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Hey, they did something right, for a change

Essay by Ed Quillen

Salida politics – March 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

TO BE HONEST, I don’t usually pay much attention to the city government. As long as it delivers water, conveys sewage, plows streets, extinguishes fires, and maintains some degree of public order, then I’m quite willing to devote my attention to other matters. Indeed, when I gave serious thought to running for mayor in 1997, my proposed campaign slogan was “A government you can turn your back on.”

We just had an election in November of 2001, and the winning candidates took office in January. Since then, the council has voted not to renew the contract of Scott Hahn, the city administrator. Mayor Jaime Lewis, who was just re-elected without opposition, has resigned effective March 1. Bonnie Schwam, just elected, has announced she’s resigning and moving.

Since the new council has taken office, the major issue has been Hahn, yet I don’t recall that his tenure was a huge issue in the 2001 municipal election — which is when we’re supposed to have these matters on the table for public discussion. Before the election, most local political discussion was about the school bond issue.

But in my small-r republican view of how things should work, campaigns would be when candidates argue hammer-and-tongs about public policy. A candidate who wanted to fire Hahn would say so, and if he got the votes, he’d pursue that course once in office. A district attorney who opposed the death penalty would face an opponent who supported it, and the public would decide.

Instead, however, we have people running without opposition and without much discussion. The people who wanted to recall Ed Rodgers as district attorney because he isn’t sufficiently bloodthirsty should have found and supported an opposing candidate when Rodgers ran for re-election in 1998 — instead of trying to recall him in 2002. And people who wanted Hahn fired should have made that a central issue during the campaign.

I have no idea where to assign the blame for this problem, but I suspect that we in the media are a big part of it. We tend to treat elections like horse races, reporting on who’s ahead and by how much, rather than like forums to determine public policy.

And we also tend to concentrate on the issues that are the most controversial right before the election. Thus policy questions seldom come up during campaigns, and the public can get surprised later — when a murder case or an angry resignation bring policy matters to the fore.

And that inspires recall elections.

(With petitions circulating for a county commissioner following the recall of a sheriff, Lake County seems to have surpassed Buena Vista and Park County as the recall center of Central Colorado).

But many of these recalls might have been avoided if the regular campaigns and elections had served their proper purpose.

It reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend in 1999. As an environmentalist, she was horrified by Gov. Bill Owens’ transportation plans — more freeways for more cars. I’m not fond of that, either, but I pointed out that Owens had campaigned on precisely that issue in 1998, and he had won the election. While it may be a novelty to see a politician carry through on his campaign promises, it’s also how things are supposed to work.

Back to Salida. At one point, members of a local builders’ association had announced their dissatisfaction with Hahn. Words were exchanged and assurances were made, but no real action was taken, and after that, the matter seemed to be tabled.

Although in retrospect it seems like Hahn’s job performance should have been an issue last November when we were electing a city council, it didn’t really resonate until January and February. On the contrary, the City Council wanted to go into a closed executive session to discuss the renewal of Hahn’s contract. It was Hahn who demanded that the session be held in public view — and thus the process stalled.

Hahn had obviously learned at least one important truth about Salida politics: the City Council is often very reluctant to discuss public business in public. Thus if you can insure a public meeting about a given issue, the issue might very well go away.

But such meetings should be public, of course, not just because it’s state law, but also because it’s the fair and honorable way to handle such matters. It’s not right to sit around in a secret session and exchange gossip, and then make a decision.

Perhaps Colorado Central had a part in Hahn’s education. He alluded to it in a letter published in the Feb. 4 edition of The Mountain Mail, wherein he was defending his actions since coming to work here in early 1998:

“1998 Open Meetings Lawsuit

“Unfortunately I do not have the authority to disclose the facts surrounding this matter. I do feel, however, that if the facts were made public, many people would not support the current belief about my role with regards to this situation.”

AS VAGUENESS GOES, this ranks with recent White _House announcements about the relationship between Ken Lay and George W. Bush. It’s been almost four years since this lawsuit happened, and I suspect that most Salidans have pretty well forgotten about it; so there isn’t any dominant “current belief” about his role that might be changed “if the facts were made public.”

But even so, the facts about that lawsuit have never been a secret. The pleadings are all on record at the county courthouse. And I was a party to that suit. I’ve written about it on several occasions, and I don’t recall that I’ve ever refused to answer a question about it.

