February 2013

End of an era

By Gail Binkly

In April 1991, I attended my first meeting of the Montezuma County commissioners, and wrote an article for what was then the Montezuma Valley Journal about the county’s need for more road funds.

A week later, I went to the next meeting, only to be confronted by three commissioners concerned about a sentence in my article that read: “The commissioners said it was time to ‘put up or shut up’ on roads.”

The board wasn’t used to being quoted much on what they said in meetings, and they’d taken some flak over this particular comment. They didn’t remember exactly who had said what, but they figured if anyone had spoken those words, it was Tom Colbert.

(Incidentally, this is not a knock against Colbert, who is one of my all-time-favorite commissioners.)

“Gail, I just don’t know if I said that,” Colbert said, politely but rather sternly. He asked if I could find the line in my notebook.

I was a lot younger then, and I became flustered. I started flipping through copious pages of shorthand, which is difficult to skim. I knew I was right, but it was going to take me a while to find that particular comment, especially with three commissioners staring at me.

Then the attorney spoke.

“Tom, I do recall you saying that,” he stated with a chuckle. Even back then, Bob Slough wasn’t afraid to speak the truth or to tell the county commissioners something they didn’t want to hear.

Over the next 21 years, I attended a lot of commission meetings (for the Journal and later the Free Press), but the impression I formed that day of the county’s attorney never changed. Earnest, honest and unfailingly courteous, he sat through countless hours of discussions, complaints and public hearings, dispensing advice when it was sought. Commissioners, clerks, assessors and staff came and went, but Slough was always there.

When we came to have offices in the same building in Cortez, I got to know Bob even better, along with his wife, the late Twila Slough, who was equally smart, humorous and kind.

Every attorney who advises a governmental or special-district board leaves his or her own stamp on that entity, no matter how much he may try to blend into the wallpaper. Legal counsel influences the decisions the board makes and helps set the tone for how it behaves.

In Montezuma County, one of Bob Slough’s strongest influences was on the commission’s attitude toward openness.

Some boards seize the opportunity to call an executive session whenever they believe it will meet the standard of state openmeetings law – never questioning whether the executive session is really needed. They slink off into a corner whenever they want a word from their attorney on anything that could be called a “specific legal question,” for instance.

Slough firmly espoused the position that public meetings are supposed to be public – even when the issues being discussed are messy and unpleasant. During the time he was the county’s attorney, the commissioners never held a formal executive session, as best as anyone can recall. When they had to deal with a personnel matter, the presumption was that the hearing would be open unless the person involved wanted it closed.

Slough always believed – and previous commissioners concurred – that there was no reason his advice should be secret, and I can’t see that the county was ever harmed by allowing the public to hear what its attorney was saying.

Legal counsel also influences which battles boards choose to fight.

Through the 1990s, I watched the protracted struggle Montezuma County engaged in to prove that the state of Colorado was violating its own constitution by not requiring that commercial entities operating on public lands pay taxes for their use of those lands. County officials had long felt it was unfair that the concessionaire at Mesa Verde National Park didn’t have to pay property taxes, while owners of campgrounds on nearby private lands did. Backed by some courageous commissioners, Slough and the assessor’s office took on the powerful concessionaire and challenged state policy. To call this an uphill effort is an understatement; it was more like free-solo climbing up a cliff face, and many locals at the time thought the commissioners were being quixotic. But Slough was adamant that the practice was unconstitutional and the Colorado Supreme Court could be made to see that – if it would ever hear the case.

And in the end he was proven right. Lowly Montezuma County with its low-key country lawyer had to go before the Colorado Supreme Court four times, but at last the county (and some other counties that jumped on the bandwagon late in the process) won a victory that had sweeping ramifications statewide, bringing new money to school districts, special districts and counties while shifting some of the tax burden from individuals to giant corporations such as sports franchises.

But Slough was never eager to get the county embroiled in litigation. His advice was always to choose your battles carefully, and adopt no more regulations than absolutely necessary.

“Government can’t solve every problem,” he said time and again.

Slough had a down-to-earth way of summing things up that I, as a reporter, came to appreciate. He didn’t much like to be quoted in the press, but some of his comments were so pithy, there was no way I could avoid using them.

“Nothing is going to stop lawsuits,” he said at one meeting in 2010. “Land use and zoning generate litigation. To think zoning is going to stop litigation is a fantasy.”

However, he also frequently stated: “If you’re going to have zoning, zoning is supposed to mean something.”

A decade ago he explained to the commisisoners why the state of Colorado could levy a 3-cent sales tax and the city of Cortez a tax of 4 cents, yet Montezuma County could ask voters for no more than 1 cent.

“It’s like hogs at the trough,” he said succinctly. “Whoever gets there first gets the biggest share.”

In 2010 during a discussion on the meaning of the word “coordinate” in federal regulations involving how public-lands agencies are supposed to interact with counties, Slough told the board:

“Thinking ‘coordinate’ means you’re equal to Congress and federal land managers — do you think that is what the courts are going to decide? You have to use common sense.

“A resolution saying you’re equal to Congress is like me saying I’m the fastest runner in the world because I say so.”

Not many people were aware that half of Slough’s job involved handling socialservices legal work for the county, such as child-welfare and child-support cases, or that he took on the social-services duties to help the county out in a crunch.

“He is like the old definition of a public servant,” Dennis Story, the social-services director, told me recently. “He didn’t do the work to build a career, but because it was the right thing to do.”

For years Story worked closely with Slough “on very serious issues with people and families.” He said Bob Slough was always sensitive and respectful. “We are involved with families at very intimate levels,” Story told me. “If you don’t have somebody that can keep you grounded regarding individual liberties and the sanctity of the home, you can have a government overreach. Bob always kept us grounded.

“He always tries to be preventive. He believes you don’t make a legal argument unless you have to. He tried to help families use the resources available without getting the courts involved unless absolutely necessary.

“He’s very much a person who turns to the Constitution of the United States. He is a big defender of due process, a big advocate for that. He is an advocate for the little guy.

“He is a gentleman and a gentle man, very courteous and humble,” Story said. “But when he wants to be a warrior and he chooses a cause, he’s very forceful” – as with the possessory-interest tax case. “That was a big deal for the little guy and it was based in the values that Bob has.

“He doesn’t look for attention. It was never about Bob. Everything he did was because he thought it was right.

“I admire him tremendously.”

County Assessor Mark Vanderpool likewise has nothing but praise for him.

“I had the wonderful opportunity to work closely with Bob Slough on a handful of tax appeals, and in that work, I had the pleasure of accompanying him on three different trips out of town, when I got to know him as a friend and a person,” Vanderpool said.

“He was a great advocate for Montezuma County. Even more importantly he is a very polite and gentle man, a true gentleman. He was just a pleasure to work with and I will miss him.”

On Jan. 14, the new county commissioners voted 2-1 not to renew Slough’s contract after 26 years. They are advertising for a new attorney and I’m sure they will have no difficulty finding one.

But the new attorney won’t replaceBob Slough.

No one could.

Gail Binkly, a lifelong journalist, is editor of the Four Corners Free Press.