Utilities Ballot Question Debated At GOP Forum

CRC Chair Susan O’Leary addresses the pro point of view at Thursday’s GOP forum at UNM-LA as from left, John Arrowsmith and Felicia Orth and Ed Birnbaum listen. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com
Felicia Orth and John Arrowsmith express opposition to the proposed DPU charter changes. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com
Los Alamos Daily Post

Los Alamos voters are facing a major decision in the Nov. 4 election – whether to change Article 5 of the County Charter related to the Department of Public Utilities or – after 46 years – leave it alone.

The pros and cons of Utilities Department Charter Amendment “Question Number 2,” which is officially on the election ballot, was debated during a forum hosted by the Republican Party of Los Alamos Thursday night at UNM-LA’s Wallace Hall.

Those advocating against the measure argue that the Charter as written has served the community well for 46 years … “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”The other side explains the need to update the Charter citing how things can go along fine until someone like the mayor of Toronto gets hired or appointed to the board, which can open the county up for lawsuits.

Charter Review Committee Chair Susan O’Leary and CRC member Ed Birnbaum advocated for the proposed Charter changes at Thursday’s forum, focusing on three main points:

  • Council has full liability for DPU and board actions, yet no authority to implement corrections;
  • No dispute resolution in place; and
  • A vague guidance on communications between county, DPU and board.

O’Leary emphasized the importance of the Utilities Department in terms of impact to citizens, businesses and LANL. She explained that the County’s entire expenditures in the FY 2015 budget are $191.4 million and of that total, the DPU spends far more than any other department at $80.7 million or 42.2 percent. The Fire Department is next in line at 14.3 percent.  

“Article 5 is silent on how disputes between the Board of Public Utilities and the Council are to be resolved … this is significant given the magnitude of the utility department’s asset value and its role as the supplier of essential services to the citizens and businesses of the county, including LANL,” O’Leary said. “This is not a partisan issue but really a question of good governance and how Los Alamos does things.”

There is a two-step process in the proposed amendment that requires a super majority or six of seven Council members to remove a DPU manager or utilities board member.

“We put in a dispute resolution process … the county has the responsibility of the utilities department so they ultimately should have the say,” Birnbaum said.

O’Leary added that there needs to be very clear communication channels between the DPU, utilities board and Council.

Former utilities board member Felicia Orth and recently retired DPU Manager John Arrowsmith advocated against the proposed Charter amendment.

“The CRC is certainly to be thanked for reminding us of the intricate nature of the relationship between the council and utilities board,” Orth said, adding that what is being proposed is not a tweak but rather an overhaul of the Charter.

“The existing Title 5 already has a way for utilities and the entities to talk,” she said. “The county administrator is an ex-officio to the board … the vice chair of the council is a representative to the utilities board.”

Orth described the County Charter as the community’s constitution … “it’s not an ordinance.”

Everyone who applies for a seat on the utilities board is vetted and interviewed by the other board members and the council, she said, and the five year terms are staggered so one board member is replaced every year.

The proposed changes would allow Council to remove one or more board members with a six to one vote.

Orth called the references to the Toronto mayor, “outlandish” and listed several standard reasons in the current Charter that a board member could be removed.

“The current structure works very well,” Orth said. “The original Charter was rejected in 1966 because it did not have that arm’s length approach … voters approved the current Charter in 1968 after the arm’s length structure was put back in….”

Arrowsmith told the audience at Thursday’s forum that under the current Charter the Council approves the DPU’s budget, appoints the DPU manager and must approve purchases over $250,000.

“The real power is that is takes both Council and Utilities for any big decisions,” Arrowsmith said.

During the question and answer portion of the forum, Christine Chandler who served on the prior CRC asked who is accountable and how is that accountability is enforced.

“It’s much more likely that Council would use utility funds for something other than utilities than the three people appointed to the board doing something illegal,” Arrowsmith said.

O’Leary countered that the county attorney has stated that she thinks there is a disconnect between the way Article 5 is written … by not allowing council to improve a deficiency. She gave the example of an EPA violation by the utilities department in which the county begins to incur fines but has no authority to require the utilities board to fix the violation.

In closing remarks Arrowsmith said, “This charter revision takes the need to compromise away by giving Council authority…”

Orth reiterated that valid reasons to remove a board member are in the current Charter.

O’Leary said, “This article was re-written to make it easier to read with updated language. The proposed Charter changes are to make a better document for the community by clarifying things the first Charter is silent on such as dispute resolution.”

Birnbaum closed by saying that under the current Charter, a board member can be removed if convicted of a crime but not for being charged. He explained that he worked with a person who had a brain tumor that went undiagnosed for two years and meetings during that timeframe were very difficult.

“People sometimes go off the rails for many different reasons and you need a mechanism in place,” he said.

The ordinances needed in order to proceed to place the charter items on a ballot for a vote at the Nov. 4 General Election were adopted at the July 29 Council meeting and the Election Resolution that contains the actual language of the ballot questions was passed at the Aug. 15 Council meeting. 

There will be two more forums about the two ballot questions for the Nov. 4 election:

  • Tuesday, Oct. 7 on the Structure of Government, and
  • Thursday, Oct. 9 on the Proposed Utilities Charter changes.

Both forums start at 5:30 p.m. in Fuller Lodge (Pajarito Room). They are sponsored by the County but moderated by the League of Women Voters.

Documents related to revisions being suggested for Article V of the Charter, which contains the language specific to utilities, plus, the 2012 report from the previous charter review committee are all available on the County website.

Former CRC member Chris Chandler questions Felicia Orth and John Arrowsmith. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

Local GOP Chair Robert Gibson, left, and forum moderator Bill McKerley chat before Thursday’s forum gets underway. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

Audience members get settled before the forum begins. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com