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Does anybody know what they’re really up to

Essay by Martha Quillen

Local Politics – July 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE CITY OF SALIDA has a public relations problem. As most of you know, Ed, The Mountain Mail, and KVRH Radio have gone to court to try to make Salida’s public relations more public.

But that isn’t the problem I’m referring to. No, I was thinking about the problem that started this whole episode.

I suppose a lot of city officials think their problem is Monika Griesenbeck. But it’s a lot more complicated than that.

For those of you who don’t live in Salida, Griesenbeck is a city councilwoman. During an executive session on April 20th, the Salida City Council scheduled a meeting to air complaints about her. Then, the mayor issued a memo to Griesenbeck, informing her that there were allegations against her that would be discussed in a special executive session on April 28th.

That memo cited Griesenbeck for inappropriately alleging dishonesty and incompetence on the part of various city departments. Unfortunately for the city, however, a lot of citizens, whether they be right or wrong, think those allegations were entirely appropriate.

Instead of merely attending the meeting on April 28th, however, Griesenbeck went to The Mountain Mail, and told the newspaper she wanted a public hearing. In that newspaper article, she asserted that she had nothing to hide, and brought up the Sunshine Law.

At that point, Ed and I talked about it, and we agreed that under the law such a meeting had to be public. So Ed talked to Mayor Taylor, who “guessed” that it would have to be public, too — since Monika had gone to the paper the way she had.

But on the morning of the proposed meeting, both the radio station and city hall announced a “probable executive session.” Whereupon Ed decided to find an attorney to explain Colorado Open Meetings law to the council. The attorney, however, didn’t think that would work, so Ed ended up taking out an injunction against the city.

The first time I heard about legal proceedings, Ed had already consulted an attorney, had already written his plea to the court, had already begun the proceedings, and was about to go file his suit. He asked me what I thought.

I thought, “Oh God, what about the money? The kids, the house, the cars, the cats, the dog? How are we going to pay for this?” But even so, it seemed right, so I told him to go ahead.

At that point, however, Ed and I were apparently both caught in an absolute lapse of lucidity, because we really believed council members would capitulate as soon as they realized they were actually challenging the Sunshine Law.

Instead the city decided to fight. Immediately, after that, The Mountain Mail and KVRH Radio joined Ed’s suit. And in another way, so did I.

— Because the longer this goes on, the madder I get. Lately I’ve gotten so mad I’d like to spit, (and they thought Griesenbeck was rude.)

When this all started, I thought the city council was merely misinformed about the Sunshine Law. But I’ve changed my mind. Salida’s government has launched itself into such a strange web of allegations and secrecy only Sherlock Holmes could untangle it.

It all began with the memo that said there were allegations against Griesenbeck. Later we were told there was a formal grievance. On the night of the injunction, the city attorney and the council always referred to a person, singular, who had filed that grievance.

ON MAY 4th, however, Janice Denison, an employee in the city clerk’s office, came forward to say that she had filed the formal grievance against Griesenbeck. But in her speech to the council, Denison complained about a conversation with Griesenbeck that had taken place after April 20th, the night of the executive session that led to the memo. The memo, however, seemed to allude to items in Denison’s complaint.

As for Denison’s speech, it was notably hostile. As I see it, such an indignant character assassination would have served better in a courtroom address to a convicted killer who had murdered cherished family members. But even so, Denison had as much right as Griesenbeck to criticize public officials in a public forum. Besides, as Denison read her speech, I breathed a sigh of relief, and thought, thank goodness that’s over.

I thought the council had seen the wisdom behind revelation. But as it turned out, there was another grievance.

At that point, one grievance had been aired. But apparently, the public was still not supposed to know how many grievances there were, or when they were filed, or what they entailed.

In my view, too many of these “allegations” had been obvious attempts to suppress commentary. But some were not. For example, the original memo sent to Griesenbeck included an accusation of “potential bid rigging.”

