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Council dynamic yet to be defined

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Support for adding mayor to mix gains more momentum

By Kirsten Laskey

With four new councilors taking seats on the dais at the first of the year, the Los Alamos County Council’s dynamic still is being defined.

While the leadership and direction of the current council has yet to be chiseled in stone, some seasoned observers have weighed in on what they’ve seen so far.

Los Alamos resident and county government watcher Greg Kendall said, “It’s still early in the new council’s term but already alliances seem to be forming. I’ve seen a few 5-2 votes with councilors (Vincent) Chiravalle and (Ron) Selvage forming the opposition to the majority.

“There have been a few 4-3 votes where Geoff Rodgers has joined Chiravalle and Selvage. These three tend to be more conservative and budget-minded.”

Having a difference in opinion is not a bad thing, said Skip Dunn, another Los Alamos resident.

“We need to have checks and balances in government,” Dunn said.

“It’s a fundamental policy. If (the councilors) are working too cohesively, we don’t have any checks and balances. The council needs to fulfill a responsibility of providing those checks and balances and separations itself which means it’s a Catch 22 situation. It needs to work cohesively to get things done but it can’t work too cohesively to maintain checks and balances.”

He added he felt the previous council with its trend of voting on issues 5-2 showed the councilors worked fairly well together but still had a split. A little dissension is essential in any kind of governmental body, Dunn said. “We don’t want 7-0, our community is not 7-0,” he said.

The current council lineup is still too young to determine how they will balance cohesiveness and dissension, Dunn said.

However, others see a heavily dominant party representation as a potential problem. The current council has six republicans and one independent.

With regard to diversity of party affiliation, former county councilor Mike Wheeler said, the very conservative part of the community is well represented but there is virtually no representation of the progressive.

“To me, that’s going to present a very biased, one-sided future for the county,” Wheeler said.

Rodgers said despite a single party holding the majority of the seats, he still sees a variety of opinions on council.

He added, “The personal dynamics among the councilors are very good.  I think this leads to spirited discussions, but no personal animosity.”

In fact, Rodgers said the fact that councilors interact well is one of their strong points. “I think one of the strengths is the good relations among the councilors.”  

In addition to dealing with dynamics of the council, the councilors have a lot of challenges ahead, Wheeler said.

“They certainly have some challenges facing them with the state of the county. The infrastructure replacement is well underway but there is a lot of work yet to be done on the charter review committees and the future path of the community. So I think those are real challenges; as far as achieving those goals I am somewhat disappointed at the strategic plans. They are pretty minimalist; they don’t seem to focus on a path forward, as far as I can see,” he said.

Wheeler continued, “It’s important that each of the councilors maintain their courage and integrity and I think I’ve seen a lot of that so far. However, that in and of itself is not enough to achieve the goals of the community. One has to understand what the community wants and to implement those desires and address quality life issues, and right now I am not sure there is well-defined future plan for that.”

During his current stint on council, Rodgers said he sees “a weakness at this point may be the fact that a majority of councilors are just starting a new term.  Even though three of them have previous experience on the council, it still takes time to get up to speed on all of the issues.”

He added, “There is a reason the community is entertaining the public discussion of a mayoral form of government. Councils in general tend to be weak.  This council has yet to be tested with any tough issues.  It’s too early to say if it will be a strong council and where it may need to improve.”

Other members of the community also see the value in a mayoral form of government.
Dunn said Los Alamos needs a mayor because it would help ensure there are checks and balances on the council while also providing cohesiveness on the council.

Kendall also believes a mayor would offer decisive leadership to the council.

“Los Alamos councils, in general, tend to be human polling machines,” he said. “They count e-mails and calls. They measure the decibel levels of the voices on either side of an issue. This is fine when there is a clear majority that emerges on an issue, but when an issue is split, council becomes mired in debilitating indecision.

“Personally, I believe the time has come for our council to take more leadership initiative, especially when the citizenry is split on an important issue. I also support having a mayor to provide more focused county leadership,” he said.

The Charter Review Committee’s Structure of Government subcommittee will continue the discussion of a mayor during a meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the Community Building.