A look at restructuring county government

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Charter Review Committee sought input from state municipal league

By Kirsten Laskey

To gain insight into the potential restructuring of Los Alamos County government, Charter Review Committee members met with Executive Director William Fulginiti of the New Mexico Municipal League.
On Jan. 24, the Structuring of Government Subcommittee, which includes all members of the Charter Review Committee, spoke with Fulginiti in Santa Fe. Committee member Morrie Pongratz said the group discussed various forms of county government and that Fulginiti reviewed a number of New Mexico structures such as mayor/council and mayor/manager/council.
Fulginiti also discussed a strong mayor versus a weak mayor form of government. A strong mayor does not sit on council but has veto power. A weak mayor is a residing officer who has no veto power and does not vote other than to break ties. A middle ground structure would be one in which a mayor votes all the time, Fulgniti said.
The possibility of including a mayor in Los Alamos County government was just one issue the committee is addressing. Having council members represent districts and removing partisan elections in favor of nonpartisan elections were also discussed.
Chairwoman Kyle Wheeler said a question was raised about whether Los Alamos was required to have district elections because its population is more than 10,000 residents. She said the committee’s attorney, Chay Rennick, has been asked to look into the issue.
No action was taken at the Jan. 24 meeting, but Pongratz said the subcommittee is planning another meeting on Feb. 28. Typically, the subcommittee’s meetings run 5:30-7 p.m. in the council training room located in the community building.
He said the committee is pondering some significant questions. There are a lot of avenues it could recommend to council.
For instance, Pongratz said he is working on a matrix that has one row dedicated to various forms of government and another column dedicated to duties and powers.
The chairperson’s title could simply be changed to mayor or the mayor’s role could assume more responsibilities such as performing hirings and firings, having veto power and approving salaries.
One thing the committee needs to consider is the time an individual would need to invest as a mayor. As former chair of the county council, Pongratz said that position required at least 20 hours a week of his time.
“I think if we’re going to have a mayor they better think about giving up their day job,” Pongratz said.
Los Alamos is not the only municipality to ponder moving from a county chairperson to a mayor.
“I pointed out that the City of Hobbs did that,” Fulgniti said. “They felt if they elected a mayor at larger they would have much more political influence. There’s a lot to be said about that.”
Meeting with Fulginiti was a step in the right direction, Wheeler said.
“I think it provides clarity for members of the committee,” she said. “It just helps everybody get another perceptive.”
County council appointed the committee to review the charter.
Initially, the Structure of Government Subcommittee was made up of Wheeler, Pongratz and Larry Warner but it was decided the subject required the whole Charter Committee’s attention.
Wheeler said the subcommittee’s goal is to present a recommendation on the local government’s structure in March or April. Council will decide if any recommended changes should be put on the ballot for the voters.
Structure of Government is just one of the Charter Review Committee subcommittees.
Others include: Focus on Consistency and Clarity, Department of Public Utilities’ Relationship to the Rest of County Government and Initiative, Referendum, Recall and Petition Requirements.