Full disclosure: The writer is a candidate for Paonia Town Council. (As is Karen Fogg who wrote last week on similar issues.)
After attending virtually every Paonia Town Council meeting for the last three years, I finally attended one on Feb. 28 that addressed some serious issues regarding our town government.
Late in the meeting, trustee David Weber finally aired in public that our former town finance officer, Kristen Chesnik, is under eye of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for [allegedly] embezzling a "substantial" amount of money from the Town of Paonia. Her case, according to Weber, has been referred to the Delta County district attorney. We apparently cannot know the definition of "substantial" as some "law" stipulates that if an amount is uttered publicly it will constrain the investigation to a fixed amount. This is the first time I have ever heard of this law. Hold your breath for another month or so until the CBI or the district attorney or somebody informs us of the scope of the [alleged] embezzlement.
Weber then noted that the town's official auditor has been repeatedly calling for some oversight of the town finance officer since 2008. Weber also noted that two sitting members of the town council, Lucien Pevec and Bryan Ayers, comprise the town's finance committee and should have been providing that oversight. Weber said that the finance committee ought to have some sort of checklist indicating what the oversight should be and that the oversight was being performed. Pevec said that he was aware of the auditor's call for inspection of the town's finances and had in fact asked Chesnik for some records. Pevec said the records he had asked for were never provided and that Chesnik had "blown off" his requests. Both Pevec and Ayers said they were never fully informed of their duties when they were appointed as the town's finance committee. Pevec said that he hadn't suspected anyone of being dishonest.
At approximately this point in the meeting a member of the audience, Bill Brunner, (himself a former town trustee) announced that Pevec, Ayers and Mayor Schwieterman had failed in their responsibility to oversee the town finances, that oversight of the town's finances was a prime responsibility of the trustees and that apologies and resignations should be tendered before the meeting concluded. Brunner also indicated that there was a weakness in the town's organization caused by nobody being "the boss." Pevec gave a heartfelt apology but indicated he was not seeking reelection and wanted to see the embezzlement matter through to the end of his term. Mayor Schwieterman noted that town clerk Barbara Peterson, had already been assigned new day-to-day authority over the finance officer. Neither Ayers nor the Mayor resigned.
I note here that extensive surveys of Paonia's residents seldom fail to mention that one of the aspects they most treasure about our town is the small rural nature of our community. I heartily concur. I also hugely admire the time and effort the trustees and the mayor devote to their duties. One aspect of this small town rural community is that the governing body serves virtually as volunteers. (Trustees receive a $100 per month stipend which Trustee Weber once remarked amounts to about $2 per hour for the time required of the office.)
Therein lies the rub. Embezzlement or dishonesty by anyone in our government or town staff ought to serve as a wakeup call. I don't see a necessity for a wholesale reorganization of our town's government, mass resignations and a pall of suspicion on everyone.
Certainly the wakeup call ought to extend to the six candidates who have filed for the four seats in the April election. The office of trustee is in no sense ceremonial but ought to require a solemn commitment to and understanding of the responsibilities and duties of the office.
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