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Bloomfield city council and mayoral candidates participated in a forum Tuesday night at Bloomfield High School. Wochit

Bloomfield City Council and Mayor candidates divided over legal fees

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BLOOMFIELD — A core theme of the Bloomfield candidate forum Tuesday night was the lawsuit Bloomfield filed against the city of Farmington for the right to acquire an electric utility.

A district court judge ruled last year in favor of the city of Bloomfield’s right to acquire the system. Farmington has since petitioned the Court of Appeals to hear the case.

Candidates were asked whether they support continuing the litigation process for the right to acquire the system.

“I’m totally against it myself,” said Richard Kemp, a City Council candidate.

Kemp said the city has other infrastructure needs it needs to focus on, such as the water utility.

More: Aztec commission candidates discuss revitalizing downtown, improving economy

When asked by mayoral candidate Cynthia Atencio about how the legal fees are being paid, incumbent Mayor Scott Eckstein said the a little more than $300,000 of legal fees accrued since 2011 for the electric utility lawsuit are being paid from the utility fund.

“The biggest misunderstanding that the public has right now is that if and when we win the lawsuit — which we’ve already won, but Farmington has appealed it — that we’ll automatically take over the utility,” Eckstein said. “That’s not the case. That just means we have the right to acquire the utility.”

Eckstein said residents have voiced the concern that the city cannot afford the utility right now.

“We don’t have to afford it right now,” Eckstein said. “It may be five years. It may be 10 years. It may be a time when we can afford it. What we want to establish is that we have the right to acquire it.”

City Council candidate Kenneth Hare put together a committee a few years ago to evaluate the city’s feasibility study. He listed several concerns with the study, including underestimated expenses and overstated revenues. He said the committee was also concerned with the legal fees.

“This is too big for a few people to decide,” Hare said. “We have got to move forward with a town council-type format and bring in some third parties. Get all of the questions on the floor and then make a decision.”

City Council candidate Sue Finch said she agreed with Hare after studying the feasibility studies by both Farmington and Bloomfield, as well as the city budget.

“It’s not logical,” she said. “It doesn’t have common sense to pursue this.”

City Council candidate Cecilia Gunnell said it is not the right time to pursue the lawsuit and the electric utility.

“It would have been a great idea five or 10 years ago as a proactive measure to secure funds for our people in the city of Bloomfield, but now we’re in a reactive time frame,” she said. “I don’t think that five, 10, 15 years down the line it will be something that our town can sustain.”

Atencio said she understands the desire for the city to try to get the right to acquire the electric utility, but she does not know if it is the right time to spend money on legal fees after city employees had their pay cut.

“I don’t know how I can look my friends and my neighbors and my family in the face and tell them you don’t deserve your pay back, but we’re going to do this,” she said.

Mayoral candidate Benny Kling said the city should be working with Farmington to generate electricity rather than fighting in court to acquire the electric utility.

“Bloomfield is sitting in an ideal position to generate power,” he said. “We should be negotiating with Farmington Electric Utility to work to re-establish the electricity that we’re going to lose when we close the power plant. We can do that here with one big generator on the hill and a big solar farm. And that’s something we can go in together on and budget out over a longer period of time. That will keep our utility rates down and supply good, clean power.”

More: Forum provides opportunity for public to get to know Farmington mayor, council candidates

City Council incumbent DeLaws Lindsay said the bottom line is that the city is trying to establish its right to acquire the electric utility.

“If we don’t do it now, we’re not ever going to be able to break away,” he said.

Lindsay said Aztec acquired its electric utility from Farmington through a lawsuit and is now successful.

City Council incumbent Elwin Roark — who will be listed on the ballot as James Elwin Roark — said he supports what the lawsuit is trying to accomplish. He said the city is trying to find another source of income.

“I think all of us agree that until we can get to look at all of the nuts and bolts inside of this thing, we’re not going to make a decision or follow through with any kind of purchase,” Roark said.

Roark said the residents of Bloomfield will ultimately vote on the electric utility acquisition.

Municipal elections are March 6, and early voting began today.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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