Drinking on the Public Dime

Source: Drinking on the public dime | Editorials | santafenewmexican.com

The Regional Coalition of LANL Communities is one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind public agencies that few realize exist. With little scrutiny, the group goes about its mission — which, unfortunately, seems to include plenty of wining and dining of the region’s public officials. That’s a travesty.

Obviously, the cities, tribes and counties of Northern New Mexico have an interest in the mission of Los Alamos National Laboratory. It’s right in their backyards. That interest includes finding out more about the work being done at LANL and how it might boost the economy, or paying close attention to environmental cleanup. Those are real concerns, not just of government, but of all citizens.

However, that’s not what the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities seems to be doing. Reporter Daniel J. Chacón, looking at expense reports and other documents, discovered a pattern of unfortunate spending. Last fall, a trip taken by group members included dinner at an expensive D.C. restaurant, complete with $380 worth of alcohol.The group’s travel policies prohibit alcohol as an allowable expense, something coalition Executive Director Andrea Romero seems to have trouble grasping.

The group’s fiscal agency, Los Alamos County, did not catch the alcohol tab, either. After Romero submitted the $1,850 restaurant invoice to Los Alamos County, the entire amount, including alcoholic drinks, was reimbursed.For Romero, who has announced a run for the State House of Representatives against incumbent Rep. Carl Trujillo, the stories about her group’s expenses could not be more ill-timed. She is facing a primary in June and, frankly, lacks a reasonable explanation for failing to follow the rules. She is blaming “politics” for the uncovering of the travel practices.

She is correct — the nonprofit that helped track down the spending is closely connected to Trujillo. NNMProtects, or Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land, Water and Rights, got involved by filing an open-records request for the coalition’s emails and receipts for expenses. Romero claims the group had no interest in the regional coalition until she announced a run against Trujillo.

Be that as it may, it is unacceptable for public officials to enjoy lavish meals and alcohol at taxpayer expense, and it is unacceptable for Romero as executive director not to follow policy. Don’t drink on the public dime. It’s that simple.What is unfortunate about this entire episode is that it damages Romero as a candidate — she either doesn’t know the rules or doesn’t care — and it also damages coalition effectiveness.

Designed as a way for communities affected by the lab’s presence to influence decision-making around economic development and environmental cleanup, the group has lost credibility with such sloppy spending.  Cities, tribes and counties should be asking what they are getting for their money; the U.S. Department of Energy also contributes $100,000 to the coalition. Its 2018 budget is $212,000, with $30,000 allotted for travel.

Perhaps all involved should just save their dollars and let elected mayors, councilors and commissioners lobby individually. That would eliminate the temptation to use the coalition as a taxpayer-funded slush fund to woo elected officials.