By Kevin Raines - In November, two county commissioner seats will be up for election in Adams County, and the current occupants of those seats will leave public office.
This is a very, very good thing.
In fairness, not every recent scandal can be traced directly to departing incumbents Skip Fischer, Alice Nichol, and their buddy Larry Pace. There’s plenty of blame to pass around. But any thoughtful person who looks at their reign would certainly label it as the lowest point in the county’s 100+ year history.
But the times, they are a changin’. Pace is gone and soon enough Fischer and Nichol will be too, and at that point the rebuilding of the county government can start in earnest. The task facing the new commissioners will be to rebuild an organization that has been managed like a third-world banana republic (ban-adams republic?) for the better part of a decade.
Given the depth and breadth of the damage, it’s going to be a tough rebuild. The important thing at this point is to elect two new commissioners who are up for this daunting task, and who possess the attributes to turn the county government around. And to do that, we need to understand what those attributes are.
After reviewing the scandals of the past several years, I have identified 10 things that our new commissioners need to do differently from the past. Without further ado, let’s discuss them.
Change #1: Just do the right thing.
Let’s look at August 18th, 2010, as just one example. On that day, a large office furniture contract was awarded in Adams County. At the insistence of one county commissioner it was awarded to the second-place bidder, not the first place bidder. You can read the sordid story here.
The commissioners run the show, so it’s their right to reject a selection committee’s recommendations. And they should rightly have that power. But there should be a legitimate, public, and well-intended reason for a commissioner-level intervention. The unexplained and unexplainable diversion by a commissioner already under a cloud of suspicion further cemented the county’s reputation for corruption.
So the first thing we need is commissioners who will not abuse the powers that have been given to them. It’s the simplest and most straightforward change we need to make, and it’s overdue.
Change #2: Vote bravely and with conscience.
Let’s continue with the above example. It’s easy to blame the commissioner who diverted the contract. But that wasn’t the only failure. Let’s do some math.
Two commissioners were clearly uncomfortable with the situation. However, neither took any action. They just sat there frightened and downcast. A week later, one of them caved in and cast a rubber-stamp vote to divert the contract.
If we had actual democracy in Adams County, two commissioners would actually outvote one commissioner. Two votes against one vote to give the contract to the rightful winner: it’s pretty simple math. Why did that not happen?
Commissioners are elected to represent the people. The new commissioners must not be afraid to use the voting power that was granted to them.
Change #3: Disagree with each other.
The reason that we have multiple commissioners is so we can get different viewpoints. This has not happened in recent years. To the extent that any discussion was happening, it happened behind the scenes. The public was excluded from the process and continues to be excluded.
Adams County residents and taxpayers want to hear disagreements between commissioners. Adams County residents and taxpayers want to hear discussion and debate. The new commissioners should commit to holding transparent, open discussions where the public can hear them.
Change #4: Get some good advisors.
It’s a complicated world, and running a local government is exceedingly difficult. Commissioners need to have smart people around them to help them.
Unfortunately, the “executive team” that serves the commissioners has historically been “hired” in a non-competitive process, and it’s clear the main criteria have been obedience and personal loyalty.
If the commissioners want obedience and personal loyalty, that’s fine. Let’s get them a dog. But we shouldn’t be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for a county administrator and county attorney to serve that sole purpose.
The new commissioners need to jettison the past philosophy of surrounding themselves with spineless yes-drones, and they need to build a team of bright, ethical people who will actually provide value and service to them and the county. The commissioners will still run the show, obviously, but it never hurts to have some sharp minds on your side. With some sharp minds attached to actual spinal columns, the scandals of the past decade could have been prevented.
Change #5: Begin competitive hiring practices for executive positions
Did you know that most or all of the senior executive positions in the county have not seen an open hiring process in a decade? The hiring process either has been non-competitive or it’s been done just for show. The senior hires have always been hand-picked personal allies from within the organization.
And what have we gotten from that philosophy? Read the newspaper and see.
It’s time to start hiring strong senior executives from outside, people who don’t have inside connections and people who don’t have personal loyalties.
Change #6: Revamp the “process departments”.
In a situation like Adams County where we’ve had no leadership, workers with actual, real-life responsibilities are still trying to get things done. “Line departments”, those who actually provide services to the public, will seek out the most efficient way to do their jobs. If they’re not given training and rules and policies, they will sometimes stray over the line of propriety or legality. Occasionally this is intentional, but most times it is probably unintentional.
The real question is, why don’t they have training and rules and policies? This is the failure of the “staff departments”, those that are responsible for internal operations.
If you really want to find the epicenter of the bid-rigging scandals, look beyond the commissioners. The crux of the problem lies with the departments who are paid to oversee internal processes: the county administrator, the county attorney, and the purchasing department.
The new commissioners need to commit to identifying why these three departments have failed in their duties, and they need to commit to implementing a solution.
Change #7: Value the citizenry over personal relationships.
Having friends is great. I applaud the commissioners for having friends.
Friends should not get preferential treatment.
Whether it’s hiring or buying land or awarding contracts, the leaders of the government should be working under one unyielding requirement: to act as representatives of the people in the interest of the people. That has not been happening.
The new commissioners will need to set aside loyalties and friendships. Let this be a new era of fair and open competition for contracts; fair and open hiring; and fair and open decision making. They will also need the fortitude to enforce this shift in philosophy throughout the organization.
Change #8: Break the culture of corruption.
Perhaps the greatest challenge Adams County government faces going forward is the “culture of corruption”. While most county employees are ashamed of this culture and most county employees didn’t embrace it, all have had to live with it. I have spoken to employees who have stated how frustrating it has been for them, and I have spoken to ex-employees who left because they could no longer tolerate it.
The grip of corruption on the upper levels of county government needs to end. The new commissioners need to replace the staff who embraced it or tolerated it, and they need to empower the staff who fought it. Give the power to the good guys for a change.
Change #9: Have contact with the public.
Did you know that you cannot e-mail a commissioner without a staff person reading the message first? Did you know that commissioner meetings are held when a majority of working residents cannot attend?
It’s understandable why some commissioners don’t want to hear from the public. If you had the record that Nichol and Fischer have compiled, would you? But it really is part of the job. It’s time to get some commissioners who will actually talk to the public, and who will have a direct conduit for listening. Build a Facebook page, for crying out loud.
Change #10: Be inexperienced at politics.
Last but not least, we don’t want experienced politicians at this point. An experienced politician is going to be “savvy”. They’re going to figure out compromises and they’re going to think about appearances and all that other politician stuff.
If Adams County citizens want to fix this disaster – and we’re talking a long-term fix – we need new commissioners who are true citizen leaders, people who will roll up their sleeves and fix the problem without compromise. This is going to be hard work, and a lot of it won’t be photo opportunities and smiles. It’s not politician work, its citizen work.
It’s time to reclaim control, and it’s time to once again become a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Who’s with me on this?
Kevin Raines is the owner of the 2009 Denver Metro Chamber Small Business of the Year and a 2011 Finalist for the Colorado Business Ethics Award. He joined the movement to reform Adams County government when his firm won a county contract that was redirected to the friend of an Adams County manager.
Editor’s note: Tony’s Rants very rarely features postings written by others but when presented with this article and others in the series, I knew they needed to be put out there. Mr. Raines does an extraordinary job of distilling the issues Adams County faces and does so without the political overtones that can hurt a rational discussion.