Editors Note: This is the third story in a series of stories about the board of Weld County Commissioners and issues brought to the Weld County Council for reasons to audit the board’s performance. The previous two look at the commissioner’s decision to form a charter review committee and the criticisms leveled at the commissioners by residents. Next up, Complete Colorado will look at spending by the commissioners on conferences, meals and travel and potential improprieties.
GREELEY – Many praised the board of Weld County Commissioners both during and after the 2013 flood because their actions saved time, money, and in some cases, headaches for Weld residents.
However, how much the county should pay to train its employees for just such an event recently came under fire. Also who could help pay the bill was questioned. So, rather than accept direct donations from corporate partners, the county directed those entities to donate to the United Way, who would then turn around and cut a check to the county.
At several recent meetings of both the board of Weld County Commissioners and the Weld County Council, residents have said a recent training trip to Breckenridge was too much and accused the commissioners of using United Way to launder donations from organizations that depend on the commissioners for decisions on land use in the county.
Commissioners say the county’s response in 2013 was the result of ongoing training, including a 2012 trip to Emmetsburg, Md. for specialized training provided and paid for by FEMA.
Commissioners were so pleased by the hands-on experiences employees got that they decided to replicate it on their own this year when a subsequent grant application was unsuccessful.
However, some – including one of the commissioners – said the training could have taken place for much less than the $45,000 the Breckenridge location cost.
“We budgeted this for $15,000,” said Commissioner Sean Conway at a July 18 regular board meeting. “The taxpayers paid a lot of money for (Weld’s Emergency Operations Center) for when a disaster’s going to happen.”
According to the Office of Emergency Management’s (OEM) website, the final ticket price was $41,455.
Through a Colorado Open Records Act request, Complete Colorado also found another nearly $4,000 in expenses for employee transportation and meals, making the grand total more than $45,000. Some employees on the attendance list had not yet submitted expense reports at the time of the request.
“One of the biggest concerns I have about doing this training and investing in it is people coming and going and saying, ‘well I have this other meeting scheduled,’” Commissioner Julie Cozad said at that July meeting. “It just takes away from the overall training. I think it’s really important that the people that do go, are there, and they’re focused, and they’re working on the training together for the full entire time.”
Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer told the Greeley Tribune something similar.
“If it’s too close, people will just pop out for some reason or another,” the Tribune article reported. “Maybe they’d go home for lunch or go run an errand. They can’t leave meetings for their own offices when they’re more than two hours away from them.”
However, both Kirkmeyer and Commissioner Steve Moreno left the conference early.
Moreno left to attend a national clerk and recorder’s conference in Philadelphia.
When questioned if it was appropriate to leave the training for the clerk’s conference considering he is no longer the clerk and recorder in Weld County, Moreno said the Election Center board believes his perspective as a commissioner is a valuable resource.
“I was first asked to serve on the Board of Directors for the Election Center in 2012 when I was still Weld County Clerk & Recorder,” Moreno said. “I was going to resign when I was elected Weld County Commissioner, but the Chairman and members of the Board asked if I would consider continuing my service in my capacity as a county commissioner on their board. … They felt my insight to the board from the position of commissioner, who oversees county budgets including elections, could be beneficial to the group.”
Moreno is also currently hearing criticism that he supports changing the clerk and recorder position from an elected one to an appointed one, so that he can get his old job back.
Moreno was term limited from the position in 2014. Moreno has denied that and said publicly he will not support that change.
Kirkmeyer left to attend an award’s banquet in Fort Collins. She said she believed it was important to represent Weld County on the North I-25 Coalition, which was receiving the award.
“I think it is appropriate for an elected official to represent the organizations to which they belong, especially when being recognized for their positive work on a project crucial not only to Weld County but the Northern Colorado region as well,” Kirkmeyer said.
She also said she believed her prior experience in emergency management helped during her missing time.
“I not only attended the FEMA training with the county in 2012, but I also had direct experience with disasters and disaster recovery during my role as acting director of the Office of Emergency Management at (Department of Local Affairs),” Kirkmeyer said. “My role in the training was not so much as that of student new to the world of EOCs and disasters but as a contributing mentor and facilitator for the training and the exercise.”
