Rose Pugliese mug (copy)

Former Mesa County commissioner Rose Pugliese

She’s back! Or at least soon may be.

Former Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese may be returning to the Western Slope to be the next county attorney.

That possibility became official Monday when the current Board of County Commissioners named Pugliese as the sole finalist for the job, which became open in January after the three-member panel decided not to retain former County Attorney Patrick Coleman.

Commissioners had been looking at Deputy County Attorney Nina Atencio, who has been in the office for the past 12 years, and Jennifer Lee Springer, who has been the chief deputy district attorney in the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office since 2013.

But after interviewing the two in closed sessions, the commissioners opened the application process again, and decided to name Pugliese as the sole finalist instead.

After finishing her second four-year term in early January — she was term-limited and couldn’t run again — Pugliese left Grand Junction to take a job in the Colorado Springs law offices of Wegener, Scarborough and Lane, which also has an office in Grand Junction.

“An integral part of being the county attorney is recruiting executive level staff and mentoring employees in the organization, and I have a record of doing both,” Pugliese wrote in her application letter to the commissioners. “I feel strongly that being in a supervisory role means empowering and giving them the tools and resources they need to be successful in their job duties. I am skilled at listening to complaints from both employees and constituents, and working to find solutions to meet their needs.”

Her potential hiring for the job didn’t set well with some in the county.

“I don’t know where this Rose Pugliese thing came from out of the blue,” said Scott Beilfuss, co-chairman of the Mesa County Democratic Party and one-time candidate for the Colorado House.

“Her background and previous actions suggest that this is more of an act of cronyism, and not so much a good professional selection for the citizens of Mesa County,” Beilfuss told commissioners at their regular Monday meeting. “On her watch (former County Administrator) Frank Whidden pulled a fast one on everyone. If she was as strong an attorney as it appears you think she is, there is no way that Frank would have gotten by with that stuff.”

Since earning her law degree from St. John’s University School of Law in Queens, New York, in 2003, Pugliese has worked at five law firms in New York, New Jersey, Florida and Colorado, including operating her own firm from 2007-2015. She was first elected to the commission in 2013.

She earned her undergraduate degree in sociology from Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Whidden resigned his position in 2019 amid some secrecy and controversy, but at a time when the county had been investigating him for possible sexual harassment.

“It cost the county a lot of money to get Frank out of here,” Beilfuss said. “Also on her watch, hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid out in age-discrimination lawsuits. It was pretty obvious what was going on, and county commissioners just sat on their hands as things were playing out.”

Over the past five years, the county has paid out $232,000 in six settlements, including two $62,500 payouts to settle age-discrimination complaints from a married couple who Whidden laid off from the county’s Information Technology Department, an agency he also oversaw. Another similar case is pending in federal court.

While Pugliese was commissioner, Whidden had received back-to-back pay raises, a 37% increase, to bring his annual salary to $180,000.

At the same time, Pugliese joined other commissioners, John Justman and Scott McInnis, to approve similar double-digit pay hikes for Coleman, who was earning $185,000 a year when he left the county attorney job.

Pugliese and Justman were replaced by Republicans Janet Rowland and Cody Davis in January after the November 2020 election.

It is unknown what Pugliese would earn if she gets the job. Commissioners are expected to formally interview her in executive session later this month.