Let’s Give Citizens Veto Power on Capital Projects

Citizens had an opportunity to participate in our local democracy.  Unfortunately, their voices were ignored, but they got stuck paying the bill!

The total cost for the construction of the Los Alamos County Municipal Building.  $20,741,080

Yearly operations and maintenance costs for FY2015, FY2016 and FY2017

FY2015 $423,168
FY2016 $500,849
FY2017 $602,934

Former County Councilor Vincent Chivavalle

Source: Councilor Vincent Chiravalle’s View on Los Alamos: 2011

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A recent opinion by New Mexico Attorney General Gary King stating that it is legally permissible for Los Alamos to amend its charter to require voter approval of capital projects is a tremendous victory for more than 2000 Los Alamos citizens who signed a petition in 2009 proposing such a charter amendment.

When more than 2000 citizens sign a petition their collective voice should not be ignored by local government. For this reason I introduced Ordinance 587 which proposes a charter amendment requiring voter approval of capital projects that cost more than five million dollars.

One can read the complete ordinance by clicking here. In my opinion all citizens should have an equal opportunity to influence the decisions of local government and the voices of special interest groups should not be allowed to overpower the will of the public. As I see it many of our citizens are concerned about lavish county spending on bloated capital projects and feel that Council is not listening to the public.

If Council won’t listen then why not give the citizens, who ultimately pay the bills for bloated capital projects such as the municipal building and the judicial complex, veto power?

If our citizens feel that a forty million dollar project to narrow Trinity Drive and add multiple roundabouts to this vital road is not appropriate because it would cause problems for businesses and people commuting to work, they should be allowed to vote it down. The proposed charter amendment in Ordinance 587 will give voters the ability to do so. When has a democratic process stifled progress?Ordinance 587 draws upon language and concepts that have come to fruition over several years beginning with the work of the Los Alamos Government Review Initiative (LAGRI) in 2009. Against a backdrop of unprecedented county spending on capital projects, LAGRI members obtained more than 2000 signatures in 2009 for a petition, proposing a charter amendment enabling voters to approve certain capital projects.

Citing election law and concerns about whether the proposed charter amendment would constitute a legal question for voters, on January 23, 2010 Council decided not to have an election on this proposed charter amendment.Councilors are empowered to propose charter amendments through the ordinance process.

Given that the voters were not given a chance to decide the merits of the LAGRI petition, I introduced Ordinance 555 on April 13 2010. Ordinance 555 incorporated much of the same language as the LAGRI petition, including requiring all capital projects of 1 million dollars or more to obtain voter approval and specifying that a set of project requirements and a summary of the 60% design package be published 50 days prior to an annual election on capital projects. Ordinance 555 removed language from the original LAGRI petition concerning land conveyance and land use issues in order to assuage legal concerns about being a proper question for voters. In addition Ordinance 555 explicitly called for a special all mail ballot election on September 14, 2010 so voters could decide the proposed charter amendment.

In a memorandum issued on May 4 2010 the County Attorney stated that the electorate approval process for capital projects established by Ordinance 555 would be unlawful under New Mexico law. In her memorandum the County Attorney referred to a decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court in Johnson v. City of Alamogordo, where the Court ruled that administrative acts by a local governing body are not subject to referendum. At a public hearing on May 11 2010 I argued that the legal criteria established in Johnson v. City of Alamogordo does not apply to the proposed charter amendment because the authority of a home rule municipality to require voter approval of capital projects is not expressly denied by the New Mexico Constitution. Council decided not to adopt Ordinance 555.

Subsequent to the public hearing on Ordinance 555, the Attorney General of New Mexico offered his opinion in a letter to the county administrator on whether Los Alamos could legally amend its Charter to require voter approval of capital projects. Attorney General Gary King and Deputy Attorney General Elizabeth Glenn state in their letter dated May 11 2011 that a home rule municipality can exercise all powers that are not expressly denied by the New Mexico Constitution and that the power to obtain voter approval of capital projects is not expressly denied. They conclude that it is legally permissible for Los Alamos to amend its charter to allow voter approval of capital projects.In light of the opinion by the Attorney General I feel it is appropriate for Council to address the issue again. Ordinance 587 incorporates several changes relative to Ordinance 555.