New councilors get 'boot camp' experience

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Training: Preps elected officials to take reins

By Arin McKenna

New county councilors will be sworn in Friday.

But those new councilors already got a taste of what their new jobs are going to be like as they attended a “boot camp,” earlier this month.

The boot camp provides elected officials with intensive training facilitated by NM EDGE (Education Designed to Generate Excellence in the Public Sector), which is a collaborative program developed by New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service in conjunction with NMAC and other state organizations.

“It was like drinking out of a fire hydrant,” Councilor Rick Reiss said. “There’s nothing like covering a whole lot of territory in three short days.

“What I was impressed with was that the NMAC has a very well-prepared program to assist us in getting ready to be better councilors. And the topics that they covered were varied and intentional to get us up the curb.”

NMAC paid the registration for all newly elected officials to attend, which included Los Alamos County’s three new councilors. The county council approved funds for Reiss to attend, as well. Reiss was appointed to fill a council vacancy in September.

All four attendees were impressed with the depth of the material covered and the opportunities for networking with other county and state representatives. Participants received copies of the workshop presentations as well as the New Mexico County Commissioners Handbook.

“As a newly elected person who has never run for office before, I think even though you know what you’re running for, this makes it more real,” Kristin Henderson said. “The responsibility and making decisions on behalf of the community — this made it much more real.”

“In my mind, this is bootstrapping us out of feeling our way in the dark,” Steve Girrens said. “It was a heck of an investment for me to spend two and a half days down there.”

The boot camp began with a review of the structure of government; looking at how the United States Constitution and the New Mexico Constitution and statutes interrelate with county governance.

“It was kind of nice to watch the flow of one to the other and refresh your memory a little bit,” Reiss said. Reiss was also glad the session discussed the impact of tribal government and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded New Mexico to the United States in 1848.

Other workshops covered ethics and professionalism, employment law and general finance for policy makers.

Pete Sheehey was impressed by what he learned at a workshop on the roles and responsibilities of the county commissioner.

“We set the policy. We do not run the county. If it’s not a policy thing, it’s not appropriate for us to get involved,” Sheehey said. “We only supervise one person and that’s the county administrator, and to some extent the county attorney. All other supervision is done by the county administrator and it’s not appropriate for us to bypass the chain of command. It is appropriate for us to bring things to the attention of the county administrator and then follow up.”

Participants also spoke animatedly about luncheon panel discussions, including one on the do’s and don’ts of talking to reporters and another with three state legislators on how to be effective in getting legislation passed.

“They talked about how you get a legislator’s attention. One said, ‘If the name doesn’t go with a number on my cell phone, I’m going to let it go to voicemail. So if you’re waiting until the legislature’s in session to ask me something or give me information, you’re too late,’” Girrens said.

The new councilors were also pleased with the networking possibilities and came away with a greater appreciation for Los Alamos. They were surprised how other counties must cope with issues such as unfunded mandates that place great burdens on many county jails, especially those with large municipalities.

“New Mexico is pretty poor and rural. The state has budget issues and poverty issues. We don’t have that to the degree other counties have. Others also have much more serious crime. We’re a very fortunate place,” Henderson said.

“Other counties were also interested in our home rule. It’s a much more efficient use of funds to not duplicate municipal and county efforts. Other communities commented on it a lot and they’re looking at it as a possibility. There are many counties that have smaller populations than we do but they’re paying for both municipal and county services.”

Reiss was able to apply what he had learned during last week’s council meeting.

“We’re covering some pretty important things in council, in particular changes to the charter. It’s interesting to apply what we learned to things like the charter change discussions, such as where does state law stop and the charter begin?” Reiss said. “The first council meeting after boot camp I was able to visualize the connection.”

Girrens, Reiss and Sheehey all expressed interest in further training offered by NM EDGE. EDGE offers certification programs for public officials, public supervisors and public managers.