Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories by Complete Colorado investigating accusations of impropriety, misuse of funds, and wasteful spending among members of the Board of Weld County Commissioners. The first can be found here. Next up will be an in-depth look at a taxpayer-funded trip to Breckenridge, where 41 Weld County employees trained for three days on how to handle emergencies in the county.
GREELEY – The recent decision of the Weld County Council to order a performance audit for the Board of Weld County Commissioners didn’t happen overnight. Discontent with the five-member governing board of the home rule county was years in the making.
Although the commissioners are elected officials and ultimately answer to voters, the council, also an elected board, is charged with setting the salaries of all elected officials in Weld County and acting as a watchdog.
Many believe the council members’ hands are tied, however, because the commissioners control their budget. But members of the council, who are not paid, have been trying for years to hire an outside auditor to investigate the pleas of disgruntled Weld employees and residents.
Among the complaints: employees feeling bullied by members of the board, misuse of taxpayer money, irresponsible spending on travel and other reimbursed expenses, closed-door meetings, improper meetings with public utilities and other entities that come before the board for quasi-judicial decisions, and taking money from those same entities for county use.
Jeffrey Hare, a former county council member said that when he advocated for a full-time performance auditor two years ago, he was met with extreme resistance.
“It is an inherent conflict of interest for the commissioners to be able to approve (or reject) any increase in (the county council’s) budget,” Hare said. “… This is common in the real world – bringing in an expert to probe and test certain areas of the business. The budget for such work is always approved by someone independent of the person or group being audited. The report is always presented to a group independent of whom is being audited.”
Hare said the council should be able to set its own budget, determine the scope of its work, and hire a performance auditor at any time.
“The performance auditor should be able to ask questions directly of any employee in the county without the information being fed through the commissioners. This was not the case when I was on the council. The responses to the questions I asked had to be reviewed by the commissioners and the county attorney.”
However, this time is different. After again meeting with resistance, council members believe they’ve found a way to audit the commissioners by tying it to a performance audit of Weld Clerk and Recorder Carly Koppes.
At a previous meeting, the council vote on the audits ended in a 2-2 tie and left the board without a member after Marge Klein resigned because she was too close to the subject.
“I feel like me having to recuse myself has kind of made the council stymied and not effective to make a decision because it’s two against two,” Klein told the Greeley Tribune. “I’ve already turned my resignation in to council members. It was not an easy decision for me to make.”
Members Brett Abernathy and Jordan Jemiola would only agree to the audit of Koppes if they could audit the commissioners, but members Don Mueller and Charles Tucker wouldn’t agree to audit the commissioners.
Mueller reconsidered at the September meeting, however, but pushed for separate audits conducted using $25,000 in the current budget for Koppes’ audit, and then next year asking for funds to audit the commissioners. Abernathy said no.
In the end, the board agreed to go with Abernathy’s proposal and voted 4-0 to ask the commissioners for additional funding to pay for both audits to occur now. They will audit the clerk first, and when completed, the commissioner audit will begin. If the commissioners don’t grant the additional funding, then there will be no audit of the clerk.
The commissioners asked for an audit of Koppes’ office after fielding complaints from a disgruntled employee and a group of Weld auto dealers. Koppes has said she is open to a performance review.
The auditing firm(s) will be chosen by the council and it will be firms with no ties to Weld County.
At a recent meeting, Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said that during the 2013-14 year, the commissioners conducted a self-review and found nothing wrong. But she also said she would support funding both audits. She reminded those in the audience that Weld County is debt free and tax free, among other positive things.
“If it takes the board of commissioners to step up and say that we agree to a performance audit so that Councilman (Jordan) Jemiola and Councilman (Brett) Abernathy will do a performance audit of the clerk’s office, then I’m wholeheartedly in support and willing to put the money forward and do the audits now,” Kirkmeyer said.
Board Chairman Mike Freeman agreed.
“I’ve got absolutely nothing to hide,” Freeman said. “Come in and audit the county commissioners because I think our performance audit is going to show once again we are very sound fiscally. We’ve got no debt; we’ve got no sales tax; we continue to lower the mill levy; we’re building bridges and roads; we’re doing the Bright Futures program to benefit kids. I think that all the things we’re doing is very positive and all in the best interest of Weld County citizens.”
Freeman said he returns every phone call and every email from residents and makes sure he is always respectful to employees and constituents.
It’s Kirkmeyer, who is running for a fifth term, that has been the subject of most of the public scrutiny on the board.
In 2014, the commissioners voted to give a nearly $1.5 million contract to BASE Tactical Disaster Recovery for disaster relief help after the 2013 flood.
More suspect than the contract, however, was that Kirkmeyer took a $2,600 donation from BASE CEO John Levy for her failed 4th Congressional District campaign – the maximum allowed under campaign finance laws.
Kirkmeyer told the Greeley Tribune that she didn’t solicit him.
“If there would have been anything I was voting on in consideration of BASE when he donated, I would have turned it back or made it public.”
Last Wednesday, all the commissioners voted in favor of another contract to BASE, after BASE donated money to the county for an emergency management training trip to Breckenridge.
Over the next three weeks, Complete Colorado will publish a series of stories investigating this and several other issues recently raised by Weld County residents. These stories will include investigation into:
- The Weld County Clerk and Recorder, who some say is in disarray, and whether the clerk’s uncle by marriage, Weld Commissioner Sean Conway, is inappropriately using his power to help her
- An emergency operations center training that was held in Breckenridge at a cost of nearly $30,000 to the county
- A conference attended by four of the commissioners in Jackson Hole Wyoming that some allege commissioners misused taxpayer money by staying in a luxury hotel miles away from the conference and then were reimbursed for “downtime” activities at Yellowstone National Park.
- Ongoing reimbursements for mileage to and from commissioners’ homes as well as meals and purchases outside their job duties
- Improper meetings with public utilities and other groups who come before the commissioners for quasi-judicial hearings
- Intimidation and mistreatment of residents who speak to the commissioners
- Allegations of commissioners bullying county employees and others