By Gail Binkly and
David Grant Long
County Administrator Ashton Harrison resigned on Monday, April 8 – the same day that the Montezuma County commissioners had an unusual meeting with District Attorney Will Furse, possibly in violation of state sunshine laws.
At the end of their regular meeting that day, the commissioners met in a closed-door session with Furse after asking staff members and the public to leave the commission meeting room.
Asked by Free Press reporter David Long whether this was an executive session, Commissioner Keenan Ertel said no, but that they did not want staff or the public present.
“We’re going to meet informally with the DA,” he said.
Whether the closed-door session had any connection with Harrison’s resignation is unknown.
The Free Press contacted Harrison at the county administration office shortly after the board and Furse went into their private session. Harrison said he did not know what the officials were discussing because he, too, had been asked to leave.
Later Monday evening, Furse told the Free Press that the meeting was “just a very informal casual discussion” that had “nothing to do with policies or county matters.” He said it was “a time to have all the commissioners together” and that what they discussed was of a “sensitive nature – nothing to do with anything agendized.”
He said the meeting did not violate Colorado sunshine laws because county business was not discussed. He declined to give any more specifics about the topic of the meeting, saying that it was “an opportune time for us four to chat briefly.”
Word of Harrison’s resignation spread on Tuesday, and that evening he confirmed to the Free Press that he had resigned effective Monday. He declined to give his reasons for doing so.
Harrison – who had been county administrator for nearly seven years, since May 1, 2006 – said he had enjoyed working with the staff.
“I’ve had a remarkable staff – both my staff and my department heads,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed a great relationship with them. I think we’ve made a lot of progress on several fronts and I couldn’t have done that without having good department heads and a good team.
“I’m going to personally miss some of my employees.”
On Tuesday, Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said that Harrison’s resignation “happened out of the blue” and indicated that it was “an ongoing issue” that had not been entirely decided and would be discussed at the board’s next meeting.
Regarding the closed-door meeting with Furse, Suckla said it involved “a sensitive subject.”
“It’s a personal thing, yes – that’s all I can say or do till the other two commissioners are present,” he said.
However, he said the meeting should have been announced. “I feel like it needs to be done a different way from now on.”
Suckla also said that the topic was “a very important issue.”
“That’s all I can say,” he stated. “It will get out – just not yet.”
Suckla said of the last day, “It was an eventful past 24 hours I would like not to relive.”
Colorado law (CRS-24-6-402) states, “All meetings of a quorum or three or more members of any local public body, whichever is fewer, at which any public [italics added] business is discussed or at which any formal action may be taken are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times.”
All three commissioners were present Monday.
Local public bodies may discuss certain matters privately by going into an executive session, but under the law they are first supposed to announce to the public the topic of the executive session and cite the specific part of the law under which the topic qualifies for an exemption from the open-meetings requirement.
Executive sessions can be called to discuss the sale or acquisition of property; matters required to be kept confidential by federal or state law or regulations; details of security arrangements; positions related to negotiations; or personnel matters (if the person involved wants the matter to be discussed privately).
An executive session can also be called in order to confer with the board’s attorney (not just any attorney) “for the purposes of receiving legal advice on specific legal questions.”
Executive sessions are supposed to be recorded, either electronically or by taking minutes. No formal action is to be taken during executive sessions.
The commissioners are in the process of hiring a new county attorney after deciding not to renew their contract with longtime commission attorney Bob Slough in January. In the interim, they have been represented by different lawyers from the Durango firm of Goldman, Robbins, and Nicholson.
On Monday, when the board had the meeting with Furse, the attorney, Michael Goldman, had already left for the day. Other staff members, including Clerk Carol Tullis, who was recording the regular meeting, were also asked to leave.
Other than reporter Long, the only other audience member at that time was Bud Garner, a former commission candidate (he lost the Republican primary race to Ertel in 2012) who frequently attends commission meetings.
He told the Free Press on Tuesday that he had been somewhat surprised by the request to vacate the room.
“I thought it was a little odd,” he said. “I’ve not seen it before.”