Forum digs into charter reform

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Unresolved issues and current grievances

By Roger Snodgrass

Political good fortune in the early days of Los Alamos County and unresolved governance questions continue to pop up over and over again when civic-minded residents get together to talk.

A public forum held Monday discussed related topics, including how the county came to have a home rule charter, past efforts and reform notions and where the charter might go from here.

The Charter Reform Committee joined the League of Women Voters in hosting a meeting with a strong historical slant, featuring past and present participants in the county’s charter saga.

“I looked in my garage and found a one cubic foot box,” said Dave Thomson,  who contributed to the original charters. “And inside that box I found the first charter and the second charter and the complete set of minutes for the first charter.”

He talked about his involvement in the formative years of the early 1960s, when the first two charters were developed and passed. It was a time of great change, he said, when the responsibility for governing the community passed out of the hands of the Atomic Energy Commission and into the hands of the residents.

Many of the most fundamental questions about the scope and structure of the local government were decided at that time, including its seven member county council with a county administrator and the county’s ownership of its own utilities.

Councilor Robert Gibson chaired a reform process in the 1990s, when a number of housekeeping issues in the original charters were identified and eventually rectified but other more substantive issue were postponed to address later.

A fundamental conclusion, he said, was that the committee believed that the charter and governance was sound, because of the wisdom of the original document and because of what a good job everybody had done to make it work.

A first set of five amendments was approved in 1994, but then the focus shifted.

“Council said there’s no crisis,” Gibson recalled. “We have other matters on our plate. End of story.”

He said a number of issues were left on the table, including questions about the form of government, about how the utilities department should be handled, whether or not there should be partisan elections and term limits. There were procedural questions, like defining open meetings, and concerns about how the boards and commissions should function and whether some of them should function differently.

Three more amendments were passed, but issues and questions remained.

“I‘ve been hoping for years that we’d get a charter review started,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that

the charter review is taking place in a somewhat reactive mode, but without that push, it wouldn’t be happening at all.”

In bringing the story up to date, County Council Chair Michael Wismer talked about how the current charter review grew out of the unfinished business of the previous experiences and a series of discussions sponsored by the League of Women Voters in 2006.

During the summer, he and others started looking at some proposed amendments to the charter and were troubled by what they saw.

“It became clear to us that adding one or two amendments without looking at the impact on the entire document could be problematic,” he said. “The notion of a comprehensive review reached out to us. We decided to look at the entire charter, to make it more modern and more adaptable to the kind of government we wanted.”

Before the meeting turned to a broad general discussion, John Hopkins, who chairs the Charter Review Committee, reviewed the committee’s recent activity. He recalled that the council voted to reject the charter reform petitions on Jan. 23, but council also asked the committee to give the concerns expressed in the petitions a high priority.

Hopkins posed the question, “If the petitions were solutions, what were the problems?”

Currently, subcommittees are focusing on two of the issues identified, he said, “the perceived need for improved communications and the perceived need for voters to have more control over major county projects.”

In bringing the meeting to a close, Rebecca Shankland of the League of Women Voters called for wider input from the public.

“The committee is very eager to hear about instances where citizens, county staff or members of boards and or commissions have found that something has really not worked,” she said. “Think about how the charter has affected you up until now.”