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Charter reform gets specific

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Spending control and communications assessed

By Roger Snodgrass

A closer look at current procedures for approving capital improvement projects and a quest to unlock the secrets of good communications motivated two groups of citizens to look under the surface of county government.

The county council project to review the governing charter moved into a new phase Thursday as two subcommittees charged with analyzing the issues met in back-to-back meetings in the Community Building.

One committee examined the question of “the perceived need for voters to have more control over major county projects.”

A little later, a second committee took up the issue of “poor communication by county government.”

The two problems were winnowed from a longer list of issues earlier in the process and identified as high priorities after four previous listening sessions and a recommendation by an issue identification subcommittee.

One was directly related to a charter reform petition that had received the requisite signatures, but was rejected by the county council as illegal at a Jan. 23 meeting.

The first committee, with Chris Chandler, Harry Ettinger, Deborah Gill, and Morrie Pongratz, examined the problem of legitimizing large expenditures of public funds.

Gill is a Democratic

candidate for county council.

Ettinger’s suggestions for what the subcommittee needed next was expressed at the top of the meeting and became the basis for the preliminary analysis, although the issue was thoroughly discussed before his suggestions were adopted.

He suggested first defining in detail what the current process was for approving capital projects, how big they had to be, when they were put to votes, what kind of citizen input there was and what outcome. And then with citizens’ concern in view, he proposed trying to figure out a solution.

“The end game is to come up with recommendations to address those concerns,” said Chandler who kept the notes and served as a virtual chairperson for the meeting. “There are multiple options. Could there be an ordinance passed? Should the threshold be higher (for measures that would require public approval)?” She said the next meeting would be devoted to learning about the current capital improvement process and trying to understand the range of appropriate actions.

Skip Dunn, one of the petitioners with Los Alamos Government Reform Initiative, whose amendments had sufficient signatures but were rejected by county council for legal reasons, encouraged the committee to rework the language in the petitions and let them get to a vote.

A second subgroup with Larry Warner, vice chair of the CRC facilitating, the meeting sliced the communication issue into three manageable pieces, one labeled “transparency and openness,” and another having to do with “communication” as “outreach,” or how the communication was done and a final category a little harder to define that had to do with the feedback from citizens.

Robert Pelak described this as “how people see that their input has an effect.”  The group termed it variously as “motivation,” involvement,” and “engagement.”

Jim Hall, another subcommittee member said, “This is one of the things that has been the most frustrating in my career on the school board and on council.”

The participants talked about a research aspect of the process, similar to the first group, in that it involved establishing a “baseline” of how things work now, such as who decides what goes on the county website.   

They also assigned research tasks to look into what the New Mexico Municipal League and other entitities had on the subject of transparency, and what the latest academic views might be on getting ideas out to the public

Chay Rennick, a lawyer assigned to assist the CRC and Steve Lynne, administrative service officer and chief financial officer, representing the county government, sat in on both meetings, offering their suggestions.

The working groups directed their efforts toward having enough of a grasp of their subjects to discuss them with the public when the full CRC meets again Monday. That meeting, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the Los Alamos Golf Course will solicit public feedback on solutions to the issues, aiming toward a public forum in April when the final recommendations will be posed.