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The questions swirling around the legality of a petition concerning the municipal building weighed heavily on Los Alamos County Councilors during the regular council meeting Tuesday night at the White Rock Fire Station.
While the council came down on both sides of the issue, they ultimately voted to certify the petition in a 4-3 vote.
As a result the council, again in a 4-3 vote, agreed to call a referendum on the now certified petition question. The referendum will be carried out in a special all-mail ballot election on Dec. 20. The cost of a special election will be $35,000 minimum, according to county officials.
The question that will come before voters will be whether to allow an exact replica of the former municipal building to be reconstructed at the original location near Ashley Pond. At present, Los Alamos County is planning a new municipal building at the location of the former Los Alamos Apartments on Central Avenue.
Richard Hannemann, who spearheaded the petition drive, presented it to council during its Oct. 5 meeting but it was declared to be insufficient because it lacked the nine signatures to make the required 1,668 signatures for a petition to be certified.
Although Hannemann obtained the remaining signatures, County Attorney Randy Autio said he believed there was still an issue with the petition language.
In a memorandum, Autio said New Mexico law limits the type of question that may be subject to a citizen initiative or a referendum. The issue is if the petition seeks a vote on a legislative matter or an administrative matter. He said the New Mexico Supreme Court recently made a ruling on a case, Johnson vs. City of Alamogordo, which was similar to Hannemann’s petition. The court ruled that city ordinance or
resolution must be legislative in nature to be subject to review by referendum.
From his point of view, Autio said the first half of Hannemann’s petition, which addresses the location of the municipal building, could be interpreted as legislative. However, Hannemann goes on to note a specific place for the building along with a specific design and additional details that make the petition appear to be administrative in its language, Autio said.
Council Chair Mike Wismer asked what options were available to the council. Autio said the council could either adopt the proposal presented in the petition, certify that the petition is sufficient and proceed with a special election, not certify the petition and not pursue the election or certify the signatures but not the legal sufficiency of the petition and direct the matter to the county attorney for a declaratory judgment in the courts to determine if the language is legal or not.
Interpreting “administrative” as day-to-day operations, Hannemann said he did not believe the petition was illegal. “This is not a day-to-day administrative action,” he said.
He added that the councilors could either agree with the petition or do what is commonly done and take it to the voters. There is no guarantee, Hannemann said, that it would pass. If it doesn’t, Hannemann said the issue of its legality is moot. If the petition does pass in the referendum, however, then it would be appropriate to challenge the petition in court.
He said he was asking the council to have the fortitude to let the courts decide on the legal issue and appreciate the fact that almost 2,000 people signed the petition.
“They want the municipal building back,” Hannemann said.
He added citizens have a right under the county’s charter to write a petition. He also said no legal advice was sought when the petition was written.
Not everyone at the meeting Tuesday night shared Hannemann’s feelings about recreating the old municipal building.
Stan Primak of Los Alamos said it was too late to save the former building. It had already been bulldozed to the ground. In regard to the former location, Primak said the committee that was formed to evaluate different sites for the building did not consider the original location because it did not meet the municipal building site criteria they had been given.