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Utilities charter change is not in our interest

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By Chris Ortega

As a retired Los Alamos County utilities manager, 10-year member of the Board of Public Utilities (Board) and a utilities customer, I urge voters to vote against Ballot Question No. 2 — utilities. I am concerned about the potential negative effects the proposed re-write of Article V of the Los Alamos County Charter will have on Utilities customers.
Unless a voter digs deeply into the background he/she may not realize that Article V, which was ratified in 1968 and has effectively guided utilities operations since, will be deleted and replaced with a new version that is substantially changed.
What occurs in the proposed version is the council gains more control over utilities. Among other things, the council:
1) will have the ability to remove one or more board members without reason
2) will have the right to impose a dispute resolution process weighted in the council’s favor, and
3) could potentially use utilities’ funds for other county operations.
Article V as it exists today, does not allow this abuse. This is not an accident. The original writers and voters intended to limit the council’s control over the utilities and provide sufficient checks and balances. The council already approves the utilities budget, expenditures and contracts over $200,000, and utilities manager contract and salary to name a few actions.
1) Proposed Article V Section 501 3(c) will allow council to remove one or more board members without cause. Provisions in the existing Article V allow for the removal of board members for causes that are clearly spelled out.
In 46-plus years, there has never been the need to remove a board member. I have worked with more than 75 different board members and they were all professional in their approach, dedicated and worked in the best interests of the citizens of Los Alamos.
2) Proposed Article V Section 505.5 will grant the council the right to impose a dispute resolution process weighted in the council’s favor.
Councilors are not elected to get into the minutia that is required to make informed decisions to operate the business of utilities. The board is in a better position to handle it. An imbalanced dispute resolution process that allows council to make unilateral decisions prevents honest negotiations. This is not in the best interest of our citizens.
3) Proposed Article V Section 504 could potentially allow council to use utilities’ funds for other county operations.
There have been examples in the past when the county sought use of utilities funds for other county operations. These situations were resolved by the parties sitting down and amicably reaching an acceptable resolution. Modifying Article V to transfer power and control to the council hinders the board’s ability to protect utilities customers from expenses that are not utility-related.
One example occurred about a decade ago. After a county road project dragged on for months, and at council’s insistence, county staff engaged a consultant to develop project management procedures. county staff attempted to allocate the majority of the approximately $2 million cost to utilities. Utilities, through a balanced negotiation process, was able to negotiate a fair allocation.
Our municipal utility is owned by us, the citizens/customers of Los Alamos County. The semi-autonomous status that exists today works. It has protected the utilities and customers from improper political influences. Our competitive rates, reliable service and more than 20 percent renewable energy are at risk.
Please vote “against “ Ballot Question No. 2 — utilities.