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The beleaguered Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC) has been without an executive director for six months, and nobody seems to want the job. The Joint Powers Agreement that formalizes its mutual efforts in support of environmental remediation and economic development efforts at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has been lingering for nearly two years. None of the nine communities that make up the coalition is stepping up to serve as fiscal agent for the group, frequently referred to as the RCLC. And its primary funding source dried up three years ago due to compliancy issues with a federal grant.
Members of the RCLC board hope to recover that funding source — the U.S. Department of Energy — which, over the years, regularly awarded the coalition a grant for $100,000. That made up nearly half of the coalition’s more than $200,000 annual budget.
RCLC members — the cities of Española and Santa Fe, the town of Taos, Los Alamos, Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties, and the Jemez and Ohkay Owingeh pueblos — contribute the remaining funding. Los Alamos County pitches in the largest share, at $60,000 a year, while the others chip in between $2,500 and $10,000.
However, with all the issues it now faces, especially funding, it would seem that the RCLC’s future is hanging in the balance.
Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal, who chairs the RCLC board, was asked if the group could continue to operate without that funding.
“I would say not for the long term,” he said. “At least the way that it’s structured now, there’s no way the board could continue.”
Some folks would just as soon see the RCLC dissolve and the taxpayer money directed to it spent somewhere else.
Members of the public, LANL watchdog groups, newspaper columnists and editorial boards, including the Journal North, have called for it to be abandoned. Critics search for empirical evidence that the RCLC has had a real impact and question whether what it does is any different from what New Mexico’s congressional delegation does when it comes to pushing for waste cleanup and local economic benefits from the lab.
It didn’t help that the state Auditor’s Office, tipped off by a group of local citizens, initiated an investigation into the RCLC’s books and found that it had engaged in numerous improper practices related to its finances and reimbursements.
The organization claims accomplishments on its website, stating, “Our collective voice has increased LANL cleanup budgets by tens of millions of dollars, ensured ongoing support for community commitment contributions by future LANL prime contractors, led efforts to pass a Bill to save the State of NM and local communities $176 million in annual GRT revenues, and protected the interest of local contractors to compete on contracts at LANL.”
Taos Mayor Dan Barrone, whose town is more than 60 miles from Los Alamos, said he would like to see the RCLC continue its work.
“I believe it is a good organization that gives the municipalities a chance to be a part of what is going on at the lab,” he said.
RCLC board members, such as Los Alamos County Councilor David Izraelevitz, a former lab employee, say the collective voice of the communities makes them louder when advocating for more spending for environmental cleanup and job creation at LANL.
“We rely on the laboratory as our largest economic engine for the county. But we also understand that the lab can’t be successful by relying only on resources that Los Alamos County can provide.
We must draw on resources in our region,” he said, adding that local communities should maintain a “regional” outlook. “There’s strength in numbers.”
But the RCLC is one short in numbers at the moment.
As first reported by the Los Alamos Reporter, an online newspaper that regularly covers the RCLC, the city of Santa Fe has yet to sign on to a revised Joint Powers Agreement that was sent to the nine member communities in early 2019.
And while the other eight communities have agreed to the JPA, not all of them have exhibited a commitment by paying their usual share, including Santa Fe County. RCLC board meetings sometimes struggle to achieve a quorum, the Reporter says.
Michael Garcia is Santa Fe’s representative on the RCLC board. He says he expects the JPA to come before the Finance Committee next month to start the approval process.
“The governing body wants to do its due diligence that the city is entering into an agreement that ultimately would lead to involvement that would be most beneficial,” said the city councilor, also expressing a need for collaboration among the communities. “Any time there’s an opportunity for intergovernmental collaboration on an issue, I think that’s beneficial. Intergovernmental collaboration is necessary when working on issues that impact many governments and we want to make sure we’re all working together.”
City Council approval is not a given, however. Fellow councilor Renee Villarreal and others have expressed skepticism about whether the RCLC is worth the $10,000 the city annually contributes.
“We have never gotten any updates; the JPA has not come to us. I want to understand that relationship and how it’s beneficial to Santa Fe residents,” she said. “I think we shouldn’t pay those dues until we know exactly where the $10,000 we give goes.”
