The city of Santa Fe and at least two other members of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities are considering whether to break ties with the embattled group.
Supporters of the coalition say it gives local and tribal governments in Northern New Mexico more say in job development, waste cleanup and other priorities at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
But some members of the Santa Fe City Council, Santa Fe County Commission and Taos County Commission aren’t convinced of the benefits of the organization, which has come under scrutiny in recent years following a string of missteps — most surrounding financial management and spending practices.
“How does our voice get heard at the RCLC?” asked City Councilor Renee Villarreal, who has introduced a resolution that calls for pulling the city from the coalition and finding other ways to advocate for Santa Fe.
The city’s Quality of Life Committee is expected to debate Villarreal’s resolution Wednesday, with the full City Council broaching the subject May 26.
The Taos County Commission will vote Tuesday on a measure to withdraw from the coalition, and the Santa Fe County Commission will make a decision later this month on a new joint powers agreement with the organization.
Jemez Pueblo also has not yet signed on to the agreement.
“It’s not a unified voice,” Villarreal said of the coalition. “I think there is a different way to express our need for cleanups and show why these pieces are important.”
According to a draft of her resolution, it calls for the city to reach out to the joint city-county Buckman Direct Diversion Board to discuss ways to advocate for cleanups. Under the resolution, the city also would partner with the county to consider a new coalition and would reach out to the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board, which provides recommendations to the Department of Energy, the lab, and state and federal regulators on environmental cleanup and other waste-related issues.
The resolution also seeks a reimbursement of the city’s $10,000 membership fee for 2021.
Villarreal has voiced concerns about the coalition for months. She reiterated her worries in March as councilors debated whether to sign on to a new agreement with the group that would reorganize it and shift the role of fiscal agent — a position held by Los Alamos County since the coalition was formed in 2011 — to a different member.
Councilor Signe Lindell requested metrics or budget data outlining the coalition’s impact over the past decade.
No sufficient data was provided before the City Council voted 5-3 last month to reject the agreement.
Council Michael Garcia, the city’s coalition representative, said the council will have to decide what a “seat at the table” will look like when it comes to “advocating for the city’s priorities in regards to LANL.”
Taos County Commissioner Darlene Vigil, who has attended the coalition’s meetings as a board member since taking office this year, has concerns similar to those of Villarreal. She said she quickly realized there were problems with how the organization operated.
The coalition’s intent didn’t align with county, she said.
“Just viewing the coalition, reading what has been taking place, we started questioning the effectiveness of the organization and whether it was benefiting the community,” Vigil said.
Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen said she supports severing ties with the coalition, which she called ineffective.
“I have better ability to talk to Department of Energy officials when I go to D.C. or even here,” Hansen said.
Commissioner Henry Roybal, the county’s representative on the coalition, did not respond to a request for comment.
Along with fees from local government members, the coalition had been funded with a $100,000 annual grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. In 2019, however, the Energy Department’s inspector general recommended the federal agency seek reimbursement of up to $300,000 after accusing the organization of failing to account for spending and engaging in prohibited lobby practices.
A year prior, the state auditor also identified spending issues, most involving state Rep. Andrea Romero, a Santa Fe Democrat who served as the group’s executive director.
Her contract was not renewed, and the coalition has been unable to hold on to an executive director since then.
Los Alamos County Councilor David Izraelevitz, the coalition’s treasurer, told the Santa Fe City Council in March its struggles to find an executive director were tied to the loss of federal funding.
The coalition is seeking to recoup that funding, but its effort might have been hampered by former Executive Director Eric Vasquez’s failure to circulate the amended joint powers agreement — approved by the coalition’s board in 2019 — for signatures from member governments.
Nancy Long, legal counsel for the coalition, did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the signatures or how that affected a push to renew the $100,000 Energy Department grant.
Izrealevitz, who has championed the coalition’s merits during City Council meetings, did not respond to a request for comment.
Jay Coghlan, executive director of the watchdog group Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said the coalition has amounted to a waste of time and money for local governments since 2011.
The coalition has failed to advocate for more site cleanups and diversification of the lab’s mission, he said, pointing to the lab’s ballooning budget for an expansion of plutonium pit production.