Regional Coalition of LANL Communities considers folding

·4 min read

May 19—The end may be near for the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities.

In a month when two of its members voted to withdraw from the consortium of governmental entities with economic ties to Los Alamos National Laboratory, the embattled coalition on Friday is scheduled to discuss a resolution to disband a joint powers agreement and begin folding.

The coalition was formed in 2011 and previously consisted of nine local and tribal governments. In recent months it has come under fire for an inability to effectively affect business at the lab.

Both Taos and Santa Fe counties have opted to pull themselves from the coalition. The city of Santa Fe is also discussing whether to exit.

"It's a lot harder for us to carry on the coalition without the key members on the board," said coalition chairman Darien Fernandez, a Taos town councilor.

Some representatives for the municipalities have publicly stated there likely are better avenues to lobby the laboratory, including the joint city-county Buckman Direct Diversion Board and the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board. Others have voiced their intent to use the power of their local government representatives to advocate for constituent concerns.

The resolution seemingly acknowledges the coalition's shortcomings, stating it no longer accomplishes its intended purpose — to advocate for waste cleanup, mission diversification and local economic development at the laboratory.

The resolution directs the coalition's treasurer, Los Alamos County Councilor David Izraelevitz, or the group's fiscal agent, Los Alamos County, to take necessary steps to complete a final audit and pay all remaining obligations and debts.

"The organization is still in the process of cleaning up the issues that happened in the past and working on developing what the future of the RCLC will look like," said Santa Fe City Councilor Michael Garcia, who represents the city on the coalition. "I think each individual governmental entity is making their own decisions based on their constituents best interests."

The coalition's finances have been a point of concern in recent years. The group primarily has been funded through a mix of fees from local and tribal government entities and a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Energy Department's inspector general in 2019 requested the federal agency seek up to $300,000 in reimbursements after accusing the organization of failing to properly account for spending, as well as engaging in prohibited lobbying practices.

Uncertainty surrounding the grant funding also put the coalition's future in doubt, Fernandez said.

The coalition is attempting to recoup the grant funding, but that effort was affected by former Executive Director Eric Vasquez's failure to circulate an amended joint powers agreement for signatures from member governments, coalition legal representative Nancy Long said. That hampered the coalition's ability to reapply for the grant.

Izraelevitz said the lack of federal funding likely limited its ability to attract a new full time executive director. Vasquez informed the coalition in July his intent to leave the coalition.

The coalition has been unable to hold onto an executive director for a long period of time since opting not to renew the contract of Andrea Romero, who previously served in the role.

In April 2020, the coalition requested Romero — who was later elected to the state House of Representatives — pay back $8,000 in impermissible travel reimbursements identified by the state Auditor's Office in 2018. The audit identified more than $50,000 in improper payments to Romero, members of the board, and other parties.

Vasquez served as executive director for two years following Romero's exit.

Environmental and nuclear watchdogs have also pummeled the coalition for its support of a 2016 environmental consent order between the state and the U.S. Energy Department, arguing it weakens site cleanup at the lab by removing hard deadlines and penalties for insufficient cleanup work.

The state Environment Department filed a complaint seeking an end to the 2016 consent order in February, requesting a large-scale legacy cleanup schedule.

If the coalition remains intact, Fernandez said he plans to continue to work with elected officials who previously served on the coalition.

"I will say that there has always been a value in having our local governments, which would traditionally be competing against each other, sitting down and discussing topics together in the same room," Fernandez said.