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SANTA FE — The hotly contested issue regarding the legality of a citizen vote on the question of whether to reconstruct the municipal building on its original site at Ashley Pond has been decided – at least in the short term – there will be no election.
District Court Judge Barbara Vigil ruled Monday to grant plaintiffs Christine and George Chandler’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop the special election on the grounds that it is illegal.
“The county shall be prohibited from mailing out the ballots until which time as the court has time to issue a final determination,” Vigil said. “I will proceed to set a hearing as soon as possible and direct the Chandlers to prepare the order implementing the preliminary injunction.”
The Chandlers are local attorneys who represented themselves at the hearing. George Chandler drew laughter from the courtroom when he held up a completed order and said, “We were thinking positive on the outcome today, your honor.”
Christine Chandler explained that the order for the preliminary injunction means the special election has been stopped and no ballots shall be printed or issued until such time as the judge makes a final determination on the complaint.
“We plan to move quickly … we just amended our complaint to include a declaratory judgment, which will make clear that the election is illegal,” she said. “It’s almost just a question of law at this point.”
Councilor Vincent Chiravalle, an election advocate, attended Monday’s 75-minute hearing.
“I accept the judge’s ruling but I still stand by my decision to allow the special election and I still feel it would have been better to litigate this matter after the special election,” Chiravalle said.
County Council Chair Michael Wismer was unable to attend but issued the following comment: “In my view, as an individual councilor, the court’s decision to halt the election is consistent with the law of the State of New Mexico and is in alignment with the advice provided to council by County Attorney Randy Autio. It is a victory for the citizens of Los Alamos in that it validates the fact that the vehicle to legislate matters belongs to the county council and underscores the role the community plays in early engagement into the decision-making process, not after. In the case of the site selection for the municipal building, there was a committee appointed to make recommendations to council. The process was open and public; leading to a decision by council, which was based on the recommendations of the committee.”
The Chandlers successfully argued that the wording of a petition question, brought forth by local resident Richard Hannemann, which called for the citizen vote was in essence illegal based on New Mexico Supreme Court precedent.
“We are pleased the judge stopped the election and we look forward to the hearing ‘on the merits,’” George Chandler said. “What we really hope is that this will encourage people who want to do petitions, and we don’t oppose petitions, but you have to do them right.”
Christine Chandler agreed saying, “Participating in government is a responsibility – the people who serve on county council have a responsibility and the people circulating petitions have a responsibility.”
Outside counsel, Holly Agajanian represented the defendants named in the Chandlers’ complaint including Los Alamos County, the county council and County Clerk Janet Foster. Agajanian was called in to replace County Attorney Randy Autio, who recused himself from the proceedings because he rendered his opinion on the matter at a recent council meeting.
“It saddens me to know the taxpayers are forced to foot the bill of a contract attorney to defend the action of placing this on the ballot when we had a thorough analysis from our county attorney that clearly charted the relevant case law,” Wismer said.
On Oct. 19, Wismer, Council Vice-Chair Sharon Stover and Councilor Michael Wheeler voted against the referendum. Councilors Chiravalle, Ralph Phelps, Nona Bowman and Robert Gibson voted to approve the measure. The Chandlers filed their complaint that same week.
A majority of councilors had approved constructing the new municipal building at the site of the former LA Apartments on Central Avenue during a meeting last January. The Central Avenue location was the recommendation of a 16-member citizen’s site selection committee, who were appointed by the council.
During Monday’s court hearing, Stover and County Capital Improvement Projects Director Anne Laurent were called to the witness stand to provide background information.
Agajanian argued that the Chandlers had no standing in the case. The judge did not agree.
The litigants were set to square off last Thursday, but in an 11th hour agreement, postponed the hearing until Monday to give Agajanian more time to meet with her clients.
The delay in the hearing cut lead time needed to print the ballots right down to the wire. The deadline was 3 p.m. today for the county to print the ballots, which were scheduled to go out in the mail to registered voters the week of Nov. 29.
The referendum would have concluded Dec. 20. Ballots for this type of election cost $1 each to print and the election would have cost an estimated $35,000.
Meanwhile, costs for the municipal building continue to mount. A Los Alamos Monitor report last week showed that an estimated $3.1 million has been spent to date and construction has yet to begin. Building plans, demolition and temporary county office space account for expenditures to date, according to County Chief Financial Officer Steve Lynne.