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Regional Coalition Comes Under Fire

on March 1, 2018 - 7:18am

Regional Coalition of LANL Communities Executive Director Andrea Romero, center, answers questions from board members during Monday's meeting in Pojoaque. Photo by Maire O'Neill/ladailypost.com

Regional Coalition of LANL Communities board members discuss the Coalition's authority and the future of executive director Andrea Romero's contract Monday in Pojoaque. Photo by Maire O'Neill/ladailypost.com

 

By MAIRE O’NEILL

Los Alamos Daily Post

maire@ladailypost.com

Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC) board members were made aware Monday at their meeting in Pojoaque that the Coalition’s problems extend further than recent issues with their travel policy and reimbursement of expenses.

Although the meeting was scheduled to discuss the disposition of the Coalition’s contract with Executive Director Andrea Romero, board members were informed by Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller that there may never have been authority under the Joint Parties Agreement (JPA) for the Coalition to enter into contracts, make policies or establish budgets.

“The JPA talks about promoting economic development, reviewing plans, making recommendations on external policies developed at the (national) labs in the local areas. Those are the expressed powers given to this board,” Miller said.

Miller said the JPA must set out what the common powers for the entities will be but that the current JPA doesn’t specify those powers of contracting, hiring employees or making policies.

The board also discussed problems with reimbursements submitted to Los Alamos County, which serves as the Coalition’s fiscal agent. In December, David Neal filed a request on behalf of a group called Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land, Water, and Rights (NNMProtects) for records pertaining to the Coalition including disbursements and receipts for expenses incurred by authorized representatives of the Coalition.

After reviewing the documents, NNMProtects notified Coalition board members and Los Alamos County that they had discovered “very many questionable and disconcerting expenses” that were approved by the County as the fiscal agent that “clearly violated” the Coalition’s policies.

One of the reimbursement requests questioned was payment of $1,850 for a dinner and alcohol at Casa Luca, a Washington, D.C. restaurant for a group of 16 people including Los Alamos County Councilor Rick Reiss, Espanola Mayor Alice Lucero and Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales who serves as the Coalition chair. Alcohol for the occasion cost $380, according to receipts submitted for payment. An invoice for $1,850 was submitted to and paid by the County despite the fact that the Coalition and County travel policies both prohibit reimbursement for alcohol. Also questioned was the purchase of Major League Baseball tickets at a cost of $307 for a game in Washington, D.C.

When the issues were presented to Los Alamos County, Deputy County Manager Steven Lynne responded to the Coalition board saying that the County, as fiscal agent, had used the wrong standard for payment.

“We had assumed that the County’s policies were to be followed, but the RCLC travel policy is the standard that should have been applied. This appears to be the County’s fault and not that of any RCLC member,” Lynne said.

County Manager Harry Burgess told the board Monday that the County initiated a review of the reimbursements in question and that in the process, found that the only specific directive on the County’s role as fiscal agent is one line in the JPA, which states that for the purposes of the agreement, Los Alamos County will be the fiscal agent. He said the by-laws of the Coalition also reflect some details and duties as well as the executive director’s agreement, which indicates that she will be responsible for following the Coalition’s travel policies.

“Then we have the travel policy the Coalition adopted. A lot of the items questioned are not normally considered travel reimbursements. The travel policy is in conflict with itself in that it requires receipts in some cases and per diem in others,” Burgess said.

“My deputy stated at the time he took full responsibility for the problems that occurred and made some statements that we were following our own policy and not the Coalition’s. Instead it appears that on submission of reimbursement requests, if they were signed by the executive director and the treasurer, we would pay those requests,” he said.

Burgess said there were a myriad of ways things were submitted and ultimately paid to three entities, Andrea Romero Consulting, the City of Santa Fe and Espanola Mayor Alice Lucero. He said his staff tried to the best of their ability using the current Coalition travel policy to determine what happened but that there was no way to determine if there had been reimbursement from their entity that they work for or represent as opposed to the Coalition.

