Council candidates talk turkey at debate

-A A +A
By Kirsten Laskey

From Trinity Place to electrical outages to financial matters, the county councilors elected Nov. 4 will face hefty issues and objectives.

The County Council candidates attempted to prove they have the answers during a debate held Wednesday in Duane Smith Auditorium.

Candidates Vincent Chiravalle, Republican; Manuel Baca, Democrat; Ken Milder, Democrat; Sharon Stover, Republican; and Mike Wismer, Independent, are vying for three available slots.

The debate kicked off by asking candidates if they would recuse themselves from voting on issues that were conflicts of interests. All five candidates said that they would.  

The questions moved onto economic issues. The candidates were asked how they would handle the current financial crisis.  

“Currently, our county is in a bit of a mess,” Baca said. The solution is to clean it up, he said, to watch spending, control spending and don’t spend more than what is available.

Additionally, Baca recommended rejecting projects that are not worthwhile to citizens, such as the West Jemez By-Pass Road project.  

“There’s a lot of concern in the public throughout the community,” Milder said. “People see all the construction projects that are going on and think, ‘Gee it looks like we’re spending money like drunken sailors.’”  

However, Milder said it would be more costly if these projects were stopped.

The council also just put into place a capital improvement plan (CIP) process, which differs from past approaches when the council seemed to pull dollar amounts out of the air for capital projects, he said.

The new process is very structured, Milder said. If they are interested in pursuing the next step to a particular capital project, that step would be determining the cost and taking this number to the public.

“We need to be very cautious,” he said.

The county has overextended itself on too many capital projects and it needs to prioritize, Chiravalle said. He recommended these priorities address the schools, the White Rock Master Plan and rebuilding the electric grid.

Additionally, Chiravalle suggested the county cut $10 million from the new municipal building and negotiate with the developer for the Trinity Project to share some of the financial responsibilities.

In another question related to the economy, the candidates were asked to give their thoughts about what they would do if the Trinity project falls through.

“This is a unique time in our history when the economy is fragile,” Wismer said. “If in a crisis (situation) Boyer backs out, which I don’t think will happen, what will happen next goes to the public.”

He added that the Trinity Site is more about the county’s quality of life than about economic development.

Stover said she is “optimistic” that the site will continue to be developed. She added it would offer more retail, something people have wanted, according to surveys conducted during the past 20 years. If the deal with the developer dissolved, then the issue would have to go back to the public, Stover said.

To solve the workforce shortage facing local businesses, Chiravalle recommended turning to students. Students, he said, make great part-time workers. “I think we can attract more students to come to Los Alamos.”

To do this, he suggested expanding educational opportunities at the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos or offering other courses for students.

He added having a four-year university would be a great thing for the community.

The other key to increasing the workforce is having affordable housing, Chiravalle said, such as creating mixed-use residences in White Rock.

“We need to be a welcoming and open community to all people and I think it starts with students,” he said.

Being an employer, Baca said, many of his employees come from outside of Los Alamos. The problem, he said, is many of the local employment opportunities do not provide the salaries needed to afford the cost of living in Los Alamos.

Affordable housing should be addressed, he said. After looking at the Los Alamos Apartments, which are considered affordable housing, Baca said, “I wouldn’t allow homeless people to squat there for $1.”

People need nice housing and wages that cover the cost of living to be able to stay in Los Alamos, he said.

Milder explained that the County Council and the county have done several things to address this issue, such as taking part in the Regional Transit District.

Regarding affordable housing, Milder said the county hasn’t been successful “We need to think outside the box,” he said.

An education component is key, Wismer said, it’s not just about bringing workers up the hill.

As a member of the UNM-LA Advisory Board, Wismer said there has been discussion about offering an employability certificate to teach students how to work in a job. “I would encourage growing that to a service academy,” he said.

Candidates were asked how they will ensure the public is listened to. One of the favorite aspects of campaigning, Stover said, is hearing what is on people’s minds. “People need to feel connected to their county government and trust their county government,” she said, adding that one of the best ways she’s found to learn what’s on people’s minds is mingling with people at the grocery store.

Wismer mentioned reaching out to the community through blogs. “Blogs are good way to read what’s on people’s minds,” he said.

During his campaign, Wismer said he has also conducted living room chats.

People open up their living rooms to meet one-on-one with him. Nothing, replaces meeting face to face with citizens, he said.

They were also questioned about their expertise in financial matters. Milder said he has been involved in public service since moving to Los Alamos 35 years ago. He started out on the utilities board, where he got experience in government spending and budgets. He also got further experience working at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Chiravalle serves as president of his homeowner’s association and treasurer of the local Republican Party. This is a community that understands that they cannot over extend their money and the council should follow that, he said.

Host James Rickman and Monitor Managing Editor Carol A. Clark moderated the debate, which was sponsored by PAC 8, KRSN AM 1490 and the Monitor. Debate organizer Greg Kendall, PAC 8 broadcast manager Holgar Waschinski, PAC 8 production assistant Will Deal, KRSN’s David and Gillion Sutton, timekeeper Karen Kendall and Duane Smith Auditorium manager Ross Mason worked hard to bring the debate to the public and participated behind the scenes Thursday evening to ensure it ran smoothly.

The debate will broadcast at 6 p.m. today.

 For future broadcasts, access PAC-8’s website at http://www.losalamos.com/pac8/.