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New councilors target meaningful community connection

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By Carol A. Clark

Newly elected county council candidates Vincent Chiravalle, Sharon Stover and Mike Wismer gathered at the Monitor Friday to discuss their vision for enhancing the strengths of the current council.

All three commended the current council for its many accomplishments and credited county staff for their continual hard work and dedication to improve Los Alamos.

The new councilors also discussed concerns voiced by the community during their months of campaigning.

"I saw three indicators of a lack of confidence in our council and our current form of government," Wismer said. "First, a group has been formed to research state laws into if and how our Class H home ruled county charter can be overturned by the governor. Secondly, the lack of volunteers for our boards and commissions, which I pair with the information I heard while campaigning that council doesn't listen. Why should residents volunteer if they aren't going to be heard? The third indicator is that a well-liked incumbent (Ken Milder) wasn't re-elected."

Chiravalle and Stover agreed that during their campaigning they also heard many community members express frustration with not being heard.

Stover explained that while council and county staff hold 30, 60 and sometimes 90 percent public reviews of major projects, for some reason most community members don't participate. "We need to ask our citizens what we can do to help them connect better with the county and with county council," Stover said. "It's also very important that community members receive responses to their questions in person or by e-mail when they do participate."

They spoke of possibly holding public gatherings in the neighborhoods where people live including inside resident homes and at their schools. They also plan to ask the public for ideas of how to be more accessible and serve them better.

"Not to be critical but making the public wait two hours at council meetings when they have just one question to ask really doesn't seem the best way to do things," Stover said.

Wismer and Chiravalle agreed. "When you lose contact with the people you're serving - then you lose your effectiveness," Wismer said.

Voters also expressed frustration that council meetings run on for hours. Wismer intends to study elected bodies in other cities to find a model that would improve the current format, that among other practices, typically includes all seven councilors weighing in on every item presented, adding significant length to meetings.

"Or maybe just create our own model," Stover added.

The new councilors want to find the balance between ensuring community members feel they can get their point across and council conducting its' business efficiently.

"It's a real virtue to be brief in your comments and to be succinct," Chiravalle said. "After all, your final statement is when you cast your vote."

County expenditures was another topic discussed at Friday's meeting. "What I took away from the campaign...the message that came forward to me is there is a great deal of concern about the amount of money being spent on major projects and whether all these projects are necessary," Chiravalle said.

Wismer mentioned that budget hearings begin this spring and said it's incumbent upon all three of them to dig into the projects to see if the spending is warranted.

Another concern voiced by the people during the campaign, they said, is the erratic power outages. "I think one of the top priorities of utilities related to projects is to make the grid more reliable," Chiravalle said.

Council also needs to get regular progress reports on projects, Stover said, adding that the current council has started that process through the new project management plan recently implemented.

There's a lot of reading to be done and meetings to attend for the new councilors to gain an understanding of all that's going on in the county before officially taking office on Jan. 1.

"Council Chair Jim Hall has invited us to sit in the front row at council meetings and to participate in closed meetings to help us get up to speed," Stover said.

Filled with enthusiasm and ideas, the new councilors said their intent now is to find solutions to the issues raised by voters during the campaign season.

"When you have an election," Chiravalle said, "you have to look back and ask what was the message."