Commissioners fail first transparency test
The newly revamped Mesa County Board of Commissioners has every right to fire the county’s top administrator — as the commissioners did Tuesday.
Elections have consequences, after all, and the county administrator serves at the whim of the commissioners.
But just as certainly, the commissioners have a responsibility to their constituents to explain why they have taken a particular action — especially one that may have a significant effect on county operations.
In abruptly dismissing County Administrator Chantal Unfug, the commissioners failed in that responsibility and in their duty to act in as transparent a manner as possible. That failure rests equally with long-time Commissioner Steve Acquafresca and his two new colleagues, John Justman and Rose Pugliese.
We understand that the personnel exemption to the Colorado Open Meetings law allows the commissioners to meet in closed-door session to discuss an employee’s performance before voting in public to take action against an employee. But that doesn’t give commissioners carte blanche to send the county’s top executive packing with no explanation to the citizens, or to hold secret meetings with no public notice.
Ambiguous and essentially meaningless statements such as “Change is hard” or “We want to figure out what direction we want to be going” don’t cut it.
Was Unfug not meeting her responsibilities? Were other county employees upset with her leadership? Was there something more serious behind her firing, or was it strictly political? Mesa County residents are left to speculate about these questions and more because of the commissioners’ refusal to provide an adequate explanation and hold legal meetings.
That failure is particularly troubling because of statements made by the new commissioners just a few months ago, when they were campaigning for their jobs.
“Government must increase communication with community and be accessible to them,” Pugliese declared in her campaign literature. But in her first major decision as a commissioner, she failed to uphold that promise.
Justman told The Daily Sentinel editorial board last fall, “I have no ax to grind with any county employee or agency.”
What changed since then?
Justman also told us, “I’d like to do a review from top to bottom of all department heads and employees.” We doubt if he accomplished that in the two weeks since he was sworn in, before Unfug was dismissed.
This isn’t to defend Unfug or her performance, although there were few indications of problems prior to Tuesday.
Rather, it is to defend the right of citizens to know why their elected representatives have taken an important action, supposedly on their behalf.
So far, Acquafresca, Justman and Pugliese have failed miserably to protect that right.