The city and county of Santa Fe recently passed resolutions calling for a new Site-Wide Environmental Impact Study to be conducted at LANL prior to the lab ramping up production of plutonium pits, the triggering device in nuclear warheads. The respective governing bodies have also taken stances against nuclear proliferation.
Another concern for Villarreal is that the RCLC, at least until it lost the DOE grant in 2018, was receiving almost half its funding from the DOE.
“I always thought that was a strange relationship, (the RCLC) getting funding from the DOE. It seems like a conflict of interest,” she said.
Villarreal said she’s looking forward to seeing the revised JPA when it comes up in committee next month.
“As a governing body, we need to weigh in and make sure we want to continue this partnership and, frankly, I’m not sure it’s even a partnership,” she said.
The JPA and naming a fiscal agent are tied together, as often the entity that will serve as fiscal agent is identified in the JPA.
Los Alamos County has served as fiscal agent since the RCLC was formed in 2011, but that could change.
“We are in the process of updating the JPA that defines the regional coalition, and one of the items we are changing is that, instead of the JPA specifically calling our county the fiscal agent, any of the communities can serve in that role,” said Izraelevitz, who serves as RCLC treasurer.
But it’s unclear if anyone else would want to serve as fiscal agent.
Roybal, the RCLC’s chairman, said there has been some discussion about not designating a fiscal agent, but he wasn’t sure that would fly.
Asked if Santa Fe County would be willing to take on the role of fiscal agent, Roybal said that would be a decision for the entire board of commissioners. But he didn’t sound enthusiastic about that idea.
“My opinion is Santa Fe County has other fiscal responsibilities right now,” he said.
According to minutes of previous meetings, an updated JPA is one of the requirements the RCLC needs in order to be in full compliance with recommendations of the Office of the State Auditor.
After a review of the RCLC’s books, the state Auditor in August 2018 issued a scathing report that identified 18 negative findings. Among them, and what was later learned to be a reason DOE stopped awarding the grant to the RCLC, was potential non-compliance with the grant “specifically with regard to explicitly prohibited lobbying.”
But an argument can be made that lobbying — advocating for funding for environmental cleanup at LANL and creating new jobs — is precisely why the RCLC was formed in the first place. Pre-pandemic, RCLC representatives, including local elected officials, traveled regularly to Washington, D.C., to lobby for more hazardous waste cleanup money for LANL and to promote jobs at the lab.
One such trip helped get the RCLC in trouble in the first place. Many of the negative findings turned up in the audit had to do with improper expenses and reimbursements conducted by the RCLC’s former executive director, Andrea Romero, now a member of the state House of Representatives. Tickets to a Washington Nationals baseball game and a pricey dinner at a downtown restaurant where one RCLC board member ordered a $28 glass of WhistlePig whisky were among the expenses flagged in the audit.
After the questionable expenses came to light, Romero’s contract was not renewed by the RCLC.
The executive director position was eventually filled by Chicanos Por La Causa, with Eric Vasquez overseeing day-to-day operations. But just before the two-year contract paying $169,000 per year expired, Vasquez informed the RCLC board that his group would not seek to continue executive director services at the reduced rate the board was contemplating due to the loss of the DOE grant that cut its budget nearly in half. The budget for the current fiscal year is $117,000.
The RCLC has been without an executive director since August and no one responded to a Request for Proposals by a Jan. 15 deadline.
In the meantime, the governments that make up the coalition have been splitting the duties of the executive director. For example, Santa Fe County is handling meeting agendas and other administrative functions, Los Alamos County is still holding the purse strings and Taos is maintaining the website.
But Roybal said he thought it would be unsustainable for the RCLC to continue operating that way.
“There has been talk from the board about if we could go on without an executive director,” he said. “But, at this point, it has been very difficult for staff of each of the (RCLC) board members to take on additional responsibilities.”
Izraelevitz, on the other hand, remains hopeful the RCLC will carry on with or without an executive director.
“We have a healthy balance and can generally support RCLC expenses with our current membership contributions and current balance,” he said.
The organization currently has a cash balance of about $226,000, he said.
He said the RCLC has cleaned up the issues identified by the state Auditor’s Office. The application for the DOE grant is almost ready to go and, if they get that DOE funding, the RCLC will be in pretty good shape.
“A few months ago, we finished all those updates, so we’re ready to make that application and I think it will be a strong application,” he said.