Editorial: Newberry’s double mileage charges were simply wrong
February 4, 2015
The district attorney's office in Summit County is investigating whether Grand County Commissioner James Newberry broke the law when he was reimbursed for mileage by both the Colorado River District and Grand County when he attended some River District meetings.
So the legal beagles are pursuing that angle, as well they should. If it isn't illegal, it probably should be.
Another angle — whether it was right or ethical — requires no expertise beyond a taxpayer's perspective: It clearly was not.
Even if it didn't violate the letter of the law, it violated the spirit of public service. After all, is it public service or self-service? It's difficult to fathom why someone would think it's OK to charge both entities.
Consider the issue in its essence: Newberry charged taxpayers, the very same taxpayers, twice for something he did only once. He charged River District taxpayers and he charged Grand County taxpayers. Since Grand County is part of the River District and we pay taxes to the district, that amounts to billing us twice for rendering a service only once.
The commissioner has intimated on social media that he intends to issue a public statement about this soon. Let's hope his statement includes an apology to taxpayers and a commitment to pay back the mileage fees to either the county or the River District. As far as that goes, since he was technically on the River District clock (Newberry serves as the president of the District board), he should reimburse Grand County.
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For his part, on our Facebook page (facebook.com/grandcounty) Newberry called it "not one of my better decisions but not illegal or against any policy" in response to a reader comment.
Hmm. That effort isn't going to earn him a role as poster child for contrition.
Nor is it clear how much money is at stake. Newberry says it's about $1,000. A member of the Grand County Transparency group that first brought the issue to light claims more on the order of $3,000.
If nothing else, we hope the investigation by the 5th Judicial District Attorney's Office clears that up.
Then there's the issue of a letter sent to the 5th Judicial District Attorney's investigator by Grand County Attorney Jack DiCola. It's not clear precisely why the letter was sent — whether at the request of the DA's office or the behest of the Grand County commissioners or both. In any event, the letter, which maintains that Newberry broke no laws, raises the issue of who DiCola is representing, Grand County or James Newberry personally.
Presumably DiCola's time to draft the letter was part of his official duties as county attorney rather than in his spare time, yet the letter serves Newberry's individual interests rather than the county's. Newberry assured a reader on our Facebook site that, "The county is not paying any fees."
One would hope not, since this issue arises from Newberry's personal choice and not from official county actions.
Newberry can take credit for some laudable achievements during his 18 years as a county commissioner. It would be a shame if something so ostensibly petty were to become a permanent, ugly blemish on his record.
In the final analysis —barring criminal charges — that is in large measure up to him. He can continue to prevaricate and risk his record, or he can do the right thing, admit he was wrong and balance the taxpayers' account.
Credit where it's due
Grand County has allocated funds to begin live audio streaming of the county commissioners' meetings, last we heard any time now.
It's definitely a step in the right direction.
Sure, many of us would prefer live video and audio, which tends to be less ambiguous than audio alone — about who is speaking, for example. Nevertheless, taxpayers will be better served and more able to easily participate in county government when "attending" a meeting doesn't entail a trip to Hot Sulphur Springs.
Let us be among the first to say thank you, Grand County.