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Council to lobby for full-time clerk compensation

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By Arin McKenna

 

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On Thursday, the Los Alamos County Council wrapped up loose ends during a special session on the two remaining charter articles reviewed by the Charter Review Committee (CRC).  

Council took another look at the county clerk’s position, to decide whether they should put a ballot measure before the voters to change the clerk to a full-time, appointed position as it is in all New Mexico municipalities, or ask the legislature to raise the salary cap from that of a part time position to full-time compensation.

The CRC had recommended keeping the clerk an elected position, as it is in the current charter, but also recognized that the clerk’s duties have grown in recent years, largely due to changes in state law, and that this should be compensated as a fulltime position. Due to Los Alamos’ status a Class H, incorporated county, the clerk also fills dual roles as both county and municipal clerk. 

The CRCs recommendation was complicated by the fact that the most recent state statute governing salaries for public officials caps the clerk’s salary at $6,889. 

The state constitution requires the New Mexico State legislature to set salaries for public officials. Rather than dictate salaries, the legislature has chosen instead to set the maximum salaries based on county classification. 

Deputy County Administrator/Chief Financial Officer Steven Lynne warned that it could be difficult to convince the legislature to reclassify the position as full time 

County Clerk Sharon Stover asked council to take the legislative path. Stover agrees with the assessment of former county clerks that the duties as they stand today require a fulltime effort, but argued against making this an appointed position. Stover stressed that any changes would not affect her remaining term of office.

“The elected clerk answers to the voters. The clerk’s loyalty is to the voters, not to his or her supervisor,” Stover said. “With an elected position, you help insure transparency and public trust.”

Stover argued that an appointed clerk could be placed in a compromising position by having to do what his or her supervisor instructed. 

Sen. Daniel A. Ivey-Soto, (D-District 15), who has also been executive director for the county clerks of the State of New Mexico for the last seven years, also encouraged council to approach the legislature. 

Ivey-Soto wrote the most recent salary bill, and pointed out that he had originally left Los Alamos County out of the legislation. The county council at time asked to be included in the bill, and Rep. Jim Hall presented an amendment to increase Los Alamos County salaries by 15 percent. 

“It’s important for you to know that the legislature deferred to Los Alamos,” Ivey-Soto said. “So based upon that, I can tell you with full confidence that it would be relatively simple to get a change in the statute to reflect the fulltime nature of the clerk’s position in a Class H county.”

Ivey-Soto also pointed out that the Los Alamos County clerks do assume many duties that are not required of municipal clerks but are required of county clerks, such as overseeing school elections, issuing marriage licenses and maintaining records of property ownership.

“Although historically in Los Alamos County the clerk has been a part-time position, it has grown into a full-time position. 

“And a lot of that has happened in the last decade, and it is a lot of the reason my position was created seven years ago, because of the complexity that now exists for the county clerk,” Ivey-Soto said. 

“The problem now is that you have a county clerk with very little authority in terms of what they get paid, but all the responsibility of the office.”

Council voted unanimously to pursue a change in state statute that would increase the upper limit of clerk’s salary to a fulltime position. 

Stover also announced that Chief Deputy Clerk Sheryl Nichols will be retiring this year. 

Earlier, council considered whether to send proposed amendments to Article V to voters as a single-ballot measure or as three separate ordinances. Article V governs the Department of Public Utilities.

The CRC strongly recommended that the amendments be voted on as a single measure, arguing that the proposed amendments were carefully planned as an organic whole. 

Councilor Pete Sheehey raised a concern voiced at earlier discussions, that if voters disliked one or two of the proposed changes, such as giving the council the ability to remove a board member by supermajority vote, the entire ordinance might fail.

Sheehey also asked whether including all the proposed changes in one ballot measure might not be considered logrolling, which could be challenged in court.

County Attorney Rebecca Ehler responded that the measure closely mirrors a Supreme Court case in the 1980s that dealt with judicial reform. In that instance, the court ruled that there was an overarching logic to the multiple changes included on the ballot measure, since all were integral to each other. 

Councilor Steve Girrens made the motion to send amendments to the voters as a single ballot question. 

“Both committees (the first CRC committee and a second one formed to study Article V) agreed that it’s an integrated and coherent document, it’s one document, and that’s why the recommendation was made to present it to the voters as a single ballot question,” Girrens  said. 

“I believe we have an electorate that is capable of understanding it as a whole and deciding on it in its entirety. A lot of the recommended changes hinge on each other. I think all of the pieces are important.”

Councilor Frances Berting made the case that the current Article V has served the county well and should continue to do so if the measure fails. 

Councilor David Izraelevitz gave one example of how voting on the amendments separately could have a negative impact. 

“I would hate, considering the thought that was given to dispute resolution, for the summary removal of board members to pass but dispute resolution not to pass,” Izraelevitz said. “So now we’re back to having a nuclear option, as we’ve called it before, and not having another more collaborative mechanism to try to work things out.”

Sheehey said that giving council a mechanism for removing a Board of Public Utilities member added an additional element of politics that was “almost insulting” to those serving on the board, and might discourage people interested in joining the board. 

Council voted 6-1 to send the proposed changes to the voters as a single ballot measure, with Sheehey voting against the motion.