Ordinance 555 rejected

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Legalities, low dollar threshold primarily drive heated issue back to Charter Review Committee

By Carol A. Clark

A motion backed by the voice of more than 2,000 petitioners died in a 5-1 vote of the county council at Tuesday’s meeting. County Councilor Vincent Chiravalle was the lone vote in favor of the motion and Councilor Nona Bowman was absent.

Chiravalle presented Ordinance 555 proposing an amendment of the county charter be submitted to the electorate for adoption or rejection at a special all-mail election Sept. 14. The amendment would add a new section requiring an annual election for voter approval of certain capital projects ($1 million or higher) and calls for a special all-mail ballot to submit to voters the question whether the county charter be amended to add the new section.

County Attorney Mary McInerny recommended council not adopt Ordinance 555 because she and other attorneys found the ordinance to be unlawful under New Mexico law.

A dozen people spoke adamantly for or against the measure during Tuesday’s meeting and Council Chair Mike Wismer waived standard time constraints.

“We (citizens) don’t have any impact on all this design and spending…” Patricia Max told councilors. “The money’s rolling in (from LANL’s GRT) to build the Municipal Building and it won’t bother citizens at all because taxes won’t be raised…”

But citizens are concerned, she said, and need to prepare because in 10 years things will change at the lab and its GRT will reduce. “We (citizens) need to be involved,” she said.

Max also commented to council on the “semi-adversarial issues back and forth” the council and citizens “keep getting into,” which takes up a lot of time.

“You need to get this figured out,” she said.

Petitioners Jack and Colleen Hanlon urged council to pass the measure.

“The signature gathering effort (more than 2,000 signatures) was successful because recent county councils lost the trust of a significant number of citizens when moving forward without a clear mandate on tearing down the Municipal Building and then built the over-sized judicial police complex…” Jack Hanlon said. “The council talks about engaging the public as a high priority on the one hand then ignores them on the other.”

His wife Colleen added that a fundamental concept of the local charter is the right of citizens to petition their governing body, and “stonewalling this ordinance by speculating on whether it is legal or illegal is no longer appropriate.”

Others spoke against the proposed ordinance and commended council for its decisive leadership. Business owner Denise Lane, retired fire chief Doug MacDonald and Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kevin Holsapple were among those who urged council to reject the measure.

“The whole idea of creating additional referendums as our decision making method is fundamentally a bad idea,” Holsapple said. “For a decision to be effective, we would argue that it needs to contribute to progress in achieving a strategic purpose. More often than not, there is a complex set of trade-offs and interplays between many decisions that must be made that need to collectively contribute to progress. Parsing these decisions into a list of discrete projects, some to be considered for individual thumbs-up and thumbs-down votes is simple-minded and would lead to less effective outcomes. We think a strategic approach to decision-making is critical to effective outcomes…”  

Local blogger Greg Kendall commended the petitioners, as did others, including councilors, throughout the evening for their success in gathering more than 2,000 signatures. Kendall also expressed concern for the low dollar amount for triggering a public election.

“This $1 million threshold is too extreme – it’s like using a nuclear bomb to kill a few rats,” he said.

Councilors voting against the measure primarily cited legal concerns as well as the low dollar threshold.

Councilor Robert Gibson explained that until about three or four years ago he leaned against requiring all major capital projects to go through voters. Representatives were elected to critically review and consider the choices, he said, because presumably they had broad and strategic perspective on needs and priorities. This applied particularly to projects primarily for the government, for which there is often little public constituency.

Gibson cited the fact that everyone wants snow plowed; few want to pay for storage and maintenance facilities for plows.  

“I felt elected representatives should have the time and inclination to critically review project requirements, plans, and other documents,” he said. “Recent experience has changed my mind.  Today, I favor voter approval of major capital projects ... if legally possible.”

The concept of elected representatives making the choices has failed in two respects, Gibson said. In considering priorities, council increasingly “puts desires of the government ahead of needs of citizens and taxpayers.”  

Council also has not critically reviewed project requirements or plans, he said, adding that the philosophy often expressed here is,  “Staff are the experts – they tell us what they want and what it costs. We should not second guess.”

That philosophy fails to recognize the inherent conflict of interest, he said and that “sadly, some staff are not experts.”

Gibson added that to be fair, voters can be distracted from the central issue, too.  

“We need look no further back than Ordinance 529 for an example,” he said. “That ordinance was about authorizing borrowing and spending. Yet all the attention during the referendum campaign was on private development and shopping that did not involve county money at all. Our elected representatives have done a poor job at carefully overseeing major capital projects. Hence, I favor returning authority to approve major capital projects to our citizens.”

Gibson raised questions as to whether Ordinance 555 was the correct vehicle to achieve that goal. It improves upon the original LAGRI proposal in focusing on a single issue, he said, but it still has numerous practical problems. Gibson seconded Chiravalle’s motion so there could be discussion, he said, but expected to vote against it, which he did.

The intent of Ordinance 555 is to provide direct citizen control over major capital projects and Gibson and others said its $1 million threshold does not constitute a major project. The threshold should be much higher, Gibson said, being intended to operate for many decades, should not contain fixed dollar amounts, if at all possible.

“The value of the dollar keeps declining, thanks to the actions of another government,” he said. “Any threshold should be expressed in some terms related to the value of the dollar. For example, $10 million is (approximately) 15 percent of General Fund revenues.  That might be a better way to express a threshold.”

Raising the threshold to address only truly major capital projects would mean typically a project requiring voter consideration would come along at a rate of not several per year, but one every several years and that should not require a scheduled annual election, he said, adding that major projects are typically in development for several years and project planners should be able to fold election cycles into planning.

“If not, the cost of a special election (estimated $35,000) is no more than one third percent of even a $10 million-class project,” Gibson said. “Anticipation of voter scrutiny would save far more than that in any project.”