Burgess said there also was the issue of the executive board approving certain expenses and then submitting them to the County. He said the County does not have records such as minutes to see whether or not the executive board approved an expense. He said his commentary would be that the Coalition is a fairly young organization and early in its formation. He said he recalled conversations on other needs for the Coalition such as a general financial policy to address certain of the issues being discussed.

“Through all those conversations the Coalition only acted on the travel policy and at the time chose not to pursue financial policies expressly,” Burgess said.

He added that there was discussion of hiring an attorney for the group but that it was decided that each entity would have to protect its own issues and the Coalition might have a separate interest.

As part of the audit of the Coalition’s 2017 reimbursements, the County made extensive recommendations on what the Coalition might consider if it were to amend its travel policy,

Romero explained to the board that she had followed a standard protocol she was issued by the Los Alamos County deputy director at the time, which involved submitting an itemized list of reimbursements with original receipts to the County and then to the Coalition treasurer for final approval.

Los Alamos County Councilor Christine Chandler, secretary of the Coalition board, asked that the discussion return to Romero’s contract saying that she had voted to postpone the Feb. 16 decision on the contract because of the allegations before the board regarding travel inconsistencies. Chandler said it’s clear that the board needs to clean up its travel protocol and financial policies and needs more formality in determining the role of the fiscal agent.

 

After extensive discussion the board voted to have Los Alamos and Santa Fe County attorneys review the JSA and other documents and advise the board on how to proceed. A board meeting has been scheduled for 9-11 a.m., Monday, March 5 in the Mayor’s Conference Room at the Espanola Library, 313 N. Paseo de Onate. Items on the agenda are: Review regarding expressed powers in Regional Coalition of LANL Communities’ Joint Powers’ Agreement (JPA) and Bylaws to elect to hire contractors, staff, etc., Legal report from Santa Fe County and Los Alamos County’s joint effort to review RCLC JPA and Bylaws, and Board discussion on JPA and Bylaws findings from Santa Fe County and Los Alamos County; Action Items: Decision on way forward of Joint Powers Agreement and Bylaws to engage in future operations of RCLC.

 

At the end of the meeting, Chandler expressed her concern about the content of Romero’s Feb. 22 letter to the board saying she (Chandler) specifically disagreed with a request that the board consider lodging a formal request to Los Alamos National Laboratory to investigate whether Beverly Duran-Cash and Heather Nordquist of NNMProtects, both LANL employees concerning their involvement with NNMProtects and Rep. Carl Trujillo. Romero recently announced her intention to challenge Trujillo for his seat in the state legislature.

 

“I am bringing this up now because as a public official, which we all are, I think it really sends a bad message when we receive a complaint about something concerning our expenditure of funds and other issues, our reaction is to request that the individuals making the complaint be investigated,” Chandler said. “I think that sends a really bad message to people. I’m open as I’m sure every member of this board is to hearing from citizens on every sort of controversy or concern relating to the Coalition, Los Alamos County, or any other member of this organization.”

 

“It concerned me when I read in the paper yesterday that we were questioning the motives and intent of people who lodge complaints and I just want to make sure it is understood that I don’t share that and my suspicion is that most other members of this board do not share that point of view,” she continued.

 

Without a vote to extend or renew Romero’s contract, as of March 1, she is no longer under contract to the board. Saying that until the board reconvenes, Romero’s status is uncertain, Gonzales asked Los Alamos County to assist with publication of the notice for next week’s board meeting.

 

Chandler told the Los Alamos Daily Post Wednesday that the Coalition has been a unifying force for Northern New Mexico communities since its inception, and an effective voice for its members.

 

“I believe the board is committed to understanding and resolving the issues associated with the executive director's travel and associated expenses. I intend to ensure that questions raised by citizens are fully addressed. I am fully committed, with the other community leaders, to continuing the important work of the Coalition,” she said.

 

Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess chats with Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal, treasurer of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities board following Monday's meeting in Pojoaque. Photo by Maire O'Neill/ladailypost.com

 

Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller addresses the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities board Monday in Pojoaque. Photo by Maire O'Neill/ladailypost.com


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