Critic of county leaders not afraid to stir the pot
'I think I’m doing them a favor’
Audacious, obnoxious, right or wrong, Bill Hugenberg has many labels among the movers and shakers of Mesa County.
Just don’t call him timid.
The 62-year-old Redlands resident and former Indian law attorney has re-emerged over the past few years as one of Mesa County’s most vocal critics of the status quo at the county level.
Love him or hate him, Hugenberg says he is here to stay.
“I have nothing better to do,” Hugenberg said. “Let’s put it that way.”
From fighting to change the Mesa County Library District’s public display policy to highlighting the county’s exposure to litigation for its public prayer policy, Hugenberg has not shied away from sharing his views with local elected leaders, however unpopular they might be.
Hugenberg said all too often the public — and the media — intensely focus on their leaders every two or four years around elections. He said his goal in filing open-records requests, writing letters to the editor and commenting at public meetings is to shine light on local government between elections.
Hugenberg’s recent rise as a local watchdog or gadfly came after he flew under the radar for nearly a decade.
Hugenberg’s first venture into Mesa County politics came roughly one year after the 1993 University of Colorado Law School graduate moved to the Grand Valley in 1996. Hugenberg was one of three candidates for the Grand Junction City Council who unsuccessfully tried to unseat Gene Kinsey.
One year later, Hugenberg made his second bid for public office, this time trying to unseat incumbent Republican Mesa County Commissioner Kathy Hall.
Hall said even then that Hugenberg did not hesitate to make his views known — however quixotic they might have seemed.
“Every single Monday and Tuesday he would show up in the public hearing room, no matter what the issue was, and would make absolutely outlandish statements trying to goad me into some sort of debate in the public hearing,” Hall said.
Hugenberg eventually withdrew from the race after he broke his wrist while painting his house. Following his accident, Hugenberg laid low for nearly a decade.
He resurfaced in the public arena when he criticized the downtown public library’s policy on what could be displayed on its walls after a group posted anti-gay materials there.
Since then, Hugenberg has become one of the loudest critics of incumbent Mesa County Commissioners Craig Meis and Janet Rowland.
Mesa County Attorney Lyle Dechant said Hugenberg undoubtedly is one of the more active participants in the county’s public meetings and policy-making process. He said Hugenberg is the county’s most active requester of public documents under the Colorado Open Records Act.
“He makes a lot of records requests,” Dechant said, noting that roughly 60 percent of all requests come from Hugenberg.
Hugenberg’s participation in local policy-making, however, has brought him into conflict with elected officials and, at times, the public.
Hugenberg’s latest headline-grabbing incident came in August when he challenged Rowland and her peers during a commission meeting, accusing them of leaving the county open to litigation over their policy of having the commissioners pray at the start of each meeting.
Rowland gaveled Hugenberg down, abruptly ending the meeting partway through his comments.
Rowland, who was then engaged in fending off Republican primary challenger David Kearsley, seized on the issue, declaring: “I don’t mind losing the election, but I do mind losing my faith or my belief in the Constitution.”
Following the August primary, local commentator and Junction Daily Blog author Ralph D’Andrea laid part of the blame for Kearsley’s loss at Hugenberg’s feet.
“The important issues Kearsley wanted to raise fell on more deaf ears than necessary thanks to the selfish and narcissistic anti-prayer campaign waged by (Western Colorado Atheists and Free Thinkers leader) Anne Landman and Bill Hugenberg during the waning days of the primary,” he wrote.
Hugenberg, who worked with Landman during the prayer confrontations with the county and city of Grand Junction, defended his comments then along with all of his other critiques of the current County Commission, saying he simply was trying to inform the county of its problematic policies.
“I decided it’s not my role to play politics strategically,” Hugenberg said. “I felt (Rowland) was violating the Constitution and her oath of office.”
Hugenberg said so long as local officials take what he sees as illegal or questionable policy positions, he plans to be on the front lines of public dialogue.
The commission, he said, has taken the position that “any idea I come up with is necessarily a bad idea.”
Nonetheless, Hugenberg said he plans to continue his career as an outspoken critic of the commission when he sees them as sitting on the wrong side of an issue.
“That’s basically what I do. … Whether they know it or not, I think I’m doing them a favor,” he said.