On Dec. 11, the Paonia Town Council passed the budget for 2013. The budget process took well over three months to complete, during which the board of trustees conducted a thorough review of revenues and expenses for the town. In that time, and at the last council meeting, some disturbing revelations came to light.
As well as being a trustee, I am an historian and journalist. In those capacities, I have studied the history of the town council going as far back as 1912. This includes research into old newspapers and the minutes from every town council meeting since 2004. Come with me on a journey through time that will help illustrate what we on the council, and what we as a town, are up against.
At the Nov. 13, 2007, meeting in executive session, the town council came to a final settlement with former town manager John Norris regarding his retirement package. Norris was town manager from October 1984 until May 2006. Despite being in violation of Colorado Sunshine Laws and TABOR restrictions, this executive session forever set the budget course for all future Paonia Town Councils, in that Norris will be paid monthly out of the water and sewer enterprise funds in perpetuity. If you want to know how much we're paying him, the budget is a matter of public record and you can look it up.
At the Nov. 27, 2007, meeting of the town council, Mayor Neal Schwieterman announced during his report that the town manager position in Paonia was eliminated. The council felt that remaining staff could handle the tasks originally performed by the town manager.
On Jan. 16, 2013, a former Paonia employee will appear in District Court to be arraigned. According to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the former employee is accused of stealing nearly $400,000 from the town over several years. The former employee worked as finance director from 2006 until resigning on Jan. 25, 2012.
This is the short list of presents the current town council found under our tree when four of us were elected this past April. It took eight months for us to fully understand the context of these events, much less begin to articulate a plan as to how we're going to FIX all this.
But we are determined. This is the first truly ELECTED town council (as in, no one on the current board was appointed; we all were chosen by the voters) in Paonia since at least 2004. I believe that we are mandated to clean this mess up, and we are trying our best. The six current trustees have nearly perfect attendance in all the meetings this year, including budget work sessions. We all care deeply about doing the right thing and we are dedicated to moving Paonia forward.
Personally, as I stated at the last meeting on Dec. 11, I am committed to naming a town manager in Paonia sometime in 2013. We MUST have a town manager, a final arbiter who holds oversight over every department. We simply cannot have a repeat of the fraud and theft that occurred unchecked for something like six years.
Lastly, the meeting on Dec. 11 was attended by the board of trustees, staff, and the press. There was one other interested Paonia citizen, an ex-trustee, present. And that's it. Local government works best, in fact is designed to work this way, when the local citizenry participates. My conclusion after Dec. 11 is that the people of Paonia either didn't KNOW that it was the most important (public!) meeting of the year, or you just didn't care.
But then suddenly people care when they hear inaccurate reports about how much Paonia employees are paid.
The ex-trustee offered his opinion that Paonia has the highest paid police chief in the state. This is both factually incorrect and hypocritical. By salary, Paonia's police chief is on par with most municipal police chiefs in Colorado; he does end up making a lot more money than other chiefs because of overtime, which he accrued doing TWO jobs for Paonia ever since we lost the town manager. Once we have a new town manager, hopefully all salaries will be fair for the staff and affordable for the town.
I am glad the ex-trustee was there to offer his opinion. I thanked him for saying it and I responded by publicly committing to name a new town manager sometime in 2013. But these things don't happen overnight. Please have patience. It's quite possible that resolution of these complicated issues will take the next three years, until the election of 2016 (when there will be three open seats on the council as well as a new mayor).
With your help and patience, Town of Paonia, and the board's continuing hard work, and with the help of our dedicated and hard-working staff, when that election comes I know for certain that we will be able to say to the ex-trustee, "We're leaving the Paonia Town Council much better than we found it."
Sad that he can't say the same.