To add to my befuddlement, the memo was initialed by Mayor Taylor, but after the suit started, Taylor wrote a letter of resignation to the paper in which he apologized to Griesenbeck, saying, “I asked Scott to type a notice and distribute it to the council… This was one of those moments of mistake. I thought the language was too inflammatory but, in my haste to leave, I dismissed these thoughts…”

Taylor continued, “I’ve known Monika a long time, probably 20 years, and have never known her to be unethical or unscrupulous. I did not know then and still do not know the details of these allegations, but the language of the notice was inappropriate.”

Soon afterward, Taylor unresigned — since he would have to participate in the legal action anyway. When I talked to him afterward, he told me bid rigging was not mentioned at the April 20th meeting, and he seemed to feel that the charge was merely a matter of “incendiary” wording on Scott Hahn’s part. Taylor, however, either would not, or could not, say what the incendiary wording was about, or whether that charge was still being pursued.

The bid-rigging charge, however, was obviously the one that concerned Griesenbeck the most, since it was the only one implying criminal activity on her part. To this day, however, as I type this on June 10th, neither she nor the public has been given any explanation as to what the “potential bid rigging” allegation was about.

But I have seen the second grievance. And neither it nor Denison mentioned bid rigging. So for all I know, there may still be more allegations.

Which leads us to Scott Hahn, the Salida City Administrator. According to Mayor Taylor, Hahn had written the memo Taylor initialed, and had in doing so included charges the mayor had no knowledge of. But Hahn’s part in this has been completely unclear.

HAHN, however, had been involved in a similar executive session while employed in Hayden, where he worked before coming to Salida at the start of this year.

That Hayden meeting was held in August of 1996 to discuss allegations against Town Trustee Dave DeWitt, and at a subsequent board meeting attended by Scott Hahn, legal secretary Nancy Muhme said, “Board people are not personnel, if you look under the Sunshine Law. You need to let a board member know in advance if you have an item to discuss. If there is going to be a reprimand you have to give warning in advance. You have to ask if the person wants it discussed in an executive session.”

(Furthermore, the courts have ruled that under certain circumstances public officials cannot even opt for an executive session, but must submit to public proceedings. Obviously, the courts believe public officials should conduct their business in public.)

But legal intricacies aside, it is clear that Scott Hahn should have known that there were Sunshine Law violations involved in the city’s meetings concerning Griesenbeck. And thus, although it is probably far too much to expect of any public official, Hahn should have suggested another (legal) way to address allegations against Gries en beck.

Instead, however, the council decided to proceed, as they had in Hayden, in a secret executive session. But the executive session in Hayden didn’t remain a secret. Instead, DeWitt revealed all of the details of that meeting in his local newspaper column, Ask Grizz…

“The fifth item came from the town manager (Scott Hahn). His concerns were that I was using the town employees too much to research items and it was interfering and slowing down town business, and any further requests would be done through him and I was not to tie up or bother the employees. It was also stated that the town employees were under the town manager’s charge and the town manager’s responsibility and except receiving advice and guidance from the town board, the town manager runs the Town of Hayden.

“Well, as far as I remember, the Town of Hayden voters put me here to represent them and our town manager and all of the employees were hired by the town board.

“Let it be known that no one has the right to hamper or silence one of your representatives. On the subject of representing you, I have been requesting information on items that voters ask me to research or represent their point of view on.”

In this matter, I’ve got to agree with ol’ Grizz, whose column incidentally also mentioned the Sunshine Law violations concerning that meeting.

In that same article, DeWitt detailed all of the other complaints against him. And as I see it, those complaints were thoroughly inappropriate. (If this is your kind of reading matter, you can find these articles in the Hayden Valley Press, August 8 & 22, 1996.) One item accusing DeWitt of allowing people to take advantage of and use him to create problems, for example, could easily be construed as a message to quit responding to the “wrong” constituents. In response, DeWitt said he would “take any concern coming from a Hayden voter… to the board no matter what the objections are.”

Griesenbeck, however, should at least be grateful she’s an artist, not a writer. In Hayden, they tried to control not only DeWitt’s political associations, but also his column — which they felt they should prereview. Scott Hahn was the town manager in Hayden when they violated the Sunshine Law. But even more disturbing, in Hayden, they tried to control whom a town trustee could represent.

So what exactly happened here in Salida?

