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.

Because of the questions, Los Alamos County has audited all payments to the regional coalition for both the current and prior fiscal years, finding “issues” for all 19. While small ball in the annals of government corruption, this is troubling nonetheless. Questionable expenses should be repaid, whether by Romero or the coalition members. Los Alamos County officials have apologized, a fine gesture, but it seems clear that coalition members and staff should know — and follow — the rules. As for the gadfly group that uncovered the mess — yes, politics is involved. These are Trujillo’s allies at work; however, politics is not the problem. Bad bookkeeping is. Smart would-be politicians do not put themselves in a vulnerable place, as Romero has done.

If it weren’t bad enough for Romero to be seen as someone who enjoys spending taxpayer dollars, her contract is up for renewal. Action on her future was postponed earlier this week, but not because of financial questions. It turns out that the board might lack authority to enter into contracts — including one with an executive director — at all.

At least that was the opinion of Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller, who showed up at the coalition board meeting to discuss the Joint Powers Agreement Act, which governs multi-public agency efforts and evidently is fairly specific about what such groups can do. “If you look at the coalition’s actual joint powers agreement, it talks about promoting economic development, reviewing plans, making recommendations on external policies that are developed at the [Los Alamos National Laboratory] and in the local area,” Miller said. “It talks all about that, and those are the express powers given to this board. There is nothing in the joint powers agreement that expressly gives authority to the coalition to enter into contracts, to make policies.”

Just another example of no one minding the store, which left unattended, has been diminished by pilfering. Local leaders should reassess whether the coalition is worthwhile. Meanwhile, voters will deliver their own verdict on Romero come June.

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