May 2014

Disrespecintg the public

The special meeting of the Cortez Sanitation District board on April 30 had a surreal quality somewhat like the Tea Party in “Alice in Wonderland.”

And while the hijinks were amusing to watch, they were also disturbing, for underneath the shenanigans was a clear tone of disrespect for the public the board supposedly serves.

With nearly no public notice or attention, the junta-like board had previously adopted, on a 4-1 vote, a resolution saying that as of April 15, no one who was running for office or elected to another office could serve as a member. Although the purported purpose of the resolution was to lessen chances for conflicts of interest, it was clearly aimed at Jim Candelaria, an elected board member who announced back in February that he was running for county commissioner (and provided the lone dissent against the resolution).

But Candelaria refused to quit the body, prompting it to hold a special meeting on April 21 at which the other members told him he was no longer on the board and he insisted that he was.

Then the district called the April 30 special meeting, whose purpose seemed especially murky. The agenda listed only an executive session for seeking legal advice, followed by “Board Business,” which was described as “Resolution No. 4 Series 2014,” the measure banning people from holding other offices. Since the resolution had already been passed, there seemed little point to discussing it again.

When Candelaria showed up for the meeting, he was not allowed into the executive session, apparently because he was viewed as no longer being on the board.

But after the closed session ended, he was permitted to sit at the table with the rest of the members, and even to make a motion (to rescind the resolution – it died for lack of a second). So was he on the board or wasn’t he? Even the other members didn’t seem to know.

John Stramel, a developer who certainly has a self-interest in some board decisions (as many other current and former members have had), solemnly said the resolution had been adopted because “this is a small community” and “anyone running for another position while they’re sitting on a board like this – it’s going to affect their decision-making, just from running.” He said the sanitation district has never been in such good financial shape as it is now, seeming to imply that this was the result of the directors not serving on other governmental entities, rather than of revenues paid by residents of the district.

Dave Waters, the board chair, bizarrely claimed, “If too many of us run and too many of us get elected to another position it would basically end this board.”

When Candelaria continued to question how simply running for office created a conflict, Waters told him, “This is already a conflict – you can see it right here,” and he indicated the 20 or so citizens in attendance. “There hasn’t been this many people in this board room since I’ve been the chair.”

The audience broke into laughter over this twisted reasoning, prompting Waters to bang a gavel as if he were a judge in an old episode of Perry Mason.

The meeting adjourned without any opportunity for public comment, triggering angry outcries. “Is this legal? Is this legal, sir?” one woman repeatedly demanded of attorney Jeff Robbins, who seemed to be hastening to his car as quickly as his legs would take him without breaking into an outright run.

“We pay your f----g bills!” another woman yelled at the directors, prompting one to tell her quaintly, “Act like a lady.”

When another audience member cried out, “We elected you!”, Dave Kimble responded that he had been appointed, and added, “If I’m lucky I won’t get reelected.”

Well, it isn’t Kimble’s “luck” that should be the reason he isn’t re-elected in the May 6 election, but his (and the other directors’) evident disdain for the citizenry.

First off, the presence of the public at a meeting is not a “conflict” or an affront, but something to be welcomed and encouraged.

Second, that public should be treated with courtesy and given an opportunity to speak. After all, the board doesn’t have to heed what they say, just to let them talk.

Third, it isn’t up to board members to create rules designed to throw off other, democratically elected members. State law provides reasons for which special-district directors should resign: for example, if they move out of the district, are convicted of a felony, or fail to attend three consecutive meetings without a valid reason. The law doesn’t say anything about seeking other public office. If the san district’s directors believe that creates a conflict of interest, then they should put that question to the voters. Let them decide whether board members should be prohibited from serving on any other entity. It would have been easy to do so; the district had the election coming up May 6. Instead, the board seemed hell-bent on getting rid of Candelaria before the election, for reasons known only to themselves.

(For that matter, maybe the board ought to develop and put to the voters a resolution specifying just how long people have to own property in the district before being qualified to run for the board — another issue that has come up in the past.)

The real victim in this mess is not Candelaria – who may or may not have lost a board seat, but has gained a lot of sympathy. No, the victim is the public. And this controversy – one of many that have involved the sanitation district over the years – just points out more clearly than ever that the district ought to be dissolved and sanitation given over to the city of Cortez to handle, just as it already handles water and waste management within its boundaries. Let’s end the drama.

But for however long the district continues in existence, the members ought to remember one thing: This is an elected board, not a private clique, and it ought to be responsive to and respectful of the people.