Friction between Routt County treasurer, commissioners results in taxpayers paying higher costs for outside legal counsel
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A poor working relationship between Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn and the county commissioners and their attorney is forcing county taxpayers to pay a premium for an outside law firm retained by the treasurer’s office.
Horn recently hired Denver-based attorneys at a price of $350 an hour to help handle a grievance hearing regarding a terminated employee that county officials say their own attorney could have handled under normal circumstances for half the hourly rate that Horn paid the outside counsel.
But Horn has clashed with the county commissioners and the county attorney in recent years on several issues, a situation that officials say has strained their relationship and resulted in a policy from the commissioners that prevents Horn from using the more-affordable county attorney.
A Steamboat Today analysis shows the result of this tension has been legal bills that come out to be thousands of dollars more than what the county would have had to pay if Horn used the county attorney instead of the Denver-based law firm.
Horn recently sparred with her fellow elected officials over such issues as her handling of a recent property tax error made by her office and the commissioners’ decision to set up a PayPal account to accept building permit fees.
The most recent invoice Horn got from Klenda Gessler and Blue, the Denver-based law firm she has used on multiple issues, totaled $12,128 and included 34 hours of work.
Most of the law firm’s work focused on how Horn should prepare for an appeal of a recent employee termination at the treasurer’s office, as well as such things as reviewing open records requests stemming from the case.
“The ordinary course of business is the county attorney’s office would represent” the elected official or department head during an employee grievance hearing, county attorney Erick Knaus said Tuesday when asked whether Horn’s use of outside counsel was normal for the county.
Knaus said the county’s grievance policy specifically mentions that the county attorney would handle such cases when an employee who is appealing his or her termination retains a lawyer.
County manager Tom Sullivan said Tuesday he also was willing to provide Horn some of the same type of advice and guidance the treasurer got from her outside attorney at no extra cost, but he was not approached about the matter.
Not seeing eye to eye
One of the first issues that led to the county policy of not allowing Horn to retain the county attorney arose in 2015.
Horn filed a criminal complaint against the commissioners alleging they acted illegally when they created a PayPal account meant to allow the public to pay building fees online.
District Attorney Brett Barkey ultimately rejected the complaint.
“The commissioners did direct (the county attorney) that he can’t represent her, because if he did represent her or that office, and there was an issue that we had to go to court over, she’d have to get an attorney and the commissioners would have to because it would be a conflict of interest,” Sullivan said.
Friction between the commissioners and the treasurer continued and also included Horn’s handling of overdue property tax payments with Peabody Energy.
The commissioners’ directive not to let Horn be represented by the county attorney has been left in place in those cases where a potential conflict could have existed.
Knaus also said Tuesday Horn informed him as recently as last year that she did not want the county attorney’s office to represent her on legal matters.
He said he interpreted the message to mean Horn herself did not want to use the county attorney for any legal matter, not just the ones where she wasn’t seeing eye to eye with the commissioners and where potential conflicts of interest existed.
Knaus cited disagreements between Horn and the commissioners and himself as the reason for Horn not using his legal services.
Asked if she would have voted in favor of allowing Horn to use the county attorney on the recent grievance hearing case, Commissioner Cari Hermacinski said she would have deferred to the county attorney.
Horn on Tuesday had to get the commissioners’ approval to increase her annual legal budget by 650 percent, from $2,000 to $15,000.
Commissioner Tim Corrigan expressed regret that the commissioners and treasurer still did not have a relationship where they were talking about the legal expenses before the commissioners were hit with a bill for them.
“The part that has disappointed me the most is our collective failure to communicate better about all of these things,” Corrigan said. “I’m disappointed you didn’t feel like you could come talk to us in order to discuss these upcoming (legal) expenses.”
Horn defended the expenditure for outside counsel when she faced questions from Commissioner Doug Monger about why she didn’t take another option of letting another organization retained by the county to represent her in the case in the event she or the county was sued over the employee’s dismissal.
Horn responded by praising her outside legal counsel and saying the use of the attorneys helped keep the county’s risk low.
The larger legal budget was mostly attributable to Horn paying the outside legal counsel the higher rate to represent her in the case of an employee who was appealing Horn’s decision to fire her this past summer.
The grievance hearing specifically focused on the firing of Rani Gilbert, who two weeks before her dismissal alleged that Horn and Chief Deputy Treasurer Patrick Karschner engaged in unethical and possibly illegal behavior this summer.
Gilbert’s complaint alleged she had evidence that Karschner had been working on Horn’s campaign for state treasurer during business hours in May in violation of county policies.
Karschner and Horn denied any wrongdoing, and Gilbert’s termination from the county was upheld following a grievance hearing this summer.
On Tuesday, Horn also suggested she could be paying the outside legal counsel for several more hours of work in the future due to a second personnel issue involving an employee who was recently transferred to the county building department.
Her department currently has four employees.
Sullivan said he was willing to provide some of the advice and services regarding the employee grievance process for which Horn paid outside legal counsel the higher rate.
But Sullivan said he was never approached or consulted by the treasurer.
Asked what message he had for taxpayers who would learn one of their elected officials was paying a premium for outside legal counsel, Sullivan said the situation could be the basis for a lesson.
“As often as I can, I offer assistance to elected officials, and certainly part of my job is to support elected officials,” Sullivan said. “It’s just the peculiar nature of the relationship with the treasurer’s office that unfortunately it did come to this. This is probably a good lesson learned by the treasurer’s office and any other county department that has any need for any type of advisement, including personnel matters.”
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