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Muni building battle intensifies

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By Carol A. Clark

An estimated $3.1 million has been spent to date on the Los Alamos County Municipal Building and no earth has been turned.

County Chief Financial Officer Steve Lynne said that cost includes $1.1 million for building designs, $900,000 to demolish the old building and $300,000 to demolish the LA Apartments to make room for the new 60,000 square foot building.

In addition, another $800,000 has been spent for temporary county office space at various locations in the last three years.

The old municipal building stood adjacent to Ashley Pond for 40 years before being declared unsafe because of its failing structure and was demolished in 2008.

Due to recent legal maneuvers and counter maneuvers, forward movement on the new structure is at a virtual standstill.

The players
On one side of the issue stands resident Richard Hannemann and a group of like-minded supporters passionate about seeing the former muni building replicated and erected back at its original location on Ashley Pond.

On the opposite side, the municipal building site selection committee tasked by council June 12, 2009 to locate the optimum site on which to rebuild. On Oct. 27, 2009, after spending four months vetting 25 sites against 13 criteria, the 16 member citizens’ committee presented its recommendation of the county-owned Los Alamos Apartment complex site on Central Avenue near 15th Street.

The maneuvers
In April, Hannemann petitioned protesting the council’s decision, calling for a vote of the people to decide. Despite counsel to the contrary from County Attorney Randy Autio—due primarily to the wording of the petition question — four of seven councilors voted Oct. 19 to adopt the election resolution. Council directed the county clerk to hold a special all-mail election. Ballots are due to be mailed to registered voters after Thanksgiving to be returned by 7 p.m. Dec. 20 at a minimum cost of $35,000.

In June, Pat Max circulated a petition protesting Central Avenue location as inappropriately zoned and accused the county of manipulating the zoning to fit its needs. That petition was deemed illegal and the apartment complex demolition ensued.

On Oct. 25, the council revealed that the Jaynes Corporation/Studio Southwest architect team was the top choice for the Municipal Building Design/Build. The awarding of any contract is on hold pending the results of the impending election. The County has requested that the bidder extend their offer and pricing until after the election results are known.

Last Wednesday, local attorneys Christine and George Chandler formally protested the county council’s action. They filed a complaint for injunctive relief against the Los Alamos County Council, with a request for a preliminary injunction to stop the impending municipal building election until a judge hears the complaint on its merits. Judge Barbara Vigil has agreed to hear the case from 2-4 p.m. Thursday in Santa Fe District Court.

“We’ll have to hire outside counsel because I’ve already rendered an opinion,” Autio said.
On Friday, Councilor Vincent Chiravalle announced that he intends to introduce an ordinance at Tuesday’s council meeting that calls for rebuilding the structure at Ashley Pond. County Administrator Tony Mortillaro said that a revised agenda would be issued for Tuesday’s county council meeting that will provide for introduction of the ordinance.

Councilors weigh in
All four newly-elected county councilors went on the record Oct. 31 saying they would vote against Hannemann’s initiative to build a replica of the old municipal building at Ashley Pond.

Councilor Chair Mike Wismer: “First, I want to make it clear that I am speaking as an individual councilor and not as council chair. The council voted to site the new municipal building on the Central Avenue location last January. I voted no because I wanted to see the building put back on its original site at Ashley Pond. The council’s decision was not my first preference but one I could live with and the reason I could accept it is because we chartered a citizen’s committee to recommend a site and we provided that committee with the site selection criteria. The committee did as we asked and the council selected the committee’s number one recommendation. When the petition from Mr. Hannemann came forward, I examined my own decision-making process and determined that my decision to put the municipal building back at its original site was an emotional decision and not an objective decision. I accept that our representative form of government worked well and the majority of council selected the site on LA Apartment site and I agreed to move forward with the design/build process. When the petition was presented, the county attorney’s analysis convinced me that putting that question on the ballot was illegal so I voted against the election. In summary, I would say that any decision that council makes is liable to have those that disagree, just as the 1,600 people who signed that petition obviously did. So council’s decision following the citizen committee’s recommendation should stand and we should move onto the next phase, which is to design and build it on the LA Apartment site.”

Council Vice-Chair Sharon Stover: “Council took a vote on Jan. 28 to support the committee’s recommendation. I supported it then and I still support it. The committee used our criteria to analyze 25 sites and council voted to accept their recommendation of the Los Alamos Apartment location. I was in the minority in October when council voted to put the site question to a public vote. It was very clear that it was an illegal question and how can we put an illegal question before the citizens for a vote?”

Councilor Vincent Chiravalle: “My constituents feel strongly about this issue. More than 1,600 people signed the (Hannemann) petition and I will not ignore them.”

Councilor Ralph Phelps: “I am, and have always been, in full support of the site selection committee’s recommendation to put the new municipal building at the old LA Apartments site on Central Avenue.This is unquestionably the right place for it, and this is what I voted for when council made its decision. My vote of support to send the Hannemann petition to a ballot, as I stated at the council meeting, was not on where to place the building, but on letting the question raised in the petition go to a vote. I could have used the legal “out” we were presented, but I felt that with some gray areas and with the divisiveness of the issue, it was right to send it out so that the voices of the more than 9,500 other citizens we represent who did not sign the petition could be heard. It is unfortunate that subsequent actions are creating more acrimony among us, but if we want to acknowledge that our charter provides for a petition process, then we are also responsible to provide the tools to make it work.”

Councilor Mike Wheeler: In January, council voted to relocate the new municipal building on the LA Apartment site and I continue to support that decision. It was the right thing to do then and it’s the right thing to do today. Mr. Hannemann’s petition was illegal and a petitioner should ensure that their petition is a proper petition. This petition misled the community and it misled the people who signed it – now we’re in this mess and going to court Thursday at which our contracted attorney will represent the county.”

Councilor Robert Gibson: I think the municipal building should be build at the pond. I think we can build a perfectly adequate building there within the current budget. The proposed budget for the LA Apartment site is about $10 million over budget and that site would be better used for housing or retail business.”

Councilor Nona Bowman: “When I initially voted I supported the recommendation by the citizen’s site selection committee. Then Mr. Hannemann circulated his petition to take the question to the public and at that time I felt the election should proceed. I did not approve the content of the petition but rather the right of citizens to question their government officials. As far as Mr. Chiravalle’s ordinance to build the municipal building back at the pond, I will listen to the discussion tonight and make my decision at that time.”

Carol A. Clark can be reached at lanews@lamonitor.com.