To make things brief, here’s what happened. Monika Griesenbeck was elected to the Salida City Council in 1997. I like Griesenbeck and generally agree with her on local issues, but I don’t think she was a very effective council member — you have to select your fights, and she made damn near everything into a confrontation. While that may be an honest course, it’s not a way to build political alliances or get things done.

Be that as it may, Griesenbeck was duly elected, and a constituent mentioned to her that he had heard a rumor that the city was missing some water meters. Griesenbeck brought this up at a council meeting. Tom Shilling, director of public works, said “We didn’t pinch ’em.” The meters were all accounted for.

THAT’S WHERE this should have ended. A constituent asked a question of an elected representative and the elected official got an answer. It happens thousands of times a day all over this country.

But Shilling was upset, and filed a “grievance” about Griesenbeck with Hahn. Salida has a grievance procedure; it’s spelled out in the City Personnel Code. For our purposes here, there are two relevant provisions:

1) The subject of the grievance has the right to a public hearing if the subject wants one.

2) Elected officials, such as city councilors, are specifically not covered under the grievance procedures of the personnel code.

Thus, any complaint about Griesenbeck’s performance in office was not a “personnel matter” as defined by the city’s own personnel code. And so, it couldn’t be one of those “personnel matters” that can legally be discussed in an executive session. And further, the subject of the complaint — Monika Griesenbeck — wanted the discussion to be public.

Hahn, after receiving the letter from Shilling, totally mishandled the case. He should have told Shilling that, if he had a problem with Griesenbeck, he had the same rights as any other citizen. He could take it up with her personally. He could go to a public council meeting and complain. He could circulate recall petitions. But he couldn’t have an executive session to discuss “personnel matters” concerning Griesenbeck.

But Hahn’s reaction wasn’t within a day’s ride of the proper and legal course. Instead, Hahn prepared a memo that Mayor R.T. Taylor signed, which announced that an executive session had been scheduled for the next Monday to discuss allegations against Griesenbeck.

I heard about it that preceding Friday, and the information came with an invitation to a meeting of Griesenbecks’ friends and supporters that night. I went. Monika feared that Hahn was attempting to use this upcoming executive session to remove her from the council — there is, after all, a state law that allows a city council to expel a member (it’s usually employed when someone quits coming to meetings).

She had good reason for that apprehension — Hahn had tried the same tack in an effort to remove a troublemaker from the town board of Hayden, where he had previously worked.

At that Friday night meeting, I made one observation: The council wouldn’t have the cojones to act in public, and so if the state open-meetings law could be enforced, the council wouldn’t even talk about it, let alone act. I don’t recall that anyone leaped up and agreed with me, but on the following Monday, I talked to Mayor R.T. Taylor. I asked if this Griesenbeck meeting would be open to the public, and he said “If Monika wants it to be public, then it will have to be.”

So I was surprised later that day when I saw the notice of executive session posted in the city offices. I started calling lawyers. Ernest Màrquez was the first to answer the phone. As I knew, his specialty was criminal law, not the state open-meetings law, but he said he’d look into it and call me back right away.

He did. The only way to stop this illegal meeting that Hahn had helped arrange was to get a court to issue an injunction, and to do that, he needed a client. So I agreed to be the client, and Quillen v. Salida entered the court system, and we (The Mountain Mail and KVRH radio joined the suit) won.

NOW, HAHN MAY KNOW THINGS that I don’t about this case, and perhaps there are “facts surrounding the matter” that he “does not have the authority to disclose.” But if so, such facts never came out during the court case. And although it’s entirely possible that Hahn’s actions may have been nurtured by Salida council members and/or city personnel (which might be what his cryptic message alludes to), that doesn’t relieve Hahn of responsibility.

But as for Hahn’s implication that there’s some deep, dark secret regarding this case, I know one thing for certain: the parties that brought this case — Colorado Central, The Mountain Mail, and KVRH — have thoroughly publicized and aired everything that they know about the matter. And the city should have long since done the same — if indeed it hasn’t — because this bizarre, backroom wheeling, dealing and politicking that Hahn says prevents him from defending himself shouldn’t happen.

That was the entire point of this case, and it is the entire point of Colorado’s Sunshine Laws: the public should be privy to what public employees are doing.

