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The May 2, 2010 editorial, “Ordinance threatens to hamstring future councils,” does not include important information about funding capital projects. Prior to the conversion of LANL to a privately operated laboratory, large capital projects were funded through elections in which citizens approved an increase in the property tax rate to fund the projects. Essentially citizens were voting for or against a project and voters approved the swimming pool, the library and the senior center. Voters turned down the last capital project, the Civic Center, but that certainly did not “hamstring future councils.”
Because of the marked increase in the GRT revenue from a privately run LANL, voters no longer have to approve a county increase in its share of the property tax rate. The result is that voters have no say in how the county budgets for large capital projects. Two thousand voters signed the LAGRI petition requesting an election on a charter amendment that would permit a vote. The election was denied by the council, based not upon the charter, but based upon the county attorney’s opinion. Councilor Chiravalle has now weighed in on the side of those 2,000 voters and has introduced ordinance 555.
There is precedence for a vote on large projects that are not funded by property taxes. Some years ago, the council voted down a large utilities project to allow approval of that project to go to the voters. The voters approved it. This election did not “hamstring future councils.”
Our current council should have more faith in the voters and should realize that we are pretty supportive of sensibly designed projects. What is making the current council nervous is the number of voters who have spoken out against the cost of the Justice Center, the scope and cost of Airport Basin and the current size estimate for the new Municipal Building.
The Los Alamos County vision statement adopted Mar 26, 2002 lists “Engage Citizenship” as the number one priority. What better way to engage the citizens than to allow them to express their views by voting on capital projects. The County is bypassing its own CIP process for the new Municipal Building. If citizens do not have an opportunity to vote on this very important expense, there will be no other way to influence the cost and size of the building. At some point, when construction at LANL and decommissioning of TA-21 are completed, our share of the GRT will decrease. What will future citizens think of the spend, spend, spend, attitude of the last few councils?
Editor’s note: Los Alamos County Public Information Officer Julie Habiger stated that while it is correct that the Municipal Building project did not fall under the revamped CIP process to submit a Phase 1 or 2 application, it is in the CIP, adding that it was exempted from the process in the approval of the FY 2010 Budget as a “project in transition.” The adopted project budget of $15,802,875 is a placeholder estimate. To the extent that there are steps that it could follow in the CIP process, such as having public involvement and places for extensive public reviews of the project, Habiger said the county has followed that same CIP guidance.
Noxious odor or breath of fresh air?
The Monitor’s editorial of May 2, “Ordinance threatens to hamstring future councils,” is baseless. The writer claims there is a “noxious odor swirling around Ordinance No. 555,” “so fundamentally flawed and ill conceived,” it would “virtually guarantee governmental gridlock,” “most assuredly hamstring future councils,” “emasculate the county council,” and lead to “unprecedented stagnation.” “Such a moribund scenario could be enough to stifle, if not extinguish, the faint glimmers of hope for a revitalized and robust Los Alamos.”
The editor fears terrible consequences. Lest we get sucked into this irrational thinking, recall FDR’s statement in his first inaugural address; “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” In fact, an improvement in Democracy is all we have to “fear” with this petition turned ordinance. After all, in most communities in our nation, citizens vote on capital projects and those communities have managed to function over the centuries since our country’s founding.
The citizens’ right to petition for an election on a Charter amendment proposal is a fundamental principle contained in our Charter, our local Constitution. Besides the principle of voting on an amendment, the proposed Charter revision would establish the right and responsibility most other citizens in this country already have to vote on capital projects, and would establish at least one check and balance on our sole governing body.
Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” To a Council long used to unfettered license to act with no automatic checks and balances, the thought of having the people vote on capital projects may seem “emasculating.” However, as our Counselors adjust to the check and balance of voter approval of capital projects, they will become more effective leaders.
As for the citizenry, President Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized “the mental stress and burden which (a democratic) form of government imposes.” He pointed out that monolithic (“dictatorial”) forms of government “make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems — freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.”
To date, Los Alamos has barely progressed beyond the Commission and the AEC that ran Los Alamos before we formed our Charter. We still have a single body of government (Council) with executive, legislative and judicial all rolled into one. Such a monolithic government results in an extreme concentration of power with no checks and balances that is anathema to Democracy. A citizen vote on capital projects would provide one small but important check to the Council. In the process it would vastly improve the engagement of citizens in our governance and thereby achieve the community-generated Comprehensive Plan vision of Engaging Citizenship.
The Council is considering Ordinance 555 at its meeting at 7 p.m. on the May 11.
Petition signers and all citizens interested in citizen participation in government will want to attend.
The Los Alamos Governmental Review Initiative (LAGRI) provides a non-partisan forum for citizen governmental review and participation — www.lagri.org.
Richard Dunn, LAGRI