Well, you tell me, because I don’t know.

All in all, this entire episode troubles me — the numerous executive sessions, the anonymous complaints, the grievances that can’t be revealed, the charges that still aren’t explained, the lawsuit, the gossip, the rumors — the whole cloak-and-dagger feel of it. I like tangled gothic novels as well as the next person, but I prefer my government boring and straightforward.

In essence, Ed and I maintain that elected officials are not subject to grievance as city personnel. Such a grievance is not provided for under the city personnel code, and that’s good and proper — for it seems rather obvious to us (although apparently not to the Salida council), that an elected representative has to be free to examine, comment on, or even criticize departmental business — since our officials determine departmental budgets and policies.

Besides, what were all of these allegations about anyway? Griesenbeck was never the city’s problem. She merely listened to people who took their problems to the Salida City Council.

And in all honesty, there is a reason that boards often ignore the public. Citizens have problems, they feel abused, and they’re often angry. Sometimes they make unreasonable demands, occasionally someone gets pretty obstreperous, and every once in a while things get downright rebellious.

Despite all of the accusations, however, Griesenbeck never gave into the sort of insults that some citizens have delivered to the council, or that the council sometimes rains upon citizens.

(So why is it that the councilors only take action when they think someone is rude to a government official? Don’t they care when one of their members is rude to a citizen?)

GRIESENBECK did show her bias, however, as did all of the council members. And she has been critical of Salida’s management, especially its spending. But even though she is passionate in defense of her causes, she hasn’t raised her voice at meetings, or scoffed at people (as some council members have). And clearly, Griesenbeck has never delivered as many mean-spirited, unsubstantiated insults as the council has thrown her way recently.

Griesenbeck does, however, comb the budgets of each and every department, looking for money she could save the citizens; and that, of course, has not endeared her to those departments.

Yet nevertheless, as I see it, Griesenbeck was a scapegoat. She represented all of those citizens who had problems with meters, water pressure, and sewers. She listened to them, sympathized with them, and even encouraged them. So when meetings got out of hand, she was blamed. And when she introduced controversial topics, she got lambasted.

Several months ago, Griesenbeck gave the local paper a computer printout that compared our police department’s size to that of departments in similar cities. And letter-writers pummeled her for disparaging our city’s finest.

She had, of course, said nothing about the men, just about the large size of our police department — a department which should be able to defend itself with numbers, facts and statistics. As should the other city departments.

And for the most part, I think those departments are doing a fairly good job of defending their positions. But the city administrator’s public relations have been disastrous. If anything caused problems in Salida, it was the handling of the water meter project. Everybody in town knows there were huge cost overruns on Wal-Mart’s water line. Altogether, the high-zone line cost more than $400,000, and most estimates of total cost run between $500,000 and $800,000. A lot of people were angry about Wal-Mart’s line.

BUT WHEN CITIZENS complained about their own meter problems, and asked for reimbursements, they were told there was no money available. The estimated cost to make reimbursements on all curb stops was cited at less than $30,000, but according to Salida City Administrator Scott Hahn the city had no legal obligations to pay, and could not afford it.

I suspect that legal part is true. But there is a difference between legal and moral obligations. And in point of fact, the council did finally agree that the curb stop money should be repaid. That, however, was after the meeting to discuss allegations against Griesenbeck, a meeting that was mobbed by her supporters (who did not, as was reported in a letter in The Mountain Mail, spit at anyone).

On other matters, however, such as additional police cars, Hahn always maintained that Salida had plenty of money and was in good financial shape. There are reasons for that, city money cannot be legally transferred from fund to fund at will, but the new administrator has never made his budgetary problems clear to the citizens.

When the old council presided, there was seldom a single dissenting voice, except on the issue of water meters. And water meters have been a problem — and will be a problem. But that isn’t Griesenbeck’s fault.

Although Salida’s old council was usually undivided in their political views, the meetings over the city plan got raucous anyway, and the meetings over the loitering law were incredibly vociferous, if not downright riotous.

