County to stay mum on muni vote

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Councilors can’t find concensus on approach to referendum

By Kirsten Laskey

The county council could not reach a consensus in terms of how to handle a county staff request for direction regarding outreach to the public on the upcoming special election for the municipal building.

The councilors’ struggle to find a way forward on the question led to three failed motions and ultimately the Los Alamos County Council declined to take any action during their regular meeting Tuesday night.

In other business regarding the special election, council approved a budget allocation of $35,000 to pay for the election.

However, the bulk of the council’s discussion centered on the Dec. 20 referendum, and how the council should approach informing the public on the issues; voters will ultimately decide if the new municipal building should be a replica of the original building at the original site.

Council, deadlocked with Chairman Mike Wismer absent, failed to pass one motion, which recommended $25,000 be allocated for county staff to do public outreach through the county Web site, newsletters and the media.

Voters do need facts, Councilor Michael Wheeler said. He added as elected officials, the council is obligated to take a position on issues while the county is another story. “We really do have an obligation to ensure the public is as informed as possible,” Wheeler said.

The motion was not intended, he said, to advocate one stand or another but to simply give the facts.
Councilor Ralph Phelps agreed. When he voted for the special election, Phelps said, he voiced a need to give full disclosure of the implications and effects of approval or disapproval of the ballot question.

While the “gory” details of the new municipal building’s history didn’t need to be rehashed, Phelps said the pros and cons of supporting and not supporting the ballot question should be addressed. “That needs to be made very clear,” Phelps said.

Vice Chair Sharon Stover also believed the council should inform the public. The council took a position when they agreed to a new site, where the Los Alamos Apartments were located, for the municipal building, she said. The information, however, should not be skewed, Stover said.

Councilor Vincent Chiravalle said the county should be careful to present everything as the truth and showcase both sides of the ballot question.

The county does a good job of supplying information, he said, plus, Chiravalle said he did not believe public dollars should be used for this outreach. Those who are for and against the ballot question should express their opinions themselves, he said.

Councilor Robert Gibson said he was not concerned about the $25,000. What he was concerned about was the trust the public had in the county government.

It is far more important, he said, to have citizens’ trust than a municipal building. Information that is presented fairly and that is valid is good and misinformation is worse than no information at all, Gibson said.  

He felt the facts of the new municipal building plans (at the Los Alamos Apartments site on Central Avenue) needed to be fair and accurate and that is not what was presented. He further accused County Administrator Tony Mortillaro of having no credibility in relation to the project.

Mortillaro later said his credibility has never been questioned and he resented the comment.

Mortillaro said he believes it would be better if county staff did not write anything regarding the election and if the council pursued the motion, then they should consider involving a third party to handle the crafting of the communications.

Councilor Nona Bowman shared Mortillaro’s concerns, saying she believes the county staff might be accused of misleading the community, something she did not feel the administration would allow to happen.

As a result, a second motion was raised to not take a position on the ballot question and to take no further action. That motion also died for lack of support.

Pat Max, a resident of Los Alamos said, “This is David and Goliath.”

She said the county’s charter states that people have the right to petition and no where does it state that the county can take a political stance.

“You can not be a political action committee,” Max said.

Richard Hannemann, who spearheaded the petition drive, agreed. He said the only way to ensure objectivity would be to have the information about the ballot question be written by independent analysts.

Carl Forton of Los Alamos also urged the councilors to stick to the facts. “Voters need the facts,” he said.

Bowman then proposed a third motion to use $15,000 for staffers who have knowledge of the municipal building issue to craft opinions that represent each side. The motion died for a lack of a second.