CAROL A. CLARK Monitor County Editor
Los Alamos County government has often found itself unevenly matched in its relationship with Los Alamos National Laboratory. During the annual budget exercises in Washington, county councilors watch and hope for the best, knowing that the county's fiscal health, budget and the livelihood of their constituents depends on shifting moods in the country at large and decisions made in Washington, D.C.
The Monitor sounded out individual councilors on how they view the current situation at Los Alamos National Laboratory and its management company - Los Alamos National Security, LLC - and how the relationship might be improved. Six of the seven councilors replied to a set of questions. Council Chair Jim West said he was not able to respond.
Is LANS a good county partner?
Michael Wheeler: "LANS is a very important member of the business community in Los Alamos. Our general fund revenues come from the Gross Receipts Taxes collected by the business sector and LANS represents the single largest provider of GRTs. LANS is located on federal land and pays no property taxes, hence a contractual requirement is for LANS to provide substantial funding to LAPS. The company also is committed to using local contractors and small businesses to support their operations. There are other areas where both the county and LANS can benefit through county provided services, and I expect those areas to continue to be considered for future discussions."
Nona Bowman: "LANS is committed, for the term of its agreement, to carry out the terms of its contract with NNSA. The county can expect nothing more than that from LANS although in principle LANS could act beyond the contract. The fact that all the top management decided not to live in Los Alamos is not irrelevant to the question."
Fran Berting: "The LANS contract provides specific guidelines with respect to such aspects of LANS activities as contracting with local small businesses and maintaining LANL employees, at least for the first year. However, budget problems have meant that they have openly stated that contracting with local businesses will have to wait. And LANL contractors and their personnel, while strictly speaking not LANL employees, have been let go in large numbers.
"On the other hand, contributions to the LANL Foundation, I believe, have been maintained. Communication with the community, another much requested activity, has been better than in the past, as Mr. Anastasio or one of his deputies, has attempted to keep the council updated from time to time, and meets reasonably regularly with our county manager. The communication, however, has not been adequate to actually incorporate community needs into LANS actions, e.g., the West Jemez Road bypass. DOE is largely responsible for this, but the LANS project manager could have been responsive for LANS' part and was not.
"In short, there is still the sense that much needs to be done to be real partners in LANS dealings with issues that could be helpful to the community as a whole, like actively endorsing the need for the Trinity Place development, being more clear in a timely manner with regard to their needs or lack thereof for local contractors and providing funds for regional transit."
Jim Hall: "I think LANS is getting better at working with the county. Things still seem to vary quite a bit. Some things work well, others do not. At times it is difficult for the county to determine the source (e.g. LANS or DOE) of some policies/decisions. Of course, LANS faces a huge challenge in getting the right balance among all the entities clamoring for recognition (and resources), e.g. pueblos, counties, cities, school districts, etc."
Ken Milder: "In some ways it is still too soon to tell. With all the issues being faced by LANS during this first startup year, I am willing to cut them some slack. However, LANS needs to differentiate itself from its predecessor by participating in real long-term partnerships rather than short term photo-ops.
"One area of concern to me has been the loss of jobs. Although LANS is quick to say that there have not been any layoffs, the truth is that hundreds of people have lost their job. While it is correct that no LANS employee has been laid-off, hundreds of valuable contractors, some with over 20 years at LANL, have lost jobs. I have seen no support for these employees from LANS nor the members of our congressional delegation who supported bidding the management contract."
Robert Gibson: "I don't think DOE/NNSA and LANL can be separated on this whole issue. There are some positive aspects of their relationship with the county. But there are major problems, also. The most serious is the lab's frequent failure to communicate its intentions on projects or activities that affect the community and its general unwillingness to take community concerns into consideration in development of plans. Pajarito Road and the Jemez Road reconfiguration are two glaring examples."
What's the current state of the lab?
Wheeler: "LANL is vital to the national security and a major contributor to our nation's excellence in basic research, and science and technology. While national priorities continuously change, the lab has a more difficult task to match their operations to changing national goals. This has been the case since the end of WW II. There is a current threat of a downturn in the nuclear weapons programs that is causing concern in the lab and our community.
"I would expect some fluctuations in the annual budget; however, the current budget proposal by the house is a more dramatic cut than Los Alamos has seen in many years. The lab will continue to press for funding both for science and weapons programs and I believe the final budget will be much more supportive than we currently see coming from Washington."
Bowman: "The lab has lived too long on a defense-only program, which is a mistake that was bound to catch up with it sooner than later. This focus has constrained new program development so much that LANL is no longer well positioned to broaden its program. However, with a serious effort, it might not be too late."
Berting: "The lab is in one of the typical states of uncertainty, due to decreases in funding, and threats of even further decreases in funding. Whereas this is not new, it appears to be worse than normal, as Congress is fed by media hype of misdeeds which in the past would have been solved locally. The activist groups, such as POGO, now make Congress feel they need to punish the lab, which is counterproductive.
"However, the lab continues to put forth good science in peer-reviewed papers in a great many fields. LANS, DOE, NNSA, Bechtel, and the University of California in particular among the LANS consortia, need to be constantly reminding the public of the fact that the lab is not just a weapons lab but is contributing to many aspects of the country's scientific progress."
Hall: "This is difficult for me to say - I haven't worked at the laboratory for years and have no "inside" information. Based on anecdotal accounts from friends, it seems as if LANS, after an initial period of confusion, is starting to bring considerably more fiscal and management discipline to the lab. However, I also hear disquieting concerns about the LANS's long-term commitment to investment in scientific excellence."
