BY: Sean P. Thomas [email protected] / Updated
Santa Fe City Councilor Renee Villarreal renewed her concerns Monday about the city’s involvement in a joint powers agreement with the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities.
During a Finance Committee meeting Monday, Villarreal said she has yet to understand how the city benefits from the agreement, which calls for a $10,000 contribution.
“Why is it important we are part of this coalition?” she asked. “It’s never been clear to me about the benefits and how it holds up the values that we care about in Santa Fe.”
The city is one of nine cities, counties, towns and tribal governments that make up the regional coalition, which was established in 2011 to give communities in Northern New Mexico a more official say in decision-making pertaining to job development and cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
But controversy emerged in recent years over the organization’s spending practices.
The city now must decide whether to approve a revised agreement that shifts the group’s fiscal management away from Los Alamos County — which has served in the role since the coalition was formed.
The city previously discussed the new joint powers agreement at a Quality of Life Committee meeting in July, when Villarreal first raised questions.
That committee eventually moved the agreement forward without recommendation. On Monday, however, the Finance Committee voted unanimously to send the agreement back to Quality of Life to receive a more clear understanding of the coalition’s benefits to the city.
The coalition routinely received more than $200,000 a year in public funding — $100,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy and the other half from its member municipalities based on the number of residents who are directly employed at LANL.
In October 2019, however, the Energy Department’s inspector general recommended the federal agency seek reimbursement of up to $300,000 from the coalition, saying it had failed to properly account for its spending and citing prohibited lobbying practices.
In 2018, the New Mexico state auditor also released a report identifying issues with spending practices. The audit identified improper travel expenses involving current state Rep. Andrea Romero, a Santa Fe Democrat who previously served as the coalition’s executive director. After the audit, her contract was not renewed.
Los Alamos County Councilor and coalition board member David Izraelevitz, who attended Monday’s meeting, said current contributions to the coalition can only fund a part-time executive director, and that a request for proposals for an executive director did not yield a candidate.
Finding a new fiscal agent is “one of the issues” that the coalition needs to iron out moving forward, Izraelevitz added.
He said the coalition helps the city of Santa Fe and other communities by providing a “common voice” to federal issues surrounding the lab.
As of Monday, the city of Santa Fe and Jemez Pueblo were the last holdouts to sign the agreement. The full City Council is slated to decide on the agreement at its next meeting.
Councilor Signe Lindell asked for the last two years of coalition budgets ahead of the vote.
“I know we’re not talking about a huge amount of money, but if I could see the finances, I could see what this group is doing, and what is accomplished by it,” Lindell said.
Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth noted the Los Alamos lab recently announced it was opening an office in Santa Fe and voiced her support for participating in the coalition.
“I think they will get their house in order and we will start to see the benefits of our membership,” she said.