Board split on top county job
E-mails reveal sharp division during search for new administrator
When the Mesa County Commission offered the county administrator job to former Florida executive Michael Freilinger two weeks ago, the three-member board appeared to present a unified front in support of its selection.
Commissioner Craig Meis said he believed the county would benefit from Freilinger’s work in larger communities. Commissioner Janet Rowland accompanied Freilinger to a Daily Sentinel editorial board meeting and defended the salary bump dangled to Freilinger. Commissioner Steve Acquafresca introduced Freilinger and ate dinner with him at a Grand Junction Business Incubator Center event.
But e-mails obtained by The Daily Sentinel reveal a divide in the commission regarding the 50-year-old candidate, one that prompted Meis to fire off an e-mail criticizing Acquafresca.
The e-mails show Freilinger was neither Acquafresca’s nor Rowland’s first choice, and Acquafresca pushed for Freilinger to be paid the same $125,000 salary former County Administrator Jon Peacock received. The commission ultimately offered Freilinger $15,000 more.
The e-mails also reflect deep dissatisfaction among a number of county employees with the commissioners’ nod to Freilinger and anger that commissioners proposed an administrator pay raise at a time when the county is laying off employees and continuing to freeze wages.
Commissioners reached out to Freilinger in a formal letter Nov. 2, offering him a $140,000 annual salary, $2,000 in moving expenses and a vacation-accrual package equivalent to that of a 10-year county employee. Two days later, The Sentinel reported about the job offer, as well as the circumstances surrounding Freilinger’s firing from his post as Osceola County manager seven months earlier. The report came out before most county employees were aware an offer had been tendered.
The afternoon of Nov. 4, Meis sent an e-mail to all county employees explaining the details of the offer and encouraging employee questions and comments.
Meis also indicated his response to concerns expressed by a few employees about the salary level in the midst of the county’s financial difficulties was “pretty simple. You pay for what you get.”
“Having someone in this position that has successfully navigated rough waters before while minimizing additional service and delivery cuts is of paramount importance to our Board during this difficult time,” Meis wrote.
The Sentinel article and Meis’s e-mail touched off a number of e-mails to the commissioners from residents and county employees. The county provided a total of 20 such e-mails to The Sentinel. Most of them came from the District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department, two agencies that stand to absorb some of the deepest budget cuts in 2011.
Some correspondence backed the commissioners’ pick and salary offer.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Rubinstein wrote to Meis that the county administrator “could save $15,000 per year in costs 20 different ways. I agree that this is not the position to skimp on.”
Regional Services Director Tom Fisher, who was one of five finalists for the administrator job but wasn’t selected, wrote to Meis that he believed the county was offering a salary in line with market demands.
“I think your approach to salary and benefits is sound and supportable,” Fisher wrote. “There is a market rate for this type of talent out in the world and we should be playing within that market. The leadership to this size and complexity of a County is important. I like that we are prepared to pay for that.”
Most e-mails, though, criticized the board.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Henry Stoffel wrote that while he wasn’t in a position to question Freilinger’s qualifications, he questioned the salary offer. He wrote that in the midst of furlough days, reduction of health and retirement benefits and other fallout from budget deficits, he leaned on the “crutch” that commissioners were attempting to make the county the best employer possible.
“The recent actions by the BOCC, has taken that crutch away,” Stoffel wrote.
Danielle Bridges, a legal secretary for the district attorney, wrote the county should continue to look for candidates if the commissioners’ pick is unwilling to do the job for the same pay as his predecessor.
“I am outraged that the County Commissioners would find it appropriate to increase the salary of any county employee position during the budget crisis that we are in,” she wrote.
After sheriff’s investigator Lissah Norcross detailed her concerns about Freilinger and his proposed salary, Rowland shot back at Norcross in an e-mail to Meis.
“Oh good grief,” Rowland wrote. “I hope people don’t judge me on everything they read on the internet. I’m surprised that an ‘investigator’ relied solely on the internet. I thought about replying but I don’t think it will matter what we say ...”
Meis wrote to Norcross that the board’s job offer to Freilinger was a “unanimous” decision and the commissioners felt it was the “minimum offer needed to entice his interest.”
That prompted Acquafresca to reply that Freilinger wasn’t his first choice for administrator and that he thought a $125,000 salary was appropriate.
“Although I have rated Freilinger quite high to this point, the draft offer to him was not a unanimous board decision,” Acquafresca wrote to the other commissioners and Norcross.
Meis then lashed out at Acquafresca.
“Are you sh—-ing me Steve!!! WTF!!! I appreciate your clarification but your choice to throw me under the bus on this is unprofessional at best and inappropriate to say the least,” Meis wrote. “I know Michael was not our first choice as he was also not Janet’s but the statement below is a true one in that we all agreed to the draft offer extended to him. If you want to deal with a heavily divided board for the next couple of years this is a damn fine way of doing it!!!!!”
Reached for comment Wednesday, Rowland said Meis ranked Freilinger as his top choice, Acquafresca listed him number two and she couldn’t decide between Freilinger and Melinda Carlton, the former township manager in Vernon Township, N.J., for her top candidate.
Rowland called it “disingenuous” for Acquafresca to say he didn’t support the job offer to Freilinger.
“In the end, when we walked out of that room, (Acquafresca) did not say, ‘You do not have my support for this,’ ” Rowland said. “We (Meis and Rowland) were both very, very shocked at the e-mail he wrote.”
Acquafresca said while commissioners had consensus on the person to whom they would offer the job, they didn’t have “unanimity.”
He declined to specify how he ranked the candidates out of respect and confidentiality to the candidates, although he said he would “not argue with” indications that he ranked Fisher number one. He did say, however, he feels $125,000 “is a great deal of compensation” and was an appropriate amount to offer Freilinger.
“Now that we’re considering a replacement, given that Jon Peacock would be my first choice on any list, I felt that with the best of any candidates we should bring (that person) on board at that beginning salary,” Acquafresca said.
He said he doesn’t take Meis’s criticism of him personally.
“(Meis) can say what he wants and he usually does,” Acquafresca said.
Meis didn’t return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
Rowland said she is concerned that citizens and county employees are judging Freilinger “solely on Internet Googles,” asserting not all of the information turning up on the Web is true.
“I feel bad for the guy,” she said. “I don’t know if he’ll decide to come after all of this.”
Freilinger is expected to decide by the end of this week whether to take the job.