Milder: "The lab budget over the next couple of years is going to be tight. I feel the lab was hit by a double whammy. It was anticipated that the budget was going to be tight for a few fiscal years under the normal DOE budget cycle. On top of this, tremendous overhead costs were added by transferring the management contract to a private corporation.
"The lab's primary focus will still be in weapons research but I also see changes to the lab's mission. Over the 33 years I have worked at LANL, I have seen previous changes in mission focus. That is our major strength - an agility to rapidly meet ever changing national science priorities."
Gibson: "Nuclear weapons are not a growth industry. The lab is suffering through the decline that has been anticipated but delayed since the end of the Cold War. Lack of a clear modern mission and focus are hurting the lab.
"There are tremendous new national challenges to which the lab could continue to make vital contributions through top-notch technical work," Gibson said. "But Congress and DOE have to recognize the needs and commit to solving them in meaningful ways. Unless that happens, the decline in the lab's size, importance and technical excellence that we are experiencing will continue."
Why individually or collectively as a council don't you speak out about concerns expressed by the community, either during council meetings, in newspaper columns or to Anastasio directly during his periodic visits before council?
Wheeler: "The county council and individual councilors have both collectively and individually made our concerns known to our congressional delegation by way of our federal committee agenda, and through one-on-one discussions with our senators and congressmen. It is important to recognize those issues that can be addressed by the LANL director, and those concerns outside of his control. The county continues to build and maintain strong relationships locally, regionally, state-wide and nationally."
Bowman: "I have expressed in several public council meetings my concern on the major mission of the laboratory centered on weapon research led by a major pit manufacturing facility. I see that future for the laboratory and New Mexico to be that of Rocky Flats. Many scientists at the lab are trying hard to influence lab management on a more balanced program of R&D projects that can broaden the lab's mission and restore the lab to its international leadership position.
"The citizens of Los Alamos and northern New Mexico have a stake in the lab's mission decision - whether it be demographic change, economic impact or environmental impact. Many are concerned not only here but all over northern New Mexico. I have tried, beginning five years ago, to push changes at LANL and will continue, but resistance to change was high then and it is still high."
Berting: "I think we do, but without sounding like the activist groups, which can be counterproductive. Certainly in management-to-management meetings, where real progress is most likely to be made, the problems are quite transparently addressed."
Hall: "We express our concerns. The question is how. I am not sure that adding more public noise to the mostly overblown and (in my opinion) biased criticism in the national and regional press is useful.
"I think we are far more effective at working with the lab on county issues through our management team and in individual meetings with lab personnel. This has proved to be generally effective. If it is not, council has no reluctance to air concerns in public forums-or, for that matter, in court - if we believe such action is required. After the recent court case, I think everyone understands this council's commitment to the public weal."
Milder: "I feel our job as elected officials is to achieve solutions to community problems. The council has demonstrated an ability to use the proper techniques of addressing issues with LANL, NNSA and DOE. When necessary, as with the perimeter checkpoint, the council does more than speak out, it acts. In this case, it was through a lawsuit.
"We must recognize, however, that while the sledgehammer approach might make for lively press and certainly be needed at times, as with the checkpoint issue, it is not always productive in the long run. County senior management meets regularly with senior management at the lab, LASO, and even DOE Albuquerque. Many concerns, some small, others large, have been successfully addressed through these meetings. Admittedly, most are not newsworthy."
Gibson: "Many concerns expressed by the community are not fundamentally new. They go back many years and have been expressed publicly and (often more effectively) privately by councilors and other community leaders to several iterations of DOE/NNSA and LANL managers, as well as our congressional delegation. We work hard at trying to choose the time and venue to express the community's concerns most effectively."
What is your advice to improve relations between LANS and the community?
Wheeler: "The most important thing LANS can do to improve relations with the community is to provide transparency in their operations and information in a timely manner."
Bowman: "I think that the county must be far more proactive in letting LANS, the NNSA, and the congressional delegation know what kind of lab will work here and what is likely to lead to decay. Those in Washington are no more expert in this matter than our scientists, engineers and middle- management people. I hear from all of our Los Alamos community. Honest and open discussions come first. I believe that openness and honesty always leads to better communications in the long run."
Berting: "Continue, at every opportunity and at every level, to stress the need for communication that includes genuine understanding of each other's needs and problems, attempting to elicit a serious commitment from LANS to cooperate before taking action that affects the community. Reactivating the informal organization of community leaders, called TIE, formed during the contractor transition to establish communication at a high community-wide level might be effective."
Hall: "The county and our citizens must recognize the challenges facing LANS management and be realistic about LANS's ability to act. From a LANS perspective, I think it would be helpful if LANS management were to internalize three concepts: (1) the county's ability and willingness to act as a partner; (2) the importance of quality of life in Los Alamos in attracting and keeping high-quality personnel; and (3) their ability to assist the county in its goals through appropriate policies and actions, most without a significant financial commitment on LANS's part."
Milder: "As always, communications is the key. While it is nice to have Mike Anastasio periodically attend a council meeting, a practice that should continue, real working relationships must be nurtured at lower staff levels. That's where the real work is done and the key, here, is for each side to recognize the mutual benefits of having successful relationships.
"One common area of tension between the lab and county seemed to be control issues. Now, with the large decrease in budgets, I hope that the lab recognizes that partnerships with the county can help it more efficiently meet mission goals."
Gibson: "Most LANS (and many DOE/NNSA) top managers are new to the lab and community. Few live in Los Alamos. It takes time and effort to build the relationships we once took for granted. Relationships between institutions and communities are ultimately relationships among people. We need to build those."