June 2024


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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Editorial: BERT's Tactics Raise Serious Questions

By Jamie Folsom
Managing Editor

Questionable at best. The recent moves by the Berthoud Economic Resource Team (BERT) to oust Town Administrator Jim White, and the decision of the Board of Trustees to give them more control over Town staff are questionable for several reasons.
The six individuals who signed a letter of complaint to the Board of Trustees have presented no verifiable evidence to back their claims that White lied to them or has shown “other serious character concerns.” Unless the group can provide clear and credible proof of these allegations, this letter borders on libel, and is certainly no way to responsibly present their grievances.

The decision to submit the letter of complaint was made in haste by an ad hoc committee with no clear rule of order. These six individuals, while technically a quorum of the 11 voting members, acted without the larger public discussion that is part of its responsibility as a public body. It must be noted that despite the tone of the letter, not all members of BERT support the methods of the few. It has had a divisive effect on Berthoud business owners, which is something the Town can ill afford at this time.
There has always been the conflict of interest question of Becky Justice-Hemmann, as the managing editor of a newspaper, being chair of BERT. This is a clear violation of professional ethics, and raises serious concerns about the validity of their reporting, as well as actions on behalf of BERT. The question here is whether media outlets have equal access to records and proceedings of a public entity, and the answer so far has been no. Berthoud Recorder obtained a copy of the letter of complaint, not through open public records as should be, but through anonymous sources from those who wished the public to know what was going on. To their credit, many people noted this potential problem in the beginning.

On the basis of secondhand information, this sub-committee also chooses to unquestioningly advocate for the as-yet unproven productivity of former economic development consultant Stephanie Salazar. They have not critically assessed the value of Salazar’s work to Berthoud’s economic health. Some reports on her work are positive, but not all the information is yet available. The true circumstances of her leaving are still “he-said-she-said,” and the documented reason Salazar turned down a further contract was the Town’s small budget. Some members of BERT are now demanding that White spend money the Town doesn’t have to pay for Salazar. She now has an advocate in potential negotiations for a bigger salary and a renewed interest in returning.
BERT was created by Town ordinance to be an advisory committee and not a board of directors. The Town administrator is accountable to the Board of Trustees, and while he may take information and suggestions from BERT, the ultimate decision-making is White’s. In the letter they allege White “may once again be attempting to circumvent discussion around our suggestion that the consultant not report to him.” A staff member not report to the manager? How is that justifiable?

Now the Trustees have given over more control of staffing and use of public funds to a group that admittedly does not know what they are doing, and when faced with a decision they don’t agree with, have resorted to veiled threats and assertions that they, and not White, should be in charge because of their standing in the community.
Does this add up to responsible public policy? Hardly.

There are certainly legitimate concerns raised by BERT and other critics. Should even an interim economic consultant have official ties to another municipality? Fred Burmont has a clear conflict of interest as the mayor pro tem of Evans, and that should be justified. However, Burmont is no stranger to Berthoud. As a retired CPA, he reviewed the Town budget, among other projects. Similarly, he has been asked to step in on a temporary, as needed basis, including duties not having to do with BERT. He has not been hired by White, as the BERT letter erroneously states — he does not have a contract with the Town. According to Mayor Tom Patterson, before Burmont officially contracts, he has asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, something Salazar did not do.

However, the Trustees have now set a potentially destructive precedent by allowing BERT influence over Town staff at the expense of solid, informed and publicly accountable decision making. Management of Town staff is the duty of the administrator and not an unscreened advisory committee. It’s like throwing good money after bad. We call on the Trustees to require more credible information and direct accountability from BERT.   

We also call upon the business owners, the townspeople, Town staff and elected officials to move forward with more positive and productive ways of keeping Berthoud on track. We look forward to reporting on the success of your efforts.


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