating costs or unreliable power if the County uses these sources for central generation.  Instead, the County council should focus on low cost electricity for the citizens.

Rickman: I can’t think of a better place to live, work, and play than Los Alamos! Therefore, my number one priority as a councilor will be to sustain the amenities we have to ensure that future generations enjoy the same quality of life that we enjoy. We must protect our aquifer, natural areas, and other assets through careful planning. We can address housing and business challenges through redevelopment and sensible updates to zoning to allow for advantageous use of private property. With four years of previous Council experience during a pivotal time, I am ready to hit the ground running.

Roberson: Running for and winning an elected office at the local level has been a goal of mine for sometime. Now that I’ve had an opportunity to settle down in Los Alamos County, I feel now is that time.  I also feel that I can provide a new perspective to the council and bring new and fresh ideas to the community.

Walker: Transparency, honesty and integrity are sorely needed on the council right now, and something I can bring to the table. Families and the younger generations moving here need more representation from their peers, not a council full of lab retirees. We need a mentality shift where the council actually works for the people of the community, and they aren’t above it. I bring a unique perspective without the pressure of a party establishment to appease.

Williams: The business community needs representation, and with Antonio Maggiore not seeking reelection, that void will only get bigger. Without serious changes, the business community is going to continue to wither and die. Past that, I’ll be a voice on council for environmental sustainability, defense of our poorer residents, and efficient use of our limited land.

What would you do to improve our housing shortage?

Derkacs: The 2019 County housing study identified the need for more than 1,600 housing units, particularly units for low- and middle-income households. The County should explore various housing options and various building sites, and, importantly, should solicit public input on all options under consideration. It should preserve lower densities in residential areas, but allow mixed-use zoning and increased height limits that enable higher densities in downtown areas. In parallel, the County should prepare to upgrade infrastructure, utilities, and transportation services and preserve our recreational facilities, parks, trails, and open spaces that contribute to the quality of life we value.

Reagor: In White Rock the community is missing senior housing. There is a small-assisted care facility, but most of our elder citizens cannot downsize without leaving the community. This creates a bottleneck where seniors are forced to maintain a house to stay near their friends and family, while houses are not available to younger families. In Los Alamos, there is shortage in apartments for residents, while large tracts of land downtown are in disuse. The County should be forceful, insisting that this land be put to public use through redevelopment. 

Rickman: Nearly 1,000 new units of housing in the townsite and nearly 350 units in White Rock are in process in the immediate and shorter-term. This flood of new residences will increase our population nearly 15 percent, leading to pressures on infrastructure and amenities. I believe it is wise to see how these developments play out in the context of a post-COVID world and the resulting budget uncertainties that will ensue. Meantime, zoning changes that allow for higher densities in existing neighborhoods, in-law houses, and cost-effective updates to older housing stock can play a role in meeting potential need.

Roberson: In my opinion, it’s not only a housing shortage, it’s also a shortage of available property to put housing. Both of these shortages must be addressed before we can move significant improvements forward.  In the meantime, the reduction of the substantial number of abandoned and unoccupied houses would provide an increase in housing stock.  Although this is not a permanent fix, it’s a step in the right direction. 

Walker: I think most candidates have very similar ideas here, as the options are limited. Pursuing mixed-use development, building upward, and better usage of zoning seem to be the options. What MUST be addressed is the TRULY affordable housing being nearly non-existent in our community. We won’t have thriving small businesses if we don’t have housing that is affordable across a wide range of incomes.

Williams: There are really only two things that can be done: acquire more land from the federal government, and push for higher-density redevelopment in areas zoned for it. I appreciate that land transfers have become controversial lately, but public input on land use is only meaningful if the County owns the land. As for redevelopment, stagnation is a normal consequence of market distortion; bringing some sanity to the commercial property market will create space for mixed-use redevelopment.

What would you do to support small businesses?

Derkacs: Economic vitality depends upon housing, infrastructure, and commerce. Housing development will stimulate infrastructure improvements and support population growth, which in turn, will increase spending in the local retail community. The County should facilitate housing development, provide infrastructure improvements, and make properties available for individual business ownership. It should streamline County permitting processes and consider zoning restrictions on first-floor offices to help lower commercial rents. It should promote tourism to increase spending at local businesses, and redirect County procurements to local businesses. And, it should encourage start-up businesses using spin-off technologies from LANL research to strengthen the economic base.

Reagor: The coronavirus lockdown is a near term crisis for small business. Nationwide the disease has cost 200,000 lives and a total of 2 million life-years lost. The lockdown has put 20 million people out of work. According to the CDC a long-term bout of unemployment (>6months), takes a year off your life expectancy. An article in the Revolver online magazine concludes that all the unemployment will lead to 8 million life-years lost due to the lockdown, far exceeding the public health effect of the disease and making little difference in the disease impact. In Los Alamos we must immediately end the lockdowns and allow our businesses to operate with appropriate safety measures.

Rickman: I strongly believe government should create a business-friendly community by providing outstanding quality of life, but it shouldn’t attempt to manipulate the marketplace. County government and its publicly funded subcontractors should stop picking “winners and losers” by attempting to recruit businesses that compete with existing successful business. The current Los Alamos business climate is the result of 30-plus years of County-sanctioned entities attempting to manipulate the local market. It isn’t working, so we should seek input from business owners about what could help. The County can directly support local small business through providing a strong, local preference for procurement.

Roberson: My short-term focus or support would emphasize creating a small business friendly culture in Los Alamos County. My support would also focus on attracting and/or creating small businesses. We have a few options at our immediate disposal, I would strongly consider the following:

  • Zoning for multi-use, commercial and residential.
  • Zoning to keep LANL from pricing businesses out.
  • Enhancing tourism efforts to support and encourage small businesses in Los Alamos and White Rock
  • Streamlining the business Permit processes.

Walker: Work to bring down the massive commercial rent problem in our County. Small businesses cannot thrive if they can barely cover rent. We have zoning options such as a first-floor office ban. We also have the nuisance code that can be leveraged to address the issue of neglected buildings, and places not up to code. I do NOT support the idea of the White Rock MRA, using public money to give to landlords that have neglected their buildings.

Williams: In the short term, we need a strong focus on local procurement. The County should be primarily hiring local contractors and buying local supplies, but in spite of a cost preference, it isn’t. In the longer term, the County lacks opportunities for local business, which is almost entirely centered around the perverse commercial property market. A ban on ground-floor, non-customer-facing offices would be a start, then we’ll have to see whether further reforms are needed. But if we create opportunity, I have faith that entrepreneurs will make the best of it.

Editor’s note: For voter and election information, visit the County Clerk’s Office webpage.