County at odds over how to govern

Mesa County commissioners plan to hire a new interim county administrator within the next month, even as they remain divided over whether they should hire a permanent administrator or take over the day-to-day operation of the county themselves.

Commissioners said they will explore both options but haven’t assigned a timetable to settling on one.

The board met for more than an hour Thursday with interim County Administrator Stefani Conley, County Attorney Lyle Dechant, Human Resources Manager Sandy Perry and county spokeswoman Jessica Peterson to discuss the next steps they plan to take in the wake of commissioners withdrawing the county administrator job offer to former Osceola County, Fla., Manager Michael Freilinger two weeks ago.

Commissioners Craig Meis and Janet Rowland had indicated their preference to hire Freilinger to replace County Administrator Jon Peacock. But a conditional offer never turned into a final offer because Freilinger wasn’t Acquafresca’s top choice among the five finalists for the job. Acquafresca also balked at Freilinger’s proposed $140,000 salary, preferring instead to offer $125,000, the same pay Peacock received.

On Thursday, Meis and Rowland pressed Acquafresca to explain his rationale for opposing Freilinger.

Acquafresca said although he considered $125,000 a “small fortune,” the difference on salary ranked “low or middle” on his list of reasons for not wanting to hire Freilinger.

“I do believe $125,000 is a good deal of money for a position of this importance,” he said, adding he believed it would be fair to increase the salary based on the administrator’s longevity and performance.

“Yes or no, will you go above $125,000?” Rowland asked.

“I’d like to stick with that for a starting salary,” Acquafresca replied.

“So yes or no?” Rowland asked again.

Acquafresca responded that he would be willing to consider a higher salary for a candidate “I really like” but said there were “several other matters” that led him to oppose Freilinger. He didn’t identify what those matters were.

Meis told Rowland and Acquafresca that the board would have to compromise on a salary for the position or it would be difficult to hire an administrator.

He said the county could hire someone for $125,000 a year, but it would likely either be someone who is currently unemployed or someone the county would be taking a risk on because he or she may not have the experience or skills the county wants.

Acquafresca said he would prefer to hire another county administrator.

Rowland, though, encouraged the commissioners to consider adding administrative duties to their policy-making responsibilities in the same way the five-member Arapahoe County Commission has.

In that system, she said the full board of commissioners provides direction directly to department heads and meets with them monthly. She said each of the commissioners is assigned to a series of departments as a liaison and, as an individual, meets with those departments every week.

Rowland said the benefit of such a system is direct communication between commissioners and department heads, It would also avoid, she said, the potential for mixed messages and inconsistent policy implementation that could come with a county administrator who clashes with commissioners.

Rowland said she learned about Arapahoe County’s governance system after speaking at length with Commissioner Susan Beckman, a 10-year commissioner and proponent of the system.

Acquafresca, however, said he spoke with Arapahoe County Commissioners Pat Noonan and Frank Weddig earlier this week and said they’re pushing to hire a county administrator. He said Noonan and Weddig weren’t satisfied with the level of services and the morale of senior employees under the current system.

Mesa County commissioners will talk further with Arapahoe County to learn more about its governance.

At the same time, they will explore the possibility of hiring a permanent administrator. The county could revisit the four other finalists for the position, re-advertise the job or hire a recruiter to perform a search.

While they wrestle with those options, commissioners said they want to hire an interim administrator to serve for three to six months. Conley, who has been the interim administrator since Peacock resigned in July, is ready to return to her previous job as the assistant administrator, Meis said.

“I think Stefani is at her wits’ end with us,” he said.


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