County kept lid on firing of Unfug
Mesa County commissioners held a hastily called meeting — and provided a vaguely worded public notice about that meeting — in order to officially exercise their option to fire County Administrator Chantal Unfug.
That doesn’t appear to jibe with a number of aspects of Colorado’s Open Meetings law, according to a Denver attorney who specializes in media law.
County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca told The Daily Sentinel last week he and fellow commissioners John Justman and Rose Pugliese, who were sworn in Jan. 7, “determined at (the Jan. 18 business meeting) that our board would exercise an option available to us, within the contract that we have had with our employee, Chantal.”
Colorado’s Open Meetings law requires that public notice be given prior to all meetings where “formal action occurs,” which would apply to a meeting where a decision is made to ask the top county employee to resign. The law also says that notice must be “full and timely.”
The county’s notification may have met the “timely” threshold — it was posted on a bulletin board inside the east entrance to the county courthouse exactly 24 hours before the meeting was held, as required by state statute — but it’s questionable whether the board complied with the “full” component of the law.
The meeting notice was posted with the subject “Board Business.” It made no mention of an impending personnel decision or anything regarding Unfug specifically.
Colorado’s Sunshine Law further states: “Posted notices must include a specific agenda if at all possible.”
“I am not aware that there was an agenda for the meeting,” Mesa County Attorney Lyle Dechant wrote in an email to the Sentinel on Friday.
The Open Meetings law — which the media and citizens rely upon to monitor governmental entities and their activities — further states that “minutes are to be taken of all meetings.”
“I am not aware that minutes were taken,” Dechant wrote in his email.
According to a news release issued by the county Tuesday evening, four days after the Friday meeting that officially decided her fate, Unfug and the county reached a “mutual agreement” on her resignation, and her employment with the county ended that day.
While commissioners termed Unfug’s resignation as a “mutual agreement” in the two-sentence statement they issued last week, Acquafresca said, in referencing some intergovernmental correspondence, that “it is stated that Chantal is resigning, as was requested of her by our board.”
No resignation letter from Unfug has ever been presented.
Steve Zansberg, an attorney for the Colorado Press Association who specializes in open meetings and open records matters, raised possible issues with the timeline in which commissioners made their decision.
“If the county commissioners decided in a closed-door meeting to fire the county administrator and then ‘rubber-stamped’ that decision in a meeting open to the public, their actions are quite clearly in violation of the Open Meetings Law as Colorado’s courts have construed that law,” he said.
The terms of a severance package reached between the county and Unfug were established — a point confirmed by Acquafresca — but details have yet to be released. Acquafresca, though, said the terms of that are “probably confidential” and he put the onus on Unfug to make the decision to release the specifics.
That position, however, contradicts the state’s Open Records law. The law states that while personnel files are not subject to public disclosure, there are several pieces of information that are not in such files and are therefore open, including “any amount paid or benefit provided incident to termination of employment.”
The Daily Sentinel has filed an Open Records request with Dechant in an attempt to learn more about the termination of Unfug’s employment, including details of her severance package.
Unfug has not responded to requests for comment.