Once again, Mesa County officials make a mockery of the concept of open and transparent government.
But the problem is bigger than the arrogance they’ve shown by failing to keep the public informed of their decisions. They seem to have no qualms about letting taxpayers clean up a mess they created in the dark.
After going to great lengths to conceal layoffs within the county’s information technology department in 2016, county officials are now defending the moves as necessary to balance the budget and insisting that age discrimination played no role.
But they’ve lost any credibility on that claim after reaching settlements with two former county IT workers last year over discrimination claims. The county paid $62,500 per settlement to workers who filed complaints with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
The two former workers who received the settlement signed an agreement, along with former County Administrator Frank Whidden, not to disclose the terms and conditions of the settlement. The county’s position is that it had no legal obligation to inform the public of matters involving personnel — when disclosing its intention to lay off employees would have raised red flags about potential legal liabilities.
We know about the payout because a lawyer representing another laid-off IT worker — who did not reach a settlement with the county — obtained the settlement agreement through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
“They tried to say some of the stuff was confidential,” Denver civil rights lawyer Paula Greisen told the Sentinel’s Charles Ashby. “There’s no grounds for making them confidential.”
Details of the settlement are referenced in a federal lawsuit filed by a 26-year veteran of the IT department. The suit alleges that the county and its commissioners targeted the oldest six workers in the department for layoffs — in violation of policies requiring the county to establish objective performance criteria as the basis for layoffs.
Whidden was deposed last month and his deposition is part of the court record in the federal lawsuit. In it, he denies age being a basis for layoffs, which he says needed to be made to reduce a $1.4 million budget shortfall.
He signed both settlement agreements, but said in the deposition that only the commissioners had the authority to approve the settlement amounts — something that was not discussed or voted on in a public meeting.
The lawsuit alleges that the county violated state law because the county commissioners didn’t approve the layoffs in an open public session. Whidden, however, said he had blanket authority from the commissioners to do so, saying he obtained that permission after talking to each one individually outside of a public meeting.
Whidden also said he did not reveal the names of those selected for layoffs with the commissioners or the county attorney. Why? Plausible deniability? He said he asked the county attorney to review the layoffs to be sure there wouldn’t be any legal issues with them. Surprise! There were.
Let’s review the abuse of the public’s trust. The county uses a budget shortfall to justify laying off workers. Fine — if commissioners do it in open session, explain how the cuts are in the public’s interest and insulate taxpayers from legal liability.
Instead of defending the cuts and approving them with a public vote, commissioners apparently agreed to let Whidden do whatever he saw fit behind the scenes.
But Whidden’s actions (speaking to commissioners individually, then signing settlement agreements that had to be approved by commissioners but weren’t — at least not publicly) only fuels speculation that this is all part of an elaborate conspiracy to avoid public scrutiny and to insulate commissioners from the ramifications of their illicit dealings.
Whatever savings were realized by those cuts was mitigated by the settlements and the legal costs to negotiate them and defend a federal lawsuit. Meanwhile, after the budget drama of 2016, commissioners saw fit to reward certain senior-level administrators, including Whidden and the county attorney, with hefty raises.
It all stinks, but commissioners are counting on the public to once again hold its nose.