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Time to pull the plug on the Regional Coalition

It’s time for the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities to go away.

The small organization – with an annual budget of $200,000 – was always something of an odd duck.

It is made up of cities, counties and pueblos located near Los Alamos National Laboratory, and says it has two goals. One is to push for promoting local economic development from the lab and the other is to advocate for federal money for cleanup of long-term radioactive and hazardous waste at LANL.

Here’s how the coalition puts it on its website:

“The Regional Coalition is a conduit for Northern New Mexico communities to make a direct impact on local, state and federal government decision-making in regional economic development and nuclear cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL). The Regional Coalition is comprised of elected and tribal officials representing their local communities to ensure national decisions incorporate local needs and interests.”

The coalition is not a watchdog group. It wasn’t set up to question what goes on at the lab – whether the lab should expand its radioactive materials work by producing plutonium “pits” for nuclear weapons, for instance. There is a separate citizens advisory board created by the federal government that is designated as a way for local communities to provide citizen input on environmental issues at LANL.

The Regional Coalition was started in 2011. Liberals like former Santa Fe mayors David Coss, a lifetime environmentalist, and Javier Gonzales have supported it as a way to help lobby for federal dollars to get rid of LANL’s so-called “legacy waste” from decades of nuclear weapons work.

The other part of the Regional Coalition’s mission – economic development – walked a fine line. While saying it has no position on what goes on at the lab, the coalition has been a cheerleader for local contractors who get jobs at LANL. Anti-nuclear critics say that’s the same thing as supporting the lab’s nuclear mission or more plutonium work.

The big question about the coalition has always been: What does it do that New Mexico’s congressional delegation doesn’t when it comes to pushing for waste cleanup and local economic benefits from the lab? There’s no empirical evidence to show that having local mayors and other politicos travel to Washington to lobby for more cleanup dollars has made a difference.

Now comes a long-anticipated state audit of how the Regional Coalition’s spends its relatively meager budget of taxpayer dollars. About half of the $200,000 budget comes from the feds and the other half is from local governments, mostly Los Alamos County.

The audit was spurred by questions about travel and meal reimbursements that emerged in a political context, as then-Regional Coalition executive director Andrea Romero began her Democratic primary run against House District 46 incumbent Carl Trujillo.

The scathing audit says Romero, no longer with the coalition, but now the Democratic nominee for the House 46 seat, and the local elected officials who served on her board broke the law and the coalition’s own policies when they were reimbursed for travel, meals, entertainment (like Washington Nationals baseball games) and booze. More than $50,000 in spending was “improper.” Various expenses weren’t pre-approved by the board, as required.

The State Auditor’s Office even says the spending is in “potential non-compliance with the Department of Energy Grant Award with regard to explicitly prohibited lobbying” and could result in the coalition having to pay back around $372,000.

Some of the audit findings may have a political tinge – State Auditor Wayne Johnson is a Republican and Democrat Romero is the target of the audit. But there’s not much doubt that the coalition’s financial controls were a mess.

The Regional Coalition appears to be trying to regroup and carry on. But at this point, somebody should pull the plug on this enterprise. It seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.