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County officials and reformers will face off this weekend on the fate of two petitions facilitating citizen participation in the local government. One calls for an annual election related to county expenditures and the other proposes reforms to the petition and ballot process.
Los Alamos County Council meets in special session Saturday morning at 10 a.m. to discuss the two amendments to the County Charter. They may then decide whether or not to put them to a vote.
The petitioners say they are trying to reform county government with better checks and balances and provide more direct citizen participation in the decision making process.
At a meeting on Jan. 5, council certified that there were sufficient signatures on the two petitions to qualify for an election.
According to the staff reports for Saturday’s meeting, County Attorney Mary McInerny will argue that the petitions are not legal under state law and should not go to a vote.
McInerny said Friday that the plural items within the two proposed amendments create a legal problem known as “logrolling,” which has to do with joining more than one issue in an election, so that it isn’t clear that voters would approve both questions if they were presented separately.
“It’s a fairness issue for the voter,” McInerny said. “They have a right to be heard, which can’t happen if there are too many subject matters to be decided.”
Ellen Walton, one of the leaders of the petition drives said she was disappointed by recommendations by the county administrator and county attorney not to adopt the resolutions.
“My view is that this type of thing should probably be decided in a courtroom by a judge and not by the council before the election,” she said.
Although the charter language on amendments does not include a provision for the council to deny qualifying petitions from the ballot, McInerny cited precedents that appear to give a local government that power, if they conclude the proposition is illegal.
The petitioners have a legal recourse, she said, which is to seek a writ of mandamus, an order from the court. The court would have to make a determination on the logrolling before issuing an order to compel county officials to hold the election.
“The remedy for the petitioners is to go for mandamus,” McInerny said. “It’s a fairly fast process, in and out in a few months. We can’t file a writ against ourselves. It has to be against a public official.”
Skip Dunn, who worked on the petition campaign, said the effort began a little over a year ago.
“It formed from people who, for various reasons, felt it was important to look at greater citizen’s involvement,” he said. He noted that the referendum on the 529 Ordinance that passed in 2006 included a variety of development projects, which were not seen to be logrolling.
Patricia Max, a frequent critic of county government, said she didn’t understand why staff was involved in giving any kind of advice at all.
“This is a council responsibility,” she said. “The people signed and we should have an election.”
As for the legal argument, she added, “Does this mean every time you want to change something you have to hire a lawyer for thousands of dollars? This takes control more out of the hands of the citizens. It’s legal mumbo jumbo which makes people more and more angry with government.”
Meanwhile opponents of the charter amendments say the petitions, if they do come to a vote, are wrong-headed and potentially disastrous for the future of the community.
Bill Enloe, president and CEO of Los Alamos National Bank said he was particularly opposed to the amendment that left the issue of major capital expenditures up to an annual election by voters.
“If you think something is wrong, you should vocalize it,” he said. “Everyone has his or her own opinion on how the money should be spent, but that’s why we have a government.”
An annual review would lead to short-term decision-making and would bring the functional operation of the county to a halt, he said. “And that would be bad for everyone.”
Dave Fox, owner of CB Fox Department Store, said the review of major capital expenditures would deter development because it would add another degree of uncertainty to the approval process.
“If 13,000-plus voters have to read and understand the documents and vote on them,” Fox said, “that’s going to lead any developer to say, ‘No, thank you.’ ”
A message from Los Alamos County Thursday afternoon confirmed that despite severe weather threats, the meeting is still scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday morning in Council Chambers in the Community Building. Atomic City Transit’s Dial-a-Ride will offer free rides to residents who wish to attend between 8:45 a.m. and
2 p.m. Residents should call 661-RIDE to request service. If it becomes necessary to cancel the meeting, the county will post notice on the county’s Web site, www.losalamosnm.us and will record a notice at 662-8083 on Saturday morning.