But citizens don’t rage as a result of a city councilman’s empathy. They rage because they’re upset about their problems. They rage because they have real problems, and they don’t think anybody’s listening. They rage because they don’t think anyone cares. The present council’s meetings have been long, rambling, and unregulated, but for the most part they’ve been pretty civil.

Recently, I saw Mayor Taylor and he was complaining because Monika had made everybody get ¾-inch meters. And I had to laugh. She didn’t do that. Long before R.T. and Monika ever sat in that council room, Ed asked Pat Brooks if citizens could order larger meters. Ed Quillen, Ray Perschbacher, and numerous others all campaigned for the right to buy bigger meters since last year.

But the city’s got bigger problems than ¾-inch meters. A few short months ago, I would have said the city needed to make an earnest effort to get some money into the water fund (without taking it out of the citizens pockets), and to work on parliamentary procedure, public relations, and a better system for handling complaints before they got to the council chamber.

Now, however, I’m not sure whether this board can be trusted to operate in an open, equitable manner. Instead, I’m left with questions.

What really happened here? Was this an orchestrated effort to shut Griesenbeck up? And if so, which came first, the allegations or a crusade against Griesenbeck? And who was involved?

Is it valid to label indignation about criticisms of city departments and finance — “allegations”? Does the council think it’s proper to bully elected officials out of representing factions the city government doesn’t want to hear? Was the real motivation behind these so-called “allegations” to silence Griesenbeck? Or to silence unsatisfied citizens?

WHY WAS A CHARGE of “potential bid rigging” included in the memo? If the council felt a “potential” criminal charge was valid, why was there no criminal investigation? Or if, as has oft been indicated, the council thought the charge essentially groundless, why was it desirable to air it behind closed doors? Or are they merely holding out on this charge, to air at some later date?

And how much of this was perpetrated by Scott Hahn? If his language was incendiary, shouldn’t he, rather than Mayor Taylor, have been the one to explain and/or apologize?

When Ed launched this suit, he hoped that it might convince the council to conduct the public’s business in public, in accordance with the law. A magistrate granted the injunction on April 28. A district judge upheld that injunction on May 4, finding that the city had, indeed, tried to violate the Sunshine Law. We did not expect the Salida council to want to challenge the law in the State Supreme Court — because a very public, open government is best for both the citizens and the officials.

Right now, the Salida City Council seems inclined to suppress legal criticism of their government. And that’s not uncommon. But successful repression is the worst thing that can happen to a government.

All too often, councils cut themselves off from the public, and veer in extraordinarily unpopular directions, all the while thinking they have enormous support — because they only listen to their supporters. Before long, they convince themselves that those nasty crowds out there are just a small minority. But that minority will grow as the council moves toward an undivided, unhearing, complacency. Salida’s present council should know that — since that’s why they’re in office.

Although councils seem to love amiable consensus — consensus is death to representative government. The people are not all the same. They do not think the same things, want the same things, vote for the same things, or view their government in the same way. And neither should their council.

I find it deeply troubling that the media’s suit — rather than the performance of the city council — has become the focus of what went wrong here. In my view, in pursuing its present course, Salida’s council has disregarded city code, state law, and Griesenbeck’s constitutional due process rights. But most of all, they’ve forgotten that information is the basic protection of democracy.

If the city wants the public to understand the government’s position, then the government must make its position clear. It can’t do that by conducting its business behind closed doors, and it can’t do that by inhibiting free speech. In a democracy, the people rule. How are they going to do that wisely when our council feels that the citizens shouldn’t know anything about either grievances against a council member or the council’s resulting actions?

The Sunshine Law protects not just the citizens or Griesenbeck, but the entire council and the city department heads by bringing both warranted and unwarranted accusations out into the open, where they can be heard and answered.

In the final analysis, I detest lawsuits, but I’m glad Ed brought this suit; because it was the right thing to do. By the time this magazine comes out, our case may be settled, or it may be revving up. Either way, the disheartening truth is: Even when you win in court, you can’t change hearts and minds.

In the end, I would like the Salida council to understand that this law is not important because someone will sue, but because sometimes no one will bother. I would like them to realize that this law is something they should diligently uphold — because the people have a clear and valid need to know their government.

— Martha Quillen