Spreading the blame regarding 
county administrator’s firing

“Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” — “For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield/Stephen Stills

It didn’t take long for us to get an inkling of what kind of government to expect from our new Mesa County commissioners.

If the dismissal of former County Administrator Chantal Unfug is any indication of what to expect, it’ll be a long and interesting four years.  Or at least two years, since one of the co-conspirators, incumbent Commissioner Steve Acquafresca, is term-limited. His seat will become open in 2014.

To refresh your memory, the commissioners issued a terse, two-sentence statement at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 22, announcing that Unfug and they had mutually agreed to end her employment. They’ve said little since then, except for some notable obfuscation by Board Chairman Acquafresca and newly installed commissioner Rose Pugliese. Unfug remains silent.

Unanswered questions include reasons for the dismissal, any settlement package and whether their actions complied with the Colorado Open Meetings Act, better known as the Sunshine Law.

You know, the state statute that supposedly guarantees we’ll all be privy to the actions of our elected representatives, an important concept if you believe in such ideals as open government, public trust and just plain old common sense.

I have no inside knowledge or opinion about Unfug’s performance as county administrator. She kept a pretty low profile since her hiring a year and a half ago, probably wise while working in the rather tall shadows of former Commissioners Craig Meis and Janet Rowland.

I do have a little experience in relationships between elected officials and their employees, including the dismissal of a former county administrator on my watch.

Some things are certain in my mind.

The commissioners had every right to determine they wanted a change in one of the three positions (administrator, county attorney and human services director) under their direct control. As Meis appropriately noted while expressing surprise at Unfug’s dismissal, it’s difficult to serve three masters who sometimes may not all be on the same page. That’s why the average tenure of a local government administrator is about five years.

I’d also be very surprised if the commissioners didn’t follow the letter, if not the intent, of the open meetings statute, especially if they consulted ahead of time with County Attorney Lyle Dechant — unless he was as surprised as the rest of us and is therefore left with batting cleanup.

I’m also pretty certain we’ll eventually learn more of the details. Secrets are hard to keep, especially in local government in times of controversy. The Daily Sentinel predictably and justifiably filed a records request that may provide some insight. It has published the requisite pawing and snorting by a media attorney, but has not yet initiated legal action regarding any alleged Sunshine Law violations.

Ultimately, we’ll know more. If the commissioners take the long-term view about ongoing relationships with constituents, they’ll step up with more information rather than see it dredged out piece by piece. Better to endure one uncomfortable drenching rather than drip torture.

As I noted, I’ve danced this dance. It isn’t easy. 

There are times when things just aren’t working (though it usually takes more than 15 days to make that determination).  When that happens, it’s naïve to think one day the matter will just appear on a formal agenda and that public discussion will be the first time the bosses have talked about it. There’s a very human desire to make a tough situation as painless as possible.

But that doesn’t mean both the spirit and the intent of the Open Meetings Act should be ignored or that constituents should be kept in the dark about financial and other considerations in any termination.

Let’s acknowledge one other thing.

Mesa County voters need to accept our share of the blame. This is our fault. All three of these commissioners assumed office after winning elections that weren’t close at all.

So, we’re getting exactly the kind of government we deserve. I’d like to think we, and they, could do better.

“The more I see of the representatives of the people, the more I admire my dogs.” – Alphonse de Lamartine, French poet and statesman


Jim Spehar is currently dogless but is flush with suspect representatives of the people. Your comments are welcome at jimspehar@bresnan.net.


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