Election 2017: What you need to know about ballot question that would disband Weld County oversight board, the Weld County Council | MyWindsorNow.com

Election 2017: What you need to know about ballot question that would disband Weld County oversight board, the Weld County Council

Tyler Silvy

They walked into the Weld County Administration Building's meeting room on a mission for confrontation.

Less than a week before, these four Weld County commissioners had heard from former Weld County Council members urging the commissioners to disband the Weld County Council, an oversight board charged with a variety of duties, including setting elected officials' salaries. They listened to them. They voted to move forward in drafting ballot language that would dispatch the council. Now the issue goes before voters.

But this meeting, Aug. 15, featured the most public dispute between those commissioners and the county council members. This was the meeting at which commissioners were supposed to get a chance to review an audit of their performance. They declined, and demanded the audit be released to the public immediately.

Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer crystallized the conflict with sharp, verbal jabs about the council's lack of authority.

It's a view Kirkmeyer maintains is the root cause of decades of dysfunction between members of the unpaid county council and other elected officials. It's perhaps the single biggest reason she joined commissioners Steve Moreno, Julie Cozad and Mike Freeman in voting to put the council's fate on this year's ballot.

"It goes back to a general misunderstanding of what the role of the county council is supposed to be," Kirkmeyer said. "It's when they try to go beyond their job, and think they have more authority than they actually have, that's when it starts creating conflict."

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Not everyone agrees, and those people have formed an alliance to combat the push to disband the council. They bring up a simple point: The commissioners, they say, don't like oversight.

And when the first hint of such oversight came about — the audit that found commissioners had struggled with transparency and overspent on at least one conference — commissioners were quick to move to squash the council.

Commissioner Sean Conway, a steadfast Republican, was the only commissioner at a rally he and Weld Democrats helped put on Saturday at the courthouse, inviting U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., and state Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, to share their thoughts on disbanding the Weld County Council. Buck and Young support the council, but Buck's office confirmed Thursday he would not attend the rally, as he would be in Washington, D.C.

Conway said support for the council is growing around the county, as is the notion that people simply don't like the way the whole process was orchestrated.

"They think it was put in the charter for a good reason," Conway said.

The Weld County GOP hasn't taken a position, with a split among those on the executive committee, a committee that includes Johnstown Mayor Scott James, who recently filed paperwork to run a primary campaign against Cozad in 2018. In the meantime, Weld County Democrats invited Republican councilmen Brett Abernathy and Mike Grillos to speak at an executive committee meeting late this past month.

If the politics of the county council fight for survival are tricky, the changes that would come to the county should the council disappear are a quagmire of competing legal opinions. The "Yes" vote on ballot question 1A would remove the council's duties:

» Setting salaries of all elected officials.

» Filling vacancies on the board of county commissioners.

» Suspending elected officials in the event of a valid petition for recall or if an official is formally charged or indicted for the commission of a crime.

» Reviewing all aspects of county government and making reports to the people.

» Hiring a performance auditor as the council deems necessary to fulfill duties above (reviewing all aspects of government; making reports to the people).

If voters elect to disband the Weld County Council, most of those duties would shift to the state. The duty to review all aspects of county government and hire performance auditors would no longer exist, even if Cozad has said the commissioners could choose to audit different departments on a rotating basis.

The trickier question comes with elected officials' salaries, which are set by the council and would revert to state statute if the council is disbanded. Today, most Weld County elected officials, including the commissioners, earn a yearly salary lower than that mandated by state law.

Already under fire for spending $150,000 just to put the question on the ballot, commissioners also have drawn the ire of some in the county for costing taxpayers money due to likely salary increases.

If you adjust for a likely state-mandated 3 percent increase in 2018, Weld would see its elected officials earn a combined $89,528 more per year, a larger number than what the council requested for its 2018 budget — $55,000.

Council President Brett Abernathy is on record calling the commissioners' push to ditch the council a matter of greed.

One could argue the commissioners, the sheriff, the assessor and the clerk and recorder would immediately be given salary increases if the council is disbanded, as the county would be under state rules Nov. 8, the day after the election.

County Attorney Bruce Barker, however, points to state law saying raises can't take effect in the middle of a term. That would mean the earliest any elected official could receive a raise would be Jan. 1, 2019, after the 2018 election.

Barker said there's a solid argument for denying commissioner raises until Jan. 1, 2021, citing the county council's last resolution to increase salaries, and how that resolution is in effect in 2019 and 2020.

Barker said even if the council is disbanded, it set the salaries lawfully and the county would have to honor those. The council has such authority. In fact, it could even set the salaries at $1 per year for an unlimited period of time.

All of this would be moot, of course, if voters reject ballot measure 1A, and in doing so keep the council.

Gerald Kilpatrick, a representative from the Committee to Save the Weld County Council, thinks voters will do just that.

Kilpatrick said there is animosity between council members and commissioners, but he chalks it up to the people who serve on those boards today.

Dale Hall, who represents We the People, the group backing the measure, thinks the opposite is true and points to decades of dysfunction on the council as proof of inherent flaws in the system.

One thing Hall and Kilpatrick can agree on is there is a lack of knowledge about what the county council does, and frankly, even the council's very existence.

Both issue committees are working to educate voters on the topic. So, if nothing else changes come Nov. 8, there should be more awareness about county government.

Conway sees that as a potential silver lining, as well as a jumping-off point Nov. 8 when, for Conway and others, the council is still around.

"If there is a silver lining to this, there's going to be an educational campaign over the next few weeks to educate people who may not know about the council," Conway said. "Then there's going to be a concerted effort if this fails to go back and look at how do we solve the existing issues people have with the council? And what can we do to strengthen it?"

That's something both sides may well smile about.

— Tyler Silvy covers government and politics for The Greeley Tribune. Reach him at tsilvy@greeleytribune.com. Connect with him at Facebook.com/TylerSilvy or @TylerSilvy on Twitter.