Of course, my version may naturally be rather self-serving, but even so, the facts of this court case are publicly available. The court decided that a hearing for Griesenbeck should have been public, and that means that Hahn shouldn’t have been a party to an executive session.

Yet Hahn tried to arrange for an illegal secret meeting to discuss matters. And Jaime Lewis was on the City Council then, too.

Once he became mayor, Lewis was quite vocal in criticizing Nancy McAnich, a new councilor, for allegedly attempting to violate the state Sunshine Law. But back then, Lewis was in full support of illegal secrecy — he always voted to pursue the lawsuit, and never publicly questioned the need to hold a secret meeting so the council could swap catty gossip in private about whether they wanted Griesenbeck to stay among them.

Lewis’s attitude has obviously changed. But the city council seems to have changed, too. They met in public on Feb. 4 to discuss whether to renew Hahn’s contract. Members of the public spoke — almost all against. And then the council discussed and voted — in public.

Whether you liked Hahn or not, that’s a refreshing development — a public action based on public statements.

So what do I think about the recent accusations of Sunshine Law violations?

Well, nobody had to go to court this time around. As soon as legal conflicts were pointed out, council members chose to do the honorable thing and conduct public business publicly, and that’s a considerable improvement.

As for my dealings with Hahn, since our Sunshine Law suit, I’ve found Hahn cordial and responsive when I’ve dealt with him, and in at least one case, he served the city well when he discovered that the land-for-water trade for a proposed golf-course expansion would cost city taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Like the rest of us, he did some sensible things and some things that weren’t so sensible. Obviously, he upset many Salida citizens, and apparently he no longer held the confidence of the City Council, and in that case, he should have been dismissed.

BUT I DON’T KNOW whether Salida will get anyone any better, because no matter who serves as city administrator, some fundamental problems will remain. One is us — the voting public. We don’t demand better explanations from candidates when they’re campaigning. And by extension, that includes the local media — we don’t do a good job of examining the issues and putting them before the public.

And then there are problems with the city government, which seems to be a collection of fiefdoms: police, fire, public works, etc., with little accountability to the public that pays the bills. These fiefs all have their political bases, and the council is reluctant to disturb them.

Recall early 1998, when a new mayor and council took office. The police chief’s contract was coming up. The council certainly has a responsibility to examine the chief’s job performance — but there was a crowd, all supporting the police chief, and so the council backed away from its responsibility. Extend that across the other city departments, and you have no effective administration. You’ve got a bunch of department heads, each looking after his department’s interests, and no one taking into account the entire city’s needs, priorities and budgets.

This is not to criticize the department heads — they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, exactly what I’d do if I held one of their positions.

HERE’S AN ANALOGOUS SITUATION. Back when I was managing editor of the Mountain Mail (1978-83), when budget time came, I tried to get every nickel I could for the news department. The production manager, of course, wanted all she could get, and so on through the organization. But none of us was in a position to know the entire system and where resources would be best allocated for the benefit of the entire operation — that was the job of the publisher, who could say, “This year, we need more typesetting machinery, next year the press gets a new unit, and then we’ll look at adding a reporter.”

I might not have liked that outcome, but I did my job by making my case for resources for my department, and Merle Baranczyk did his job by figuring out where that fit into the overall needs of the organization. Baranczyk also “reviewed” my work regularly and made it amply clear if he thought I was over-budget, or disregarding important stories, or neglecting design.

The trouble with the city seems to be that no one is saying “two new cops this year and a fire truck next year and a sewer plant overhaul the year after that.” Instead, the council seems intent on looking at the little pictures instead of the big picture, and is unwilling to set priorities among the departments — or to conduct meaningful reviews that might be helpful to city employees.

That’s something Hahn ought to have attacked, especially if his job was in jeopardy anyway. And those priorities should have been an issue in the 2001 election. But we seem to have our own strange ways of making public decisions around here — and often they’re not good ways.

There’s also the matter of procedural guidelines. Several of the complaints against Hahn concerned his “rudeness,” but the spokesmen also implied that it was difficult to know how things were supposed to be done when they were dealing with the City of Salida — which suggests that our policies could use some work.

On the other hand, though, there’s reason for hope: The city council actually acted in public on a controversial issue. That came as a surprise, but a pleasant one, and perhaps it will be contagious.

–Ed Quillen