Corinne Ferguson

Corinne Ferguson, town administrator. (file photo)

In recent months the town of Paonia has lost a number of key employees including the Chief of Police, two police officers, the police clerk, a public works employee, and the town treasurer. The town’s attorney plans to leave at the end of the year.

If the plethora of departures weren’t enough, there are now murmurs that the town administrator’s job may also be on the line following complaints from citizens and growing concerns among some council members.

Paonia’s mayor said the current attempt to remove Town Administrator Corinne Ferguson is being initiated primarily by a ‘handful of disgruntled citizens.’

“There are six people in the community who never wanted Corinne in that position and have been actively working to have her fired, and one board member who doesn’t want her in that position and there’s a second board member who would be just as happy to see her go as well,” said Mayor Mary Bachran.

A discussion involving the town administrator took place during the mayor’s report which included a copy of Ferguson’s evaluation conducted in July. Ferguson was not present during the discussion, leaving due to illness.

According to the evaluation, Ferguson’s job performance rating was 3 on a scale of 5 which merited a “meets expectations” grade.

Council members gave Ferguson high marks for her work on the town’s marijuana ordinance and her professionalism and composure under pressure. However, they noted issues with staff management, as well as performance concerns.

The evaluation also showed concerns that Ferguson was “not yet making an effective transition to town administrator” and complaints that “board priorities were not carried out by staff, and excuses offered for lack of staff follow through and marginal performance.”

Ferguson was appointed interim town administrator in August 2019 while then Town Administrator Ken Knight was on administrative leave. Nearly a year later, Ferguson was appointed to the town administrator position in June 2020.

“There were people who said we should have never hired Corinne as administrator and we should have done a formal hiring process, but the board decided not to do that,” Bachran said. “It was decided that we didn’t want to go into a formal hiring process because there was a new board coming on.”

The timing of Ferguson’s appointment as town administrator came shortly after the 2020 municipal election. It had been decided, prior to the election, that the ‘old board’ would allow the newly elected board the opportunity to make its own decision concerning the hiring of a new town administrator.

“We decided to make her town administrator,” Bachran said, who was elected mayor after serving as mayor-pro tem.

Bachran said the new board unanimously agreed to place Ferguson in the administrator’s position and give her the opportunity to ‘grow’ into the position. Now, after 16 months, Ferguson’s position appears to be in flux.

At the conclusion of the Sept. 28 town council meeting, Trustee Michelle Pattison’s motion that the board review the town administrator’s contract and job description gained board approval. The issue was expected to be on the Oct. 12 meeting agenda. However, Bachran read a statement on the behalf of Pattison, who was absent from the meeting.

In part, Pattison offered an apology to Ferguson, the board and the public for making statements concerning the town administrator’s job performance in her absence.

“At one point I said there were items in the administrator’s contract that are not getting done, I crossed the line with this statement and should have held that for a further discussion in the administrator’s presence. I want to apologize to Corinne for making such a statement when she was not present to respond and to the board and public for contributing to a conversation about personnel that I feel went beyond what was appropriate for this meeting,” read Pattison’s statement.

Pattison said her goal in putting forward the motion was to get the discussion about the town administrator’s duties on a future agenda and to clarify the legal requirements of executive session versus open meeting for having that discussion.

“Since the issue involves a personnel matter, Ferguson would be given the option to talk about her position in an open meeting or refer the matter to an executive session if and when the discussion comes before the board,” Pattison’s statement concluded.

In a follow-up interview, Bachran said it’s the job description that needs to be reviewed and not Ferguson’s contract.

“If she is removed as town administrator, she goes back to being the clerk,” Bachran said. “We would go and hire an administrator. That process would likely take up to six months.”

With the high number of staff resignations in recent months, citizens have questioned if there’s something wrong with how the town is being managed by its administrator or if the problem lies more with the town board.

Ongoing mistrust from the public can, in part, be linked back to issues involving former Town Administrator Ken Knight who was accused of inappropriate behavior in 2019 and the embezzlement scandal by Kristin Chesnik, former finance officer.

In 2013, Chesnik was sentenced to four years in prison and a mandatory five years’ parole after admitting to embezzling $393,000 from the town between 2007 and 2011.

“As long as people who were alive in this town when that happened until they die, it will be generating mistrust,” Bachran said.

Knight was placed on administrative leave and later terminated after he admitted to verbally insulting a Paonia citizen.

In recent meetings, Paonia citizen Paige Smith pointed out Ferguson’s spending of taxpayer money for purchases including an expensive coffee maker, sodas, and other personal snacks for employee use.

Smith also sent a number of emails to the board claiming that Ferguson did not understand the town’s purchasing policy and lacks the necessary qualifications to be the town administrator.

As Paonia trustees tackle important decisions including how to pay for water infrastructure and replacing a number of critical staff, the embattled board may also be forced to make a critical decision regarding the future of its town administrator.

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