Tempers flare over attorney contract


Staff Writer

Tempers flared at Tuesday’s special meeting of the Board of County Commissioners when the subject of a raise for County Attorney Todd Starr was brought up.

The item was originally scheduled to be heard prior to an executive session of the board, but was deferred until after the executive session in order for the issue to be discussed behind closed doors.

Following the executive session, the board announced a change to the compensation section of Starr’s contract — changing a phrase that originally read, “Provided, further, at all times during the term of this Agreement, Employer shall pay Employee no less than the amount of total compensation paid to the County Administrator.”

That clause was replaced with one that said the attorney’s salary would be reviewed annually, with the intent of making it equal to the administrator’s.

The administrator’s contract was approved earlier in the meeting with no public comment.

“Todd, I know you’ve been being courted hot and heavy,” commissioner Clifford Lucero said to Starr upon reconvening the meeting.

But the change and Lucero’s comment were not enough to appease several other elected officials sitting in the audience. When given the chance, four of those officials spoke up, beginning with Sheriff Pete Gonzalez.

“This is the first time in my forty-one years in my profession that I am going to read a prepared statement,” Gonzalez said. “I’m here today to ask you not approve this pay raise for Mr. Starr. First of all, I was shocked to see that, in light of what this county is facing financially, this is your own statement, and based on your BoCC plans to reduce finances by cutting personnel, that you are giving an administrator, in this case the county attorney, a pay raise.”

Gonzalez then went on to hand out copies of Starr’s contract from 2009, pointing out that Starr’s agreed-to salary was $100,100, and noting the contract would renew in one-year increments if no other action were taken at the end of the three-year contract.

Gonzalez then handed out a portion of the document up for consideration at the meeting.

Apparently displeased with how Gonzalez delivered the first document, Lucero stated, “Please, don’t throw it at me this time.”

In that document, Gonzalez pointed out the additional sentence in the document concerning equal compensation to the county administrator.

“Questions to you, among others, are, when was this provision inserted, and whose suggestion was it that that provision be added?” Gonzalez asked, pointing out that the new county administrator, Jesse Smith, was being paid an annual salary of $104,000 for his six-month contract. “Is the insertion of this provision the justification to raise Mr. Starr’s salary? Another question I have is, if the original contract was automatically renewable, why is a new contract being written up for approval unless the purpose is to insert that particular provision?”

Gonzalez further aired concerns over Starr’s future potential pay raises should the county administrator receive a raise, and on reasons given to another elected official for the pay raise — that the county attorney in Montezuma County received a much higher salary.

“Finally, I close by asking the following,” Gonzalez said. “Is this decision to give Mr. Starr a pay raise simply showing bad leadership and judgement, or is it simply a case of the tail wagging the dog?”

“This rule by committee has to stop,” Lucero said, responding to Gonzalez’s statement, adding that the commissioners were elected to do the budget.

Clerk and Recorder June Madrid was next, also reading a prepared statement.

“I know what I say today will not matter because you have already made your decision, but for the sake of my office, I need to say something on their behalf,” Madrid started. “I have worked with several boards over the past years, and you have proven to be the board that consistently walks around the county, comes to elected officials’ meetings and really talks the talk. But you have just proven today that everything you have said about taking care of the employees we have left after the financial crisis holds not one ounce of truth.”

Madrid continued, stating that the commissioners said employees should feel thankful they have jobs, and that her own office has cut staffing because of potential revenue decreases to the county.

“We pinch every penny in supplies just to see if we can have something leftover to show we are trying to help. Now the question is, why? Why would anyone want to work for Archuleta County unless they are one of your admin employees?” Madrid said, further discussing Lucero’s comparison of Starr’s salary to that of the Montezuma County attorney, “You must know that all positions in our county have been increasing on a yearly basis in other counties, so when we are ready to grant raises and we do our research with other counties our approximate size, you will probably see all positions at a lot higher salary than we are currently paying.”

Madrid finished her statement by noting her waning respect for the board.

“We both know you can and you will do as you please, but I hope you understand your continued actions towards all staff and your record of not keeping your word has led me to the point where it is very hard to give you the respect a board of county commissioners should have,” she said.

Assessor Natalie Woodruff was next up, first noting that her statement was not about Starr’s performance in his role as county attorney, then saying “I guess what I don’t understand is why the salaries are tied together.”

