Commissioner: Board to be transparent with public

Questions remain over dismissal of county administrator; officials mum

Transparency remains elusive about a key meeting held by Mesa County commissioners last month — allegedly regarding the employment status of then-County Administrator Chantal Unfug — even after commissioners held a meeting Thursday to discuss their processes for posting meeting notices.

“Going forward, we are examining our processes, to make sure we’re in compliance with open meeting laws. And ... we are going to be as transparent as possible,” Commissioner Rose Pugliese said Thursday.

It remains unclear, though, what happened, or what was discussed or decided, at the key Jan. 18 meeting that seemingly sealed Unfug’s fate. She was asked to resign and did so the following week.

The Daily Sentinel has raised a number of questions about whether the state’s Open Meetings Law was followed regarding Unfug’s termination of employment with the county.

State statute calls for open meetings to be held whenever policy decisions are made or “formal action” is taken. Posting of notices of open meetings is required in a “full and timely” manner. That posting must include a specific agenda “when possible,” the law reads.

A notice of the Jan. 11 meeting with the generic title of “Board Business” was posted within the statutory 24-hour period, with no agenda. It’s still unknown what exactly was discussed or decided at the meeting.

Questions put to Mesa County Attorney Lyle Dechant and Pugliese immediately following the meeting Thursday, which was held to discuss the board’s public meeting posting procedures, shed little light on the process that led to Unfug’s dismissal.

Asked whether producing an agenda was possible for the Jan. 18 meeting, Dechant said, “I don’t know.” He added that he believed “an agenda is possible for anything,” but when pressed about why one was not produced for the meeting in question, he said, “I don’t know.”

Asked whether he would have done anything differently regarding the posting of the Jan. 18 meeting, Dechant said, “Everything in hindsight is more difficult.”

Asked whether he believed any “formal action” was taken at the Jan. 18 meeting, Dechant said he didn’t know, citing the fact that he wasn’t in attendance.

“I have very little understanding of what happened,” he said.

Pugliese — who was in attendance — said she didn’t know if “formal action” was taken at the Jan. 18 meeting or not.

“Obviously we had discussions,” she said.

Regarding whether it was possible to produce an agenda for that meeting, Pugliese said, “I don’t know.”

Asked whether she had any concerns about the process that led to Unfug’s dismissal, Pugliese said, “I don’t know, honestly. Lyle says that we did it all right. He’s the county attorney and I’m not.”

Additionally, state statute requires minutes be taken “of all meetings” and that they be provided promptly. Dechant has previously said that no minutes were taken of the Jan. 18 meeting.

Discussion on Thursday among the board, administrative staff and Dechant centered mostly on how the board can better coordinate changes to commissioners’ schedule, and subsequent public postings, during the week. Changes or additions to their schedule — as what happened with the Jan. 18 meeting — are posted in the lobby of the county courthouse.

Commissioners also peppered Dechant with numerous possible meeting scenarios Thursday and whether those instances would require official posting.

At the end of the meeting Thursday, the group decided that one of the ideas they would pursue is potentially putting an electronic sign with schedule changes and meeting additions in the county courthouse lobby.

“I just think it’s important that we all understand how we’re communicating with the community about open meetings, and to make sure that we’re doing it properly,” Pugliese said Thursday.

That echoes sentiments Pugliese shared with the Sentinel editorial board during her campaign for office.

“I don’t think we do a good enough job, generally, in getting in front of confrontational issues,” she said last year.

“So, I’ve been saying, ‘Before it gets on the front page, let’s have community discussions,’” she said.

“I think being more proactive with the community than we have been will be really important.”


COMMENTS

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I am confused. We voted overwhelmingly for Rose Pugliese and John Justman because they represented “WHAT?”....change?  Aquafresca has been extremely slitherly about his role in this meeting.  He has been in office long enough to know the procedures and how NOT to proceed.  Did he have a vendetta against Unfug?  I have been in supervisory positions for years and the first thing you DO NOT DO is immediately get rid of the very people that can orient you to historic and contemporary “lay of the land.”  Since Aquafresca was the only one of the Commissioners that had worked with Unfug, why has he not been more forthcoming with why he would encourage the new Commissioners to delete Unfug’s influence?  This kind of musical chairs with high level county officials is fiscally unsound.  It costs the taxpayers in county time, Unfug’s severance, county attorney time, Commissioner time to find another administrator, orientation time for new Commissioners and a new administrator…need I go on.  Basically this change has cost the taxpayers of this county I would estimate at better then $3 million dollars and I would really love to see the Commissioners refute that estimate with real numbers and then publish it.  They need to remember they work for the people and EVERY decision that they make needs to be measured and transparent and honorable.  That’s what they wanted from their Commissioners.  That what we want from ours.

Apparently, in Mesa County governance, the more things change, the more they remain the same.  We have apparently elected scofflaws—again!

In March 2007, our Board of County Commissioners (“BOCC”) learned that the Mesa County Public Library District’s Board of Trustees was routinely violating Colorado’s Sunshine Law by holding un-noticed non-public (and thus “secret”) meetings (described as “executive sessions”) – a fact confirmed by the Library Board’s own admissions in documents and tapes reluctantly disclosed under the Colorado Open Records Act.

To its credit, that BOCC – which included then newly-installed Commissioner Steve Acquafresca – ostensibly directed long-time County Attorney Lyle Dechant to conduct annual refresher courses for all county boards and commissions (including the Mesa County Planning Commission, of which now-County Commissioner John Justman eventually became chairman) to insure their knowledge of and compliance with Colorado’s Open Meetings Law.

Seemingly, at least as far as the BOCC itself is concerned, that admirable practice has since fallen into disuse –– Commissioner Rose Pugliese’s recent lip-service to “transparency” notwithstanding.  (See, e.g., “Commissioner:  Board to be transparent with public; Questions remain over dismissal of county administrator; officials mum”, February 8, 2013.)

C.R.S. § 24-6-401 declares that “that the formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret”.  As interpreted by Colorado’s Supreme Court, any gathering of two county commissioners at which public business is to be discussed is a de facto “meeting” that must be timely and publicly noticed under C.R.S. § 24-6-402.

On Friday, February 8, 2013, apparently without proper public notice, Commissioners Pugliese and Justman reportedly met “informally” with Tea Party supporters to discuss “the way forward” – including unrestricted oil and gas development, kicking the BLM out of Mesa County, and ousting the present Grand Junction City Council!

Fortunately, while many concerned citizens have become accustomed to our elected Commissioners’ arrogant disregard for Colorado law, the Daily Sentinel has not.

                Bill Hugenberg

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