Basalt council, critics struggle with the great divide | AspenTimes.com

Basalt council, critics struggle with the great divide

NO RESIGNATIONS

Two Basalt Town Council members sought the resignations of one another at a special meeting last night. Neither complied.

Mark Kittle asked Jennifer Riffle to step down for sending an email in July that violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law because it went to three other members, thus a majority of the board. He also accused Riffle of lying about an issue she was lobbying her colleagues on in the email.

“This is deeply disturbing behavior for an elected official and I cannot with good conscience continue to serve on this council with someone of questionable character,” Kittle read from a prepared statement.

Kittle said if Riffle doesn’t resign, he would recommend as a citizen that a recall petition be initiated at the earliest opportunity.

Riffle responded by saying that Kittle should resign as well because he lied to the public and a newspaper by saying she didn’t respond to a voicemail he left for her Friday. She said she responded within 3½ hours with an invitation to meet with him as well as Interim Town Manager Ron Miller.

“I did respond in a very timely manner and will not stand for this deceit and unprofessional hostility,” Riffle said, reading from a prepared statement.

Riffle also addressed her email. “I apologized, I’m not a liar, the quotes were taken out of context, now let’s move on,” she said.

Riffle read extensively from websites about adult bullying and suggested the Basalt town government is under siege by such bullies. They are disrupting productivity of the town government, consuming staff time and reducing morale, she said.

The Basalt Town Council took what one member called an “unusual” step Tuesday night to try to improve communication and transparency, but it didn’t ring true with a contingency of residents who have soured on actions of the government.

The council unanimously approved a contract in the maximum amount of $10,000 to hire Darnauer Communications of Aspen to produce neutral information about the town’s Nov. 8 ballot questions and spread the word about various town issues.

Councilman Bernie Grauer said he and Mayor Jacque Whitsitt met with the public relations company owner, Jeanette Darner, about a month ago to enlist her help on getting information out on town ballot issues. She is working with the town’s bond counsel to produce an objective and impartial piece about the election issues, he said.

Audience members, including some frequent critics of the council, were skeptical on two fronts — about the contract itself and the way it evolved. Some audience members said they were skeptical that the town will produce neutral information about the ballot issues.

Ted Guy, who has notified the town he is suing it because it didn’t produce information requested under the Colorado Open Records Act, said any contract for any amount should be discussed in public.

Guy said the town government says it wants to improve transparency, but some members continue to discuss issues in private outside of the public eye.

“The problem I see is you guys aren’t walking the talk,” Guy said. “You’re here to work for us” in the council chambers with the public access television recording proceedings, he added.

Guy said the public funds were appropriated “in secret” when the contract should have been discussed in public from the start.

Town officials said it isn’t unusual for the town to approve contracts for professional services without going out to bid. The town has a discretionary-economic development fund in its budget to hire professionals when services aren’t available in house.

Councilman Auden Schendler, who made it clear he would have preferred the contract came about in a different way, noted that former Town Manager Mike Scanlon probably awarded 40 contracts during his tenure without going out to bid during his tenure. Many of the town government critics are upset with the council for parting ways with Scanlon, who resigned in August.

The town typically puts large projects, such as the pedestrian underpass of Highway 82, out to bid. Scanlon and the council had discretion to approve contracts for substantially smaller jobs without bids.

Schendler said he wants a work session on the town’s future procurement policies. Several other council members agreed.

Whitsitt said the town is “looking at things closer than ever” partially because of public scrutiny.

But the gulf between the council and a contingent of residents appears to be as wide as ever. The council held Tuesday’s special meeting to talk specifically about the Darnauer contract. No other specific item was noticed on the agenda, so Whitsitt wouldn’t allow comment off the topic. Roughly 20 residents attended and were frustrated that they couldn’t speak out on issues that weren’t on the agenda. The majority of the attendees left the meeting frustrated that they couldn’t air various issues.

The situation put the council in an odd position. The critics want transparency and disclosure of topics the council plans to discuss, yet they got frustrated when they couldn’t discuss issues that weren’t noticed to the public.

(Information was added to this story since it was originally posted to expand on concerns about the contract.)

scondon@aspentimes.com


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