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CDC board says ‘no’ to director’s resignation

On Monday, Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation Executive Director Steve Vassallo submitted a letter of resignation to the CDC board — a resignation the board ultimately rejected.

Vassallo was not in attendance at Monday’s CDC board meeting; his letter was read by board chair Mike Alley to an audience that was not just standing room only, but had a dozen or more attendees standing out in the hall.

In the letter, Vassallo wrote, “Due to the recent negative publicity in media outlets, it is apparent the CDC’s Mission Statement is in direct conflict with these opinions. This community along with the CDC cannot create jobs or enhance economic stability as a divided community.”

In a later interview with SUN staff, Vassallo said “negative publicity in media outlets” referred to the editorial in last week’s edition of The SUN, as well as a series of articles published on The Pagosa Daily Post website.

Hired last June (and at the job since last August), Vassallo has recently come under fire for several perceived missteps, throwing into question how accountable he is to the CDC board, as well as the governmental entities supporting the CDC ($100,000 in funding split between the town and county).

In mid-January, Vassallo stated at the governor’s economic development forum in Durango that a proposed Village at Wolf Creek development was a “top priority” for economic development in Archuleta County (despite the plan residing in Mineral County) — much to the astonishment of some community leaders and area residents. (Vassallo later stated that he was speaking for himself and not representing any governmental entity, much less the CDC board.)

Later, it was revealed that Vassallo had travelled to Texas for a meeting with Billy Jo “Red” McCombs (developer for the Village at Wolf Creek), coming away with a $1,000 sponsorship for the CDC’s Great Golden Retriever event.

In early February, it was revealed that Vassallo had obligated a parcel of land that the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners had considered leasing to a local nonprofit for $1 a year. The commitments Vassallo had made were obligated prior to a decision by the BoCC.

Finally, controversy surrounded the new CDC website (launched in late January). Its development had been contracted to Bone Marketing, an out-of-state firm and a company Vassallo had dealt with in the past. Several area residents (especially some local Web developers) objected to the contract, asserting that the CDC should have awarded the contract to local talent, especially in light of the CDC’s goal of economic development in Archuleta County.

The website garnered further controversy when it was revealed that Vassallo’s wife, Rosie, had been hired by Bone Marketing in late December as a consultant for the firm.

Further investigation by SUN staff showed that Rosie Vassallo had not done any work for Bone Marketing, and that neither of the Vassallos had received any compensation from the firm.

Peripheral to those issues was the fact that the CDC offices are located in a building owned by County Commissioner John Ranson — a CDC board member. Added to that, Ranson’s daughter was hired last year to be the CDC’s marketing director.

Yet, despite these concerns, the vast majority of attendees at Monday’s CDC board meeting not only expressed support for Vassallo, but implored the board to reject Vassallo’s resignation.

That is not to say that everyone in attendance were Vassallo supporters, and several people in the room spoke out in favor of Vassallo’s resignation.

Local resident Laurie Heraty asked the board about a Feb. 10 post on a Central, Miss., website by that town’s mayor that read, “I am pleased to announce that Steve Vassallo will be returning to Central as our Economic Development Consultant. Mr. Vassallo has been with the City of Central Economic Development Committee since inception and is well versed in the needs and progress of our city.”

Later in the meeting, Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem (and CDC board alternate) responded to Heraty, saying, “Let me clarify one point that refers to Steve Vassallo doing business out of Pagosa Springs. He’s permitted to do so by this board.”

Vassallo also responded to Heraty’s inquiry (in a later interview), stating that his CDC contract allowed him to perform outside consulting work in conjunction with his economic development company.

Bill Hudson, publisher of the Pagosa Daily Post website, also weighed in on the side of those supporting Vassallo’s resignation, saying, “Unfortunately, the projects he has taken on haven’t been focused on Pagosa Springs.”

Finally, Dan Appenzeller, event director for FolkWest, expressed frustration that Vassallo had not reached out to, or consulted with, his organization.

“I don’t know why I’m not a stakeholder,” Appenzeller said, adding that he didn’t understand why the CDC was involved in organizing music events. “I don’t get it.”

Appenzeller went on to say, “I don’t know why I’ve been marginalized in the conversation,” adding that in his one conversation with Vassallo his impression of the CDC director was that he didn’t know anything about event coordination.

“I’m against Steve Vassallo being here,” Appenzeller concluded.

Supporters of Vassallo’s resignation were a clear minority, however. Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon (and CDC board member) responded to Appenzeller, apologizing for not having contacted him.

“I’ll admit that mistakes were made,” Aragon said.

Taking issue with a previous comment, Morgan Murri (who accompanied Vassallo on his trip to Texas) said, “To say that his heart is not in this area and to attack his character is not what we’re here for,” adding, “I support Steve Vassallo one-hundred percent.”

Local Realtor Lisa Reeve said that problems with the CDC seemed to be a lack of oversight on the board’s part. “If there’s any finger-pointing that needs to be done, it needs to be done at the board,” she said, but added an indictment for local media, saying, “Before you write something negative, you need to think about the impact.”

In fact, Reeve hit on themes that continued on during the discussion: lax oversight by the CDC board, along with blaming the media for Vassallo’s resignation.

As public comment closed, the CDC board echoed those themes while voicing unanimous opposition to Vassallo’s resignation.

“Where oversight was questioned,” said CDC board member Marion Francis, “we’re guilty of that.”

While apologizing for decisions made regarding the choice of Bone Marketing, Ranson repeated the criticism of media coverage of the CDC, saying, “I’m really embarrassed in our community that we have to tolerate this and tear each other apart.”

Ranson then turned directly to Hudson, castigating him for “false statements and allegations,” while also “attacking members of my family.”

County Commissioner Clifford Lucero also confronted Hudson, saying, “There are glass half-full people and glass half-empty people. Bill, your glass is half-empty and you’ve got to stop this. I think you need to get all the facts before you start going negative.”

For his part, Hudson replied, “The job of the media is to raise the questions that aren’t being raised at this table.”

However, with the discussion having gotten off topic — making a decision regarding Vassallo’s letter — Alley brought the meeting back into focus by asking whether or not the board should make a decision then or at a later meeting.

County Commissioner Michael Whiting suggested that the board needed to take the initiative, and take an immediate vote on accepting or rejecting Vassallo’s resignation.

Agreeing with Whiting, the board voted unanimously to reject the resignation.

The CDC board meets today at 2 p.m. in the CDC offices to discuss Vassallo’s contract and explain their decision to Vassallo. However, the final decision rests with Vassallo, whether or not he chooses to accept the board’s decision.

Today’s decision will most likely determine if the CDC will continue on with its current executive director or if the organization will return to where it was in June 2010: advertising for a qualified candidate to head the corporation.

jim@pagosasun.com

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