The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners held a work session Monday afternoon to discuss “lessons learned and future strategies” on the heels of a proposed lease of the county’s Hot Springs Boulevard property that left many in the community voicing a desire for more government transparency.
The BoCC’s transparency was targeted when the county considered a multi-year lease for $1 a year to a non-profit — The Pavilion at Pagosa Springs, a citizen group spearheaded in part by former commissioner Bob Moomaw and his wife, Janis.
Information about the lease hit the radar of the greater community only days before a possible decision, inciting concern over the board’s willingness to communicate with the public.
The Pavilion group pulled the lease request on Feb. 8.
In the Monday meeting, attended by few members of the public, County Administrator Greg Schulte began the discussion by noting that negotiation on the lease needed more time than the county was given and, while hoping for a better circumstances in the future, misinformation also contributed to the problem with the public.
Commissioner Michael Whiting said he felt the process of negotiating was at the root of the issue and that more public education about the process and open meetings laws governments must abide by would help.
“Twenty-four hour negotiations don’t lend themselves to the public process,” Whiting said, clarifying that, while private businesses can negotiate face-to-face as negotiation deadlines loom, governments do not have that ability.
Schulte agreed, noting exemptions to the open meeting laws (commonly referred to as the Sunshine Laws) that allow for negotiations to happen within the confines of executive sessions — something Whiting felt should perhaps be communicated better to the public. (Numerous editorials in The SUN have made this point clearly.)
Members of the public at the work session also suggested that the county send out regular newsletter e-mails (a county newsletter was attempted in 2010, but only one issue was released) and that the county create a more firm timeline for alerting the public on decisions that could be contentious.
Whiting admitted that, with an ex-commissioner involved in the decision, the BoCC should have known the decision would be heated.
General consensus at the meeting indicated that a future work session refreshing the BoCC and public about the Sunshine Laws would be beneficial, though no date for such a presentation has been made.
Other discussion in the work session indicated that the county needed a larger voice about its goings-on, as well as a larger role in correcting false information released to the community.
Commissioner Clifford Lucero clarified that there were no “underhanded deals” and the county never intended to hide the process leading up to the proposed lease that began in August, but that “we weren’t making the public aware of what we were doing.”
Schulte noted that the county staff and officials needed to communicate better internally about what projects are “real enough” to communicate to the public while maintaining the delicate balance with the confidentiality needed for economic development.
“Sometimes you can’t put it out in the public because it’s not one-hundred percent it’s going to happen,” Lucero said, citing the example that the county is working hard on a recycling center, but nothing is concrete yet.
Commissioner John Ranson said that he views mistakes as learning opportunities and one lesson learned was that the county “did not respond in a timely manner ... to misinformation.”
“I do apologize for our mistakes and we will learn from this,” Ranson said, adding that there is usually not a lot of public participation at meetings unless a controversial topic surfaces.
Ranson also said the commission tries to avoid holding executive sessions in order to keep county business in the open.
Schulte agreed that the county did not respond to misinformation in a timely manner, but noted that the challenge was having a vehicle for the county to make those rebuttals public, especially in a timely manner when the misinformation was printed daily (the county referred to information printed on area resident Bill Hudson’s website as being inaccurate).
“We need to somehow state the county’s side and viewpoint in a timely manner,” Schulte said.
County Attorney Todd Starr suggested that the county needed to make the initial argument instead of responding and that the county had the tools to do so, but were not using them.
Whiting said the county needed to modernize its website and update it daily, while Lucero added that additional informational steps needed to be taken to reach residents without computers.
Ranson suggested that the county accelerate its plan to add a hub position at the county — an employee that would serve as an informational source at the county and possibly also serve as the county public relations.
Lucero agreed that PR within the county was lacking and suggested that the commissioners think about holding regular and predictable office hours in order to be more accessible for their constituents.
Whiting also said the proposed Pavilion lease was a good example of a good idea combined with a bad deal — and a good example of the need to understand the difference between the idea and the deal.
A member of the public at the meeting agreed, stating that more information released about the “good idea” would have “taken the wind out of the sails” of those against the deal.
Whether or not any ideas voiced at the meeting translate into action remains to be seen, as does if that increased openness will be sufficient in the eyes of the BoCC’s constituents.