MONTROSE – Montrose County commissioners hosted an overflowing and emotional full house on Monday to deal with what some in the audience referred to as cronyism in county hiring and others dismissed as baseless accusation in an already heated campaign season.
At the center of the discussion was the recent hiring of Montrose County GOP Chairman David Laursen as the county’s new Fleet Operations Manager.
Laursen was Commissioner David White’s campaign manager during White’s first run for office four years ago.
The question of political patronage was raised in a Sunday letter to the editor from Montrose resident Roger Brown, who also spoke at Monday’s meeting. Brown asked for clarification from the three commissioners – all Republicans – regarding the county’s hiring process.
In response, County Public Works Director Brian Wilson stated unequivocally that the decision to hire Laursen was his alone, that the position was advertised for “nearly a year” (to replace Marvin Kibel, who is retiring), and that Laursen was well qualified for the job (he owns Laursen Repairs and Beyond, an automotive service and repair shop in Montrose).
“We’re excited to have him,” Wilson said.
Brown’s letter, and a records request filed with the county on the specifics of Laursen’s hiring, provoked the ire of all three commissioners and brought out a partisan crowd on both sides.
Paraphrasing Brown’s letter, Montrose City Councilor Gail Marvel expressed the hope that the meeting “shines sunlight on Mr. Brown’s hypocrisy.
“The smell of political intimidation is in this room,” she concluded.
Retired Montrose citizen Bob Connor asked for a list of those who had reviewed Laursen’s application, to which County Human Resources Director Chad Huffman responded with five names, including Public Works Director Wilson, mechanic George Dickerson, County Internal Services Director Stephanie Barnett, and “Marvin Kibel himself.”
“We’re just asking for transparency,” Connor said.
“Let me be that transparency for you,” replied Wilson. “I am the only person making that decision to hire my staff. No one else. That’s it. That’s your transparency.”
Wilson said he did not believe the circumstances of Laursen’s political work should have become an issue although sources confirm that he checked with County Attorney Robert Hill and with the commissioners before hiring Laursen.
According to Commissioner Gary Ellis, “Brian [Wilson] called me with his concern, and I said, ‘Brian, at the end of the day we have nothing to do with this hire. Be prepared,” he said, warning that some political fallout “‘is going to probably happen.’
“Guarantee ya,” Ellis added, the “board of county commissioners has nothing to do with this.”
Human Resources Director Huffman said, “I was impressed that Brian went ahead with the hire, in spite of the obvious political implications.” And then he added, “Yes, Dave Laursen is eminently qualified.”
Commission Chairman David White was particularly incensed at the charges of patronage, calling them “garbage.” “This is ridiculous. I’d have to be one of the dumbest commissioners ever. This is about partisan politics. I’m going on the record and I’m saying it: This kind of garbage is thrown out there...I’m having my say, and that’s all I’m going to say.”
County Democratic Party Chair Jayne Bilberry admonished the commissioners: “You knew this was going to happen.” She then wondered aloud “if David Laursen feels the need to resign his position as GOP chairman?”
Reached by phone after the meeting, Laursen was asked if he was surprised at the reaction to his hiring. “I was, yes. Well, being chair of the party...but it [fleet manager] is a low profile job.”
Will his company be doing work on county vehicles? “Of course not,” Laursen answered. “We do the work internally here.” He did say the county could, in theory, order tires through his business on what is called governmental bid pricing. “But I’ve taken myself out of that picture. I’m just saying [to my staff], buy right. Brian Wilson is OK with that.”
Asked if he had considered resigning from his post as GOP chairman, he said, “No. As long as I make sure I’m not talking politics on county time. Maybe if there had been more time before the election, and I could have handed off to someone else....
“This is a small community,” he said. “You can wear two hats. And things can be OK.”