Row erupts over bonds in treasurer’s office
March 31, 2016
A special meeting held by the Grand County Board of Commissioners seems to point toward yet another simmering conflict between the county attorney and treasurer's office.
The board convened on Tuesday, March 29, for a nearly two-hour long special meeting, half of which was spent in executive session, to discuss the recent calling of two securities that County Treasurer Christina Whitmer's office held, and County Attorney Alan Hassler's investigation of those securities.
The investigation was first hinted at in a confusing exchange between board members and Hassler during the board's March 23 meeting, in which commissioners Jane Tollett and Merrit Linke said they had directed Hassler to look into the treasurer's sale of two securities after learning about them in a meeting with the county's finance department.
After Commissioner Kris Manguso pressed the two as to why she wasn't included in the directive and why Whitmer hadn't been included in the conversation, both commissioners recanted, instead saying that Hassler had initiated the investigation himself.
“That’s my job to manage the investments of the county. I’m not doing anything beyond the scope of my employment.” - County Treasurer Christina Whitmer
"I think Mr. Hassler probably was in that same meeting and maybe informally asked if you guys want any clarification and basically took it upon himself to do it," Linke said. "We did not have any kind of formal request."
Documents that the Sky-Hi News obtained through a public records request, include a March 16 memo to the board from Hassler suggesting that Whitmer violated state statutes by selling two securities without the board's express approval.
Colorado law states that treasurers must get their board's approval to dispose of securities, though Grand County's own investment policy gives the treasurer authority to initiate investment transactions.
During the March 23 meeting, Manguso clarified that the securities were called, an action initiated by the issuer.
Reached by phone, Whitmer said she was in the process of responding to Hassler's memo.
"The bonds that are called, there is no action to take on them," Whitmer said. "They are called by the issuer, so I'm not sure what his purpose was."
Whitmer said a copy of the memo was placed on her desk and that she was never informed that the county attorney was looking into the securities.
"That's my job to manage the investments of the county,"
Whitmer said. "I'm not doing anything beyond the scope of my employment."
Board discusses unilateral investigation
Much of the meeting discussion focused on Hassler's initiation of the investigation without formal direction from the board.
Hassler, reading from the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct, said that if an organization's employee is violating the law and is "likely to cause substantial injury to the organization," the organization's attorney should act independently.
"I'm concerned that I'm not meeting the board's expectations on these matters, therefore my question is am I to respond only to direct requests for service and not issue any advice and counsel not specifically requested?" Hassler asked.
Linke said he felt the board would be remiss to not allow the county attorney to openly voice his concerns.
"I think you should speak up," Linke said. "I think we're not getting our money's worth if you don't."
"I'm perfectly fine with you speaking up," Tollett said. "I can't imagine how that job could be done either way."
Manguso said she felt Hassler should speak up, but said he should have come to the board before investigating and concerns should have been communicated to the treasurer.
"Ask us during a board meeting, during attorney items, if you want us to look into that," Manguso said.
Hassler replied that it would have been a breach of attorney-client privilege to share that information without the board's consent.
Commissioners continued to debate who was at fault for the lack of communication.
Linke asked why the treasurer didn't approach the board to inform it of the called securities.
Manguso asked whether Linke had ever been aware of a purchase or sale of securities during his time on the board, to which he replied he hadn't.
Linke added that county "cash flow issues" in 2016 necessitated that the board stay on top of such transactions.
Staff meetings could improve communication
The board agreed to start holding regular staff meetings to improve communication between department heads and the board, though there was some disagreement over whether the meetings should be live-streamed or recorded in some form.
"I think that every time we try to do these on Tuesday we squeeze them in at lunch or whatever it just doest work," Merrit said.
Manguso said that, if the board held staff meetings, they should live-streamed, or minutes should be taken.
"I think if we are going to do these work sessions they do need to be public," Manguso said.
Linke and Tollett disagreed, with Tollett arguing that taking minutes would be too much work.
"It doesn't make any logistic sense to have the clerk sit in on staff meetings to take minutes," Linke said.
Manguso said she would reconsider participating in such meetings if minutes weren't taken. Tollett suggested that the board annotate agendas for the meeting.Interim County Manager Ed Moyer said he and Hassler would look into the issue.
Hank Shell can be reached at 970-557-6010.