Several Steamboat City Council members uncomfortable with city’s decision to hire councilman’s close relative to vet police station sites
Steamboat Springs — The city of Steamboat Springs’ decision to hire the brother-in-law of a sitting Steamboat Springs City Council member to investigate the council’s top two building locations for a new police station left several council members squirming in Citizens Hall on Tuesday night.
The council’s discomfort came after the realization that council member Tony Connell’s brother-in-law was being paid by the city to investigate a building site on U.S. Highway 40 just south of the Hampton Inn that Connell himself has a financial investment in.
“You couldn’t find somebody else?” a visibly uncomfortable Kenny Reisman asked City Manager Deb Hinsvark shortly after the council learned about the hire.
The controversy surrounding Will Welch’s hire and concern about a possible perception of a conflict of interest led some council members to continue to lose confidence in the city staff’s handling of the police station project altogether.
“This issue (of building a new police station) has had errors in judgment all along, and this is another one,” Scott Ford said Wednesday, adding that he thought it was “mind-boggling” the city manager didn’t hold off on such a hire and talk to the council about it before Tuesday night.
Council members Walter Magill and Sonja Macys also thought the hiring of Welch was inappropriate.
“It’s a little too close to home,” Magill said. “My brother was available, but he lives in Arizona.”
Hinsvark said Connell suggested that the city talk to his brother-in-law, an experienced construction project manager in Fort Collins, about the police station project.
The city has not received an invoice from Welch, but it expects to pay him less than $2,000.
Connell, who was not present for the police site presentation because he stepped down due to his financial investment in the potential police station site, said Wednesday that he understood the concerns from his fellow council members.
He said he was simply trying to help the city by referring staff to talk to his experienced brother-in-law about design build principals and how they might work in the public sector.
He added that he was unaware the reference would turn into a hire.
“I completely understand where everybody is at” expressing concerns about a perceived conflict of interest, Connell said.
He said looking back, he thinks the city manager should have run the hire by council first to ask if it was appropriate.
The city met with Welch a few weeks ago and came away impressed with his credentials.
His experience includes working on such projects as the regional public safety training campus in Loveland. He is a certified professional constructor, a chartered construction manager and a master builder, according to his resume.
Welch was paid to vet the two sites and gather unbiased information, including land costs, pros and cons and other information, to bring back to the council for consideration.
Hinsvark appeared to anticipate possible concern about a perceived conflict of interest regarding Welch’s hire and pre-empted a talk about police station sites by assuring the council that Connell did not stand to gain financially from the sale of the U.S. 40 property.
Connell reaffirmed that Wednesday, saying he is a partner in the property, but a “very small” partner.
After council expressed discomfort with the decision to hire Welch, Hinsvark defended the hire and said the city could not find anyone else as qualified as Welch was to vet the properties.
“This is a small town, and there’s two degrees of separation on every little thing we do, so I didn’t consider this to be an issue,” Hinsvark said.
She told the council that because Connell was a “small investor” in the U.S. 40 property, he did not stand to gain anything financially from the sale of it unless it sold in the neighborhood of $3 million, well above the asking price.
Welch told the council that he had no interest in his brother’s business regarding the piece of property in Steamboat, and he had not shared any of his information with Connell.
Connell also is the chairman of the board of directors for Yampa Valley Medical Center, which recently pulled out of real estate negotiations with the city regarding a potential building site on Pine Grove Road.
Council President Bart Kounovsky, the COO of Colorado Group Realty, also has a conflict of interest in the U.S. 40 property.
He has been stepping down from the police station site discussions because owners that he works for at Colorado Group have a financial interest in the parcel.
Kounovsky, who did not watch the council’s discussion on the sites Tuesday night, said he didn’t think Welch’s hiring was a conflict of interest.
“We get recommendations from consultants from all different areas in all walks of life,” he said.
Macys said Welch’s hire, along with the other conflicts of interest surrounding the police station site, have further dropped her level of confidence in the city’s ability to pursue the police station project.
Both Connell and Hinsvark expressed regret about how Welch’s hiring has impacted the police station discussion.
“I should have recognized it,” Connell said about the perception of a conflict of interest. “I’m sorry that it’s happening this way where there’s controversy and intrigue and the city is taking a body blow and I’m taking a blow for my credibility.”
Hinsvark said in hiring Welch, she had to weigh her desire to get the council good, factual information about the properties against a perceived conflict of interest.
“I did not consider what just having him there being the person to gather the data might do to the entire process,” Hinsvark said. “My mistake. And we can just dismiss the data. Let’s back up and dismiss the data and move forward.”
On Tuesday, Macys and Ford called for the city to essentially reset the police station planning process and get the public more involved.
Welch was scheduled to be introduced to the council during an executive session to discuss the police station building locations.
But with Macys and Ford opposed to discussing any possible real estate transactions behind closed doors, the council did not have enough votes to enter the session and chose instead to have the talk in public.
Council members Reisman, Myller and Magill said they preferred the U.S. 40 site.
Ford and Macys did not want to move forward with any real estate negotiations.
At the end of a lengthy discussion, the council ultimately realized it would not be able to secure the four votes needed to move forward with a purchase of the U.S. 40 site and adjourned the meeting shortly before 11 p.m.
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