Mesa County hired outside investigator for allegation

FRANK WHIDDEN Former county administrator

After being gone on paid leave for several months for undisclosed reasons, Mesa County Administrator Frank Whidden suddenly announced his resignation effective immediately, county officials announced Friday.

Whidden, who had been administrator since December 2014, sent a one-sentence resignation letter to the commissioners on Thursday.

"In order to pursue other opportunities, I hereby resign as Mesa County Administrator effective immediately," he wrote.

Whidden had been on paid administrative leave for the past two months, but county officials wouldn't disclose why, saying it was a personnel matter. At the time, county officials told The Daily Sentinel he was out for family medical reasons, but Commissioner Scott McInnis said that's not accurate.

Whidden could not be reached for comment.

On Monday, the commissioners went into executive session at the end of their regular weekly meeting to receive legal advice "regarding a confidential personnel matter," but they didn't say whether it was about Whidden.

It also is unknown if his separation from the county is related to an age-discrimination lawsuit filed against the county last year that involved Whidden.

That lawsuit, filed in federal court, claims that Whidden had laid off six people from the county's information technology department in 2016 because of their age. The remainder of the IT staff who were not laid off all are younger than 40, the lawsuit says.

One of those employees, Debra Bouricius, had worked in the department the longest, 26 years. She was 57 when Whidden laid her off.

Five other IT workers who were in their late 40s to late 50s similarly were laid off, two of whom filed complaints with the Colorado Civil Rights Division. Those two employees, Rick and Janine Corti, ultimately were paid $62,500 each in a settlement agreement with the county. Cases for the three others are pending.

The county has denied all allegations in the Bouricius case.

Meanwhile, County Public Works Administrator Pete Baier has been filling in during Whidden's absence, and is to continue doing so until the commissioners decide what to do, though McInnis indicated Baier likely would get the top job.

"The beauty of the situation we've got is we've got a turnkey deal with Pete Baier," McInnis said. "Pete Baier's been with us 25 years or whatever. He's got the engineering background, he's got a master's degree from (the University of Colorado) in public administration, and he's often been the fill in (as administrator). The beauty is, we're able to fill the gap immediately."

McInnis said that Whidden did have a contract with the county, but because he voluntarily resigned there won't be any severance package. All Whidden will walk away with is any accrued vacation and sick time, McInnis said.

Last year, commissioners gave some of its top administrators double-digit raises, the highest going to Whidden, who was given a 37% pay hike. He was earning $180,000 a year when he left county employment.

At the time, commissioners said Whidden deserved the pay increase because he also was serving as the county's human resources director. He first started working for the county in 2011 as head of its information technology department, a position he also maintained while serving as chief administrator.

The other two top pay raises went to County Attorney Pat Coleman and Baier. Both received 14% salary increases, to nearly $160,000 for Coleman and $145,000 for Baier.

Earlier this year, Tracey Garchar, executive director of the county's Department of Human Services, was given a 21% pay hike. He now earns $151,000 a year.

Whidden is the third county administrator in a row to abruptly resign, following Tom Fisher, who was on the job for nearly two years. He worked for the county prior to taking that job for 11 years, leaving to take a similar administrative post in Utah.

Fisher replaced Chantal Unfug, who resigned abruptly in January 2013 after commissioners sought to terminate her contract. She served on the job for less than two years and left shortly after commissioners Rose Pugliese and John Justman started their first terms in office.

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