Commissioners mull next move in search for county administrator

The process of hiring a new Mesa County administrator could repeat a chain of events that revealed disagreement among the county commissioners and the withdrawal of a tentative offer to a finalist for the position.

But commissioners tell the Grand Valley Business Times the search for a new administrator also could take a different path — if that search continues at all.

For one, the list of people invited to meet with candidates for the job could be expanded to include the media. “You should have access to the candidates,” Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said in an interview with the Business Times.

Commissioner Janet Rowland said she’s less comfortable with having an audience watching an interview process that could include potentially sensitive questions. Moreover, she’s satisfied with the list of people invited to offer input.

The county invited 31 people to a gathering at Dolce Vita Restaurant in Grand Junction to meet five finalists for the administrator position. The county brought the finalists to Grand Junction at a reported cost of about $3,000 for transportation, hotel rooms and food at the open house.

The social event was publicly posted at the Mesa County Administration Building. Any meeting involving all three county commissioners must be publicized under state open meetings law. Nonetheless, the county didn’t advertise the event or send out a news release. Many local media outlets learned of the five finalists and their trip to Grand Junction in a story published in The Daily Sentinel newspaper the day before the open house.

The commissioners subsequently extended a tentative offer to Michael Freilinger, a former county manager in Florida and Iowa who was among the five candidates. The commissioners withdrew that offer, however, when disagreements among the commissioners surfaced and Acquafresca balked at paying Freilinger $140,000 a year — $15,000 more than what Mesa County paid former administrator Jon Peacock.

In a posted, but little publicized, Dec. 2 meeting, the commissioners discussed the next step, including the potential for hiring an interim administrator or shifting administrative duties to the commissioners themselves.

At that meeting, Rowland put Acquafresca on the spot about what salary the county should offer for the administrator position. “Yes or no. Will you go above $125,000?” Rowland asked.

“My direction is to start at $125,000. But I’m willing to look at a higher rate,” Acquafresca said.

“So ‘no’,” said Rowland.

“That’s not what I said,” Acquafresca said, adding that he was willing to consider more. He also said there were other factors involved in his preference for offering $125,000 to Freilinger.

“That’s not what you said in your e-mail,” Rowland said.

Commissioner Craig Meis said, “We need a compromise. I don’t know how else to say it.”

Meis told the Business Times outside the meeting Peacock’s salary was kept “artificially low.”

“He was ready and willing to do that,” Meis added. “It’s going to be difficult to get someone (for that salary).”

As of press time, Peacock was negotiating with Pitkin County for a salary as the newly hired county administrator, but wouldn’t divulge the salary range.

He echoed Meis’ thoughts about his salary in Mesa County. “I was sitting below what the assistant city manager position paid (in Grand Junction),” Peacock said. “Folks (county administrator candidates) are going to expect higher pay.”

While reaching a compromise on the salary issue might be one goal, Meis also made it clear at the Dec. 2 meeting he wants unanimous support for the terms of a contract for a new administrator. “I don’t want to bring someone in who has one count against them right out of the chute.”

Meis added: “I had my head in my hands, because I thought we were there.”

“These are not easy processes,” Acquafresca said. “I’d encourage you to not get discouraged.”

As for the process itself, Meis said the county could consider several options: hire a headhunter to find candidates, including people who aren’t looking for a new job; offer a higher salary; or hire an interim administrator, called a “range runner,” who could temporarily fill the position. Range runners are often retired executives seeking temporary work.

Meis said he’s undecided about whether or not there should be more public disclosure when finalists are gathered to meet the commissioners. “I’ve gone through the process several times and it’s never been the same twice,” he said of hiring executives and department heads.

“Every time we’ve hired someone, we’ve done it differently,” said Rowland. She’s also been involved in hiring a director for the Mesa County Department of Human Services and a county public health director.

Rowland expressed frustration over trying to discern what the public and media expect from the process. She told the Business Times that negotiations with finalists can be awkward if the discussion occurs in front of the media. She also acknowledged such meetings involving the commissioners are legally required to be open to the public and posted at the administration building. She added she’s pushed for changes to make county processes more public.

“No board of commissioners has been more transparent,” Rowland said,  adding the commissioners’ public hearings are broadcast on cable television and via streaming video on the Internet.

Rowland said she’s also struggled to strike a balance between soliciting public input and serving as a decisive leader.

“If people wanted to elect an administrator, they could,” she said. But law dictates the commissioners make such a decision.

Mesa County Attorney Lyle Dechant told the commissioners there are legal requirements to post the names once a list of finalists have been compiled, but Dechant wasn’t sure about the definition of a finalist.

Rowland presented another option that would entail the commissioners taking over the administrator’s duties. She heard of the concept from commissioners in Arapahoe County who are using that model. “I see it was an opportunity to improve,” she said. “There’s no middle man.”

During the Dec. 2 meeting, Rowland said such a system could enable staff members to take on new challenges. She suggested that each commissioner could act as a liaison between the board and a county department. Communication also could be streamlined, she said.

Acquafresca disagreed with the concept. “I think this county has enjoyed success under the county administrator model.”
For the moment, acting county administrator Stefani Conley is approaching six months on the job and said she doesn’t want to continue.

Should another interim administrator be hired, the commissioners generally agreed that “interim” should mean no more than six months.

Rowland said her term expires in two years and she would like to oversee more accomplishments. She said she doesn’t want to delay and suggested that Acquafresca has a different approach.

“We’re very different,” Rowland said. “Craig (Meis) and I are more ‘ready, aim fire’. You’re more ‘ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, fire.’”