Editorial: Conflict of interest?

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Congrats, councilors

Congratulations to incumbent town of Taos councilors Nathaniel Evans and Darien Fernandez, who handily won reelection to their seats against two challengers in Tuesday's election (March 3). The ballots are a solid show of support for the two young leaders.

They have another four years now to help Taos make progress on more jobs and affordable housing, a financially stable hospital and a detox facility among other issues.

Best wishes to them both as they do the hard work of holding down full-time jobs while putting in the many hours required as elected public officials to tackle the complex challenges facing the town.

Residents should help them by sending the councilors ideas and showing up at town council meetings to be informed and aware of issues councilors are debating.

Conflict of interest?

The election of Neal King and reelection of Tom Wittman to the Village of Taos Ski Valley Village Council Tuesday (March 3) highlights a long-running conflict of interest for village governance.

It also highlights a conundrum for the small village that hosts the largest ski resort in New Mexico.

King and Wittman, along with Chris Stagg, sit on both the village's Planning and Zoning Commission, and beginning April 1, all three also will serve on the village council. Stagg has served on both bodies for a few years. Wittman has served on both longer and was reappointed to the commission Feb. 11 for another term.

It is unusual to find a town in New Mexico where the same people serve on two regulatory bodies. The Planning and Zoning Commission oversees zoning, building permits, variance requests and subdivisions. The commission also adopts a comprehensive plan. Village Council handles appeals of decisions by the commission.

The situation is rife for conflicts of interest, an issue raised publicly by some residents and candidates for village seats.

But as Wittman and King both noted in a candidates' forum prior to the election, it is hard to find residents in the village willing to take on the responsibilities of serving in public office. So some of the same people run repeatedly for different offices.

The village has 157 registered voters. Many of them aren't full-time residents. It is hard to do the work of a commission or council as a part-time resident.

Wittman, who was among the founding members of the Village of Taos Ski Valley when it incorporated in 1996, said during the forum that early on they made the decision to have at least one person serving on both Planning and Zoning and the Village Council. They thought it would be useful. Wittman went on to say in 20 years, only one decision made by the Planning and Zoning Commission had been appealed to the council.

But the Taos Ski Valley of 20 or even 10 years ago is not the same one now. The private ski resort within village boundaries has worked diligently to become a year-round destination, driving an increasing number of people to visit the area, creating a need for short-term seasonal housing, renewed interest in building within the limited parcels left and testing the capacity of utilities.

It raises eyebrows to have one person serving on both boards, never mind three.

The commission has seven members plus the village planning officer, so three isn't a majority. But the village council has five members. The three serving on the commission would automatically make up a majority on the council.

King said during the February forum that if elected to the council he would step down from the Planning and Zoning Commission before his term begins in April. He reiterated the day after the election that leaving the commission is still his plan. That's a good idea. He isn't required to do so by town policy or code, apparently.

And it would be a good idea to further reduce the number of people serving on both boards to one. The best idea is to have no one sitting on both regulatory boards.

Taos Ski Valley has grown and changed. Its form of governance needs to change as well to prevent any real or perceived conflicts of interest.

But that means new people need to step up and run for the council or ask to be appointed to the commission.

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