Candidates set to demand disclosure

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Implementing a transparency policy will be a priority item

By Carol A. Clark

Information that bubbled to the surface recently indicates the county council has been kept in the dark for years about investigations into the activities of senior management in Los Alamos County government and that has council candidates ensuring that, if elected, the practice won’t continue.

“I think it is appalling that the county council had no idea of the serious investigations going on within the county,” Republican Ron Selvage said.

“I believe that all internal investigations should have been reported to the council at their inception. Because the council is ultimately responsible for what transpires in the county administration, these allegations and investigations should have been reported so the council could correct what seems to be a systemic problem.”

Democrat Deborah Gill said that she would have to review the existing policy related to disclosure of these types of issues to determine whether it’s not being followed or needs to be revised.

“I am supportive of policy and structure in government,” Gill said. “Concerning Human Resource Grievance Policy, I want to see planned internal and external stepped procedures that are coordinated in stages. Involvement with the public ideally should occur sometime during the external procedure.”

The county administrator and the county attorney report directly to the county council, yet those closest to county administration have not pointed to a specific policy that mandates disclosure of these types of investigations to county council.

A flood of documents provided to the Monitor by varying sources – other than the county – reveal a pattern of nondisclosure stretching back to at least 2005 when Republican Fran Berting was on council.

“I believe I was serving as council chair during the Peter Dwyer (former county attorney) investigation, yet I was not told anything of the investigation at all,” Berting said. “Within the limits of legality, the council should be informed.”

Democrat Ken Johnson likened the position of county administrator to that of a CEO, saying the CEO of a corporation is responsible for keeping the board of directors informed.

“This seems to me to be an easy fix by implementing a policy – that the county council will be informed by the county administrator, who is appointed by the council, that there is a need for an investigation,” Johnson said.

Republican Jim Hall said the county administrator should adhere to council policies and be an example to other employees.

“My view is that this is a fairly straightforward policy matter,” Hall said. “Council needs to know about an investigation, council needs to know the status and council needs to know how it closed.

I don’t think we need some big formal structure…the county administrator works for the council…we put the requirement in the county administrator’s job description and say, by the way, this is a requirement and if you fail to adhere to it, disciplinary action, even termination will result.”

Republican Geoff Rodgers said, “The credibility of the Los Alamos County Council is at stake. It should shine a bright light on the internal workings of the county. Wherever that leads, it leads. A formal policy requiring disclosure to council of certain matters such as investigations of senior management should also be adopted.”

The most recent probe involves the top two highest ranked officials in the county. It was Aug. 23 when Assistant County Administrator Diana Stepan informed new County Attorney Randy Autio, on the job since July, of complaints she had against County Administrator Tony Mortillaro. Autio then informed the council, which contracted with a law firm in Albuquerque to coordinate an independent investigation. The investigation has been underway for more than a month and is expected to conclude, barring any unusual turns, in about two weeks.

Council Chair Michael Wismer stated in an earlier interview that while council understands the community’s frustration with the time it’s taking to complete the probe, the overriding importance is to conclude with a comprehensive report. He gave assurances that council will make the final report public.

Council did not place Mortillaro, the subject of the allegations, on paid administrative leave, which is typically the practice for the duration of this kind of investigation. In documents reviewed by the Monitor, council members initially directed Stepan to bypass Mortillaro and report straight to them.

Three days later, however, council changed course and directed Stepan to report to Mortillaro. Council, in a document obtained by the Monitor, detailed a plan of how it expected the pair to interact and advised Stepan to report any retaliatory behavior.

Stepan declined that plan and requested in a letter to council that, “with no other option available,” she be placed on paid administrative leave immediately. Stepan has remained on paid leave for seven weeks.

Democratic council candidate Betty Guenther was unavailable for comment.