On October 17, I sat down and watched some of the more compelling television I’ve seen in a while. It wasn’t on Netflix or HBO. It was on YouTube and was a broadcast of the Salida City Council meeting from the previous evening.
The meeting began with a public comment period as they always do, but this was no ordinary meeting. Foremost on the mind of the citizens in attendance was the choice by the council of a new city administrator.
For a bit of background, the city administrator position has been somewhat of a hot potato since I moved here in 2001. It’s a pretty thankless job and one that faces much scrutiny from the public. The most recent administrator was asked to retire after it was determined by council that he was not working at capacity nor engaging members of the community. He was brought on to replace the previous administrator whose contract was not renewed by a former council after complaints were filed against her by her opponents. She went on to take a position as town manager for Crested Butte, where she still works today.
The city received around 45 applicants for the position this time around and, with the help of local resident and consultant Harry Brull, narrowed the applicants down to three, who were then brought in for extensive interviews. The majority council decided to hire Drew Nelson, former town manager for Winter Park, Colorado. They based their decision on his experience there and the impression he had made on city employees who had met him and voiced strong approval for him, according to a councilman I spoke with.
After the announcement of his hire, it was publicly revealed that Nelson had lost his position in Winter Park after an incident back in February when he was charged with felony menacing-domestic violence, prohibited use of a weapon and reckless endangerment. Nelson pled guilty to the felony menacing-domestic violence and weapons charges. The reckless endangerment charges were dropped.
The council and city employees were aware of these charges when they hired him, and the local newspaper sat on this information until after the hire was announced. When posts began to appear on social media about the February incident, it blew up. Locals were outraged that this information was not front and center in the decision to hire him and it was made without regard to the well-being of the community.
Which brings us to that council meeting. One after another, local citizens, mainly women, implored the council to reconsider their choice of Nelson. They spoke with passion, anger, humility, eloquence and outrage about the hire, which many considered an affront, given that many of them had voted in the last election for most of the council persons who sat before them. They felt betrayed and minimized, as women, by the majority-male council. Keep in mind this was less than a month after Senate Republicans confirmed an obviously unqualified water carrier to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As I was familiar with many of the speakers, as well as most of the council, I did not envy either’s position. The councilmen who voted to hire Nelson defended their choice, remarking on his qualifications, his personal references from Winter Park and his remorse over the incident and the steps he’s been taking to seek mental health and efforts to learn from the incident. The mayor, P.T. Wood, repeatedly suggested that a mediation session with the new hire and the opponents should be scheduled as soon as possible so that questions could be asked directly of Nelson and the council. Despite this, there was quite a bit of disorder in the council chambers with folks talking out of turn and speaking disapprovingly of their representatives on the dais.
My initial takeaway was that this was a rookie error on the part of the freshman council, and they should have known there would be blowback to their choice. The councilman I spoke with was caught offguard by the level of negative reaction, as there had not been any complaints in the public meetings leading up to the new hire. One reason for this was that the February incident had not been reported in the local news and was not public knowledge at the time.
Adding to the misery of the whole process was an unfortunate bicycle accident in Oregon last month which left Mr. Brull in the hospital and unable to communicate. It is doubtful he is aware of the imbroglio caused by the new hire.
Based on my conversation with the councilman, the city council is confident that Nelson has rehabilitated himself, that there are more sides to his story which are not public knowledge, and that he has won the support of city employees whom he will oversee. I also believe they are likely looking at a lawsuit if they rescind the offer to hire him.
I personally don’t consider eight months enough time to judge whether someone has rehabilitated himself from an act of violence. Two years? Maybe. Six years? Preferable. As for Nelson himself, I would think that knowing the hurt and controversy his hiring has caused in the community would be enough for him to withdraw his name from consideration. On the other hand, a six-figure salary and new lease on life doesn’t come along every day.
Time will tell whether the council has made the right choice. I hope for the sake of all Salida citizens, that they have. – Mike Rosso