Nowhere else in the county organization are the salaries of two employees tied together, Woodruff noted, adding that the positions of attorney and administrator are very different jobs, that require different skills. Woodruff also pointed out that the raise was not based on merit or cost of living.

Treasurer Betty Diller, too, read a prepared statement, discussing staffing levels at other Colorado counties, as well as how the $3,900 afforded to Starr for a raise was $3,900 not available for the rest of the county to provide any additional compensation to employees.

“Commissioner Whiting told us the present county attorney deserves special pay because of the way we treated him the last few months,” Diller said. “Although I disagree with commissioner Whiting’s judgement, I will not address that. My question is, ‘What do the employees deserve?’ The only answer we receive is, ‘They should feel lucky they have a job.’ Yes, every one of us here should realize how blessed we are to have jobs. But that does not excuse the treatment given to our employees.”

Later in her statement, Diller said, “Because the board is in charge of adopting the budget, on whose shoulders lies the responsibility for the financial management of the county that has resulted in the lack of raises? The responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the board. You have one-hundred percent choice. If you approve this contract, you choose to selectively give a raise to an individual with no consideration of the plight of more than one-hundred fifty other employees. Of little satisfaction is the fact that you will be giving preferential treatment to this individual in a public meeting in full view of the employees whom you choose to disregard.”

Contracts and Procurement Officer Larry Walton then spoke in favor of the raise in Starr’s new contract.

“I’m one of the employees that hasn’t had a raise,” Walton said. Walton noted that the county has recently lost a large amount of institutional history with the departures of former administrator Greg Schulte and former finance director Diane Sorensen. “What I believe, from what I’ve seen ... it would be hard to lose another employee with institutional memory.”

If the raise allowed Archuleta County to keep Starr, Walton said the raise was worth it.

“I don’t want to see another senior person go,” Walton said, adding that the county needed stability to “build into the future.”

Following public comment on the matter, each commissioner offered a statement prior to the unanimous vote in favor of the contract that included the raise.

Whiting was the first to speak, stating that the elected officials do a good job with what they’re elected to do, and he believed the same to be true for the commissioners. He further stated that he has previously proposed $350,000 in budget cuts that was not approved, and yet $3,900 in additional spending was creating an argument.

Whiting continued, stating that the board’s first obligation is to the taxpayers of the county, not to the county’s employees, calling Starr, “a great return on investment.”

“I appreciate what everybody had to say,” commissioner Steve Wadley said. Wadley noted that only two employees sit under the BoCC (the attorney and the administrator), and adding that the county needed to take steps to maintain its staff. “If we were to lose our county attorney, we would be handcuffed.”

“We were elected to make these difficult decisions,” Lucero said, turning to Starr and continuing, “I want to keep good people. You’re good people.”

Lucero also mentioned that the board is looking at trying to give raises to employees at the end of the year. “We’re in charge of the budget,” he said.

“We’re not trying to be difficult or favor one person,” Lucero continued. “A lot of damage has been done here today in the elected officials speaking.”

Following the meeting, Starr offered a comment of his own.

“It’s an honor to serve the citizens of Archuleta County and I look forward to continuing to work with all the elected officials to protect the county’s interests and move it forward,” he said.

The contracts

The primary changes between Starr’s current contract and his initial 2009-2012 contract are the salary and a residency requirement.

Starr’s prior contract was for $100,100 annually in salary, with the addition of benefits that include things such as a vehicle allowance.

The approved 2013 contract is for a salary amount of $104,000, and includes the following verbiage:

“Commencing May 1, 2013, Employer agrees to pay Employee minimum annual salary of $104,000.00 payable in installations at the same time that the other management employees of the Employer are paid. The salary provided for herein will be reviewed annually with the intent that the County Attorney’s Salary be equal to the County Administrator.”

Smith’s county administrator six-month contract was approved earlier in the meeting with a $104,000 annual salary, with the contract set to automatically renew after that period unless other action is taken. Smith’s salary also includes additional compensation.

However, included in Smith’s compensation are expenses to assist in his relocation to Archuleta County, while Starr’s contract was changed to state he must live within 60 miles of the courthouse.

In a later interview, Lucero said there was, “no real reason” for the residency differences between the two contracts. “We didn’t catch that, honestly,” he said.

Lucero said the attorney and administrator are the county’s only two contract employees.