She pointed out that she didn’t miss any of the actual training exercises and was briefed on what she did miss over lunch.
Commissioner Conway, who attended the same awards ceremony in Fort Collins, did not attend the Breckenridge training out of principal, he said.
“I did not attend the exercise because I felt the exercise should have been conducted in the Weld County EOC, which we constructed at great taxpayer expense in 2011,” Conway said. “The 2016 Budget allocated $15,000 to do an exercise. The decision to move the exercise from Weld County to Breckenridge resort resulted in tens of thousands dollars of additional taxpayer expense, which I believed was unnecessary. The four days of the exercise, I remained in Weld County to hold down the fort at the commissioner’s office while my four fellow commissioners were at the exercise.”
Corporate donations processed through United Way
The debate over where and how much, is just one concern for residents who have spoken repeatedly against it. Who paid for the training and how has also been a matter of concern.
“I would also raise the question in terms of some of the sponsorships I’ve seen,” Conway said at that July meeting. “I think we need to be very careful in terms of what financial sponsorships we have in regards to this and in regards to conflict of interest.”
Conway was referring to what the county has said was $11,500 in sponsorships for the event that came from companies such as Xcel Energy, BASE Tactical, Waste Management, PDC Energy, TetraTech, Martin Marietta and Felsburg Holt & Ullevig, all companies that at some point have come before the board for quasi-judicial hearings on land use and other issues and are likely to again. Those hearings require commissioners to be judge-like in their fact findings.
Somewhere between the July meeting and the training, Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker weighed in on the matter because in a letter also obtained through open records, OEM Director Roy Rudisill asked those partners to reissue their donations to the United Way instead of the county.
“You may know that early on during the planning of the course we understood that we were able to accept a check or payment directly to the county,” the letter states. “However, due to some concern from our county attorney’s office regarding a conflict of interest, it has been recommended that we partner with a non-profit organization to help with the process.”
That was when the decision to go through United Way came about, Rudisill said.
After the training, Board Chairman Mike Freeman said he believed there was no conflict either way, and using United Way to pass through the money seemed logical.
“In any kind of emergency situation, the United Way is one of our biggest partners,” Freeman said. “And they were a part of this training as well. I don’t know that anyone specifically went out and said to any specific person and said, ‘would you donate to this.’ … For us to say that anybody that we’re going to have any kind of business relationship or have a hearing in front of us, we shouldn’t have any kind of relationship with or be working together on things that benefit the entire county, I just think that’s ridiculous.”
United Way CEO and President Jeannine Truswell said when the county approached her to help, she wanted to do what she could because the two entities have a good working relationship.
Truswell said Rudisill asked if the county could collect its donations through a designation process with the United Way, which allows someone to donate money to a specific cause.
The United Way would then give that money back to the county, and the county could put it toward the expenses it outlined just as if it had received the money itself, but only those expenses. It is used in this manner to keep the county from using the funding for other expenses not related to the training.
Truswell said she wanted to do what she could to help, but she needed to make sure that it fit with the organization’s purpose.
After conferring with her financial and legal advisors, she said she was comfortable they could act as a pass through for the money because its intent was for the betterment of the community – a stated purpose of the United Way.
“Main thing I wanted to make sure of was that I alerted staff because some of these companies make general contributions to United Way, and I didn’t want it to go in the record wrong,” Truswell said.
Truswell said she was told there would be between $10,000-$11,000, the same number the County reported in the Tribune article as sponsor money. To date United Way has received $2,700.
United Way’s involvement as a go-between for the money has some accusing the county of using United Way simply to launder the money.
Ellen De Lorenzo, a Johnstown resident who has been one of several to speak out at public meetings about the Breckenridge trip said no matter how the donation was collected it was used for county purposes, and it was wrong.
“Taking donations from businesses who are involved in land use decisions in our County is despicable and unethical,” De Lorenzo said. “Contributors to this event included current land use applicants. Period.”