A step too far

Two local government watchdogs are undoubtedly disappointed that affidavits they filed with the District Attorney’s office alleging malfeasance and noncompliance with budget disclosures did not lead to a court examination of whether Mesa County commissioners should be removed from office.

District Attorney Dan Rubinstein didn’t find sufficient cause to prosecute a violation — which would have triggered a court review — closing the books on an unorthodox and costly attempt to hold county officials accountable for mistakes or oversights made during this year’s budget preparations.

Rubinstein concluded that county officials didn’t “knowingly and willfully” violate provisions related to budget deliberations and that the county responded appropriately to concerns that William Voss and Dennis Simpson brought to the attention of commissioners and their staff.

In fact, Simpson and Voss had succeeded in getting the county to revise its budget policy and commit to a change in the way it accounts for a delinquent loan to the Whitewater Public Improvement District before they swore out the affidavits in January.

So why go the additional step of forcing the district attorney to investigate? One clue lies in Rubinstein’s report of his investigation. “It was a specific request of both ... Voss and Simpson that I state my opinion on whether the commissioners ... are in error of their practices.”

Sounds like the affiants were hoping for a James Comey-style condemnation. The former FBI director declared that “no reasonable prosecutor” would charge Hillary Clinton and her staff over the handling of emails at the State Department, but made a point of calling those actions “extremely careless.”

Rubinstein’s charge wasn’t to attach value judgments to the county’s actions — only to determine if violations were so egregious and potentially harmful to the community that other remedies, like a recall election, were insufficient. Rubinstein concluded they were not.

Voss and Simpson pursed a rarely used course of action provided under a 1971 law that gives DAs the power to remove public officials from office in a manner which overrides the election process. We now have a local precedent for how this prosecutorial discretion is applied in such cases. Rubinstein has made it clear it’s not his job to step in and override the will of voters unless “the sky is falling.” Mistakes happen — in government and every enterprise. Voters can decide at the polls whether commissioners are lacking in best accounting practices or policy rationale.

In their role as watchdogs, Voss and Simpson succeeded in pointing out shortcoming that the county saw fit to fix. “Put quite simply,” Rubinstein wrote, “the commissioners and their staff are acting as voters should hope they act.”

We don’t want to diminish the importance of private citizens acting as watchdogs. But there’s a big, bright line between being a watchdog and a nuisance. There are real issues in this community worthy of scrutiny. Focusing on “gotcha” items isn’t worth pulling an overwhelmed and underfunded District Attorney’s office away from its higher-than-ever felony caseload.

It’s like calling 911 to report someone going 1 mph over the speed limit. Yes, it’s a violation, but is it really endangering the public? And is nailing the scofflaw worth the expenditure of resources?


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