The conflict of interest question regarding John Justman's role in drainage issues looks plumper than it really is.
But "looks" is the key word. Mesa County commissioners don't seem interested in doing anything for the sake of appearances. In fact, quite the opposite. Given the choice between avoiding any suggestion of impropriety and exerting authority, they seem to favor the latter.
Which brings us to the commissioner conundrum du jour: Just because commissioners can appoint Justman to the 521 Drainage Authority, should they?
The 521 board certainly doesn't think so — and not because Justman isn't a highly regarded expert on drainage issues. It's because in addition to being a Mesa County commissioner, Justman is also an elected member of the three-person Grand Valley Drainage District.
The GVDD has historically tussled with Mesa County and the 521 Drainage Authority, though any animosity among the parties seems to have ended with a judge's ruling that GVDD cannot collect a fee to build drainage infrastructure. Now all the parties are in negotiations to create a single entity to handle drainage issues for the entire Grand Valley.
And therein lies the rub. Creating a new entity involves developing and voting on intergovernmental agreements among the county, the GVDD and the 521 and Justman has a role with all of them. It's not an unfair question to wonder if he can dispassionately discharge his duties on both the GVDD and the 521 boards.
But the way the boards operate solves this issue. Some quick background:
Justman is in the middle of his second term as an elected Mesa County commissioner. He was also elected to serve on the GVDD board in May.
The 521 Drainage Authority was created 15 years ago by the county, Grand Junction, Fruita, Palisade and the GVDD to handle drainage issues. Its board consists of one member from each of those entities. The GVDD's representative on the 521 is Jim Grisier.
Until recently, Commissioner Scott McInnis was the county's representative on the 521. Last month, McInnis decided to step aside in favor of Justman, saying he was more qualified to represent the county.
Here's why Justman does not face the possibility of a true conflict of interest. He'll vote on GVDD positions which Grisier will carry to 521 Authority meetings. Justman will represent the position of Mesa County at the 521 meetings, which will have been decided by a vote of commissioners. Two separate processes with no overlap.
Think of it like this. Whomever commissioners chose as its 521 delegate would represent Mesa County's position, regardless of how Justman votes on GVDD matters.
Still, we appreciate the 521 Authority's concerns, which were spelled out in a letter to commissioners last month.
"Certainly we recognize Mr. Justman's lifetime of experience with drainage issues, value his expertise to be a director on the 521 Drainage Authority Board, and understand he believes he can separate his two board roles and represent Mesa County on the 521 Authority Board.
"Even if that's possible, we can anticipate the potential for this dual role to complicate the duties for both governing bodies, such as when developing and voting on intergovernmental agreements, IGAs, between the 521 Drainage Authority and the GVDD."
Commissioners could have avoided a messy situation by simply acknowledging that Justman's double-duty was more of a distraction than necessary for an already complicated negotiation.
Instead, they doubled down on their right to do things their way.
"We don't tell other entities on the 521 who they can appoint, and neither should they be telling us who we should appoint," said Commissioner Rose Pugliese.
True. But is taking this hard line the best way to set the tone for what's supposed to be a collaborative process? The stakes are too high for anything to go sideways during these negotiations, but commissioners have already contributed to the perception that their authority was more important than the outcome.