EDITORIAL: A Pissing Contest

We were sitting within the simply-adorned Commissioners’ Chambers at 398 Lewis Street, listening to the last bit of Board of County Commissioners discussion at the November 7 morning work session.  The discussion related to the largely abandoned Archuleta County Courthouse, and we’d just learned that the Sixth Judicial District had informed the BOCC that County employees and officials were no longer allowed on the third floor of the County Courthouse, unless they first sought permission of the Judicial District.  This quite naturally raised questions among the three County commissioners about who is ultimately responsible for controlling access to this taxpayer-owned facility.

The Judicial District has, of course, abandoned the third floor of the Courthouse and is running their Archuleta County operations out of facilities located (inconveniently) in Durango.

Commissioner Steve Wadley:

“My concern is about access to the building.  What’s our access?  And what are other people’s access to parts of the building that don’t concern them at all.

“We’ve had people — with no jurisdiction or authority over the County Clerk, Assessor and Treasurer — in those offices, doing ‘monitoring.’ And it’s my belief that anything that goes on in that building, as far as determining its fitness and suitability, we [the BOCC] need to be a party to.

“We’re not trying to hide the ball…”

“Quite the opposite, actually,” noted Commissioner Michael Whiting.

“Yes,” Commissioner Wadley continued, “but the three of us are the ones responsible to the citizens of the community…”

Commissioner Ronnie Maez:

“I agree. But I don’t want it to get into some sort of… excuse my expression, but some sort of pissing contest.”

“A pissing contest.”  To be honest, that exact phrase had floated through this reporter’s mind on a few occasions, as I’ve covered the ongoing Courthouse controversy — especially over the past two months, since the County Sheriff and then the Sixth Judicial District abandoned their Courthouse offices, despite of the failure by two separate teams of “environmental consultants” to find scientific evidence of health hazards in the Courthouse.

But I’d been hesitant to use that phrase to title an editorial, until Commissioner Maez provided a dose of courage on Tuesday.

I will admit to participating in the occasional pissing contest, back when I was pre-adolescent — seeing who could pee the farthest distance, or who could hit a certain target.  Commissioner Maez was obviously not talking about that particular type of sporting event, nor was he talking about pre-adolescents.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to find a more colorful and accurate metaphor, looking at the current Courthouse stand-off.

A few hours later, on Tuesday, the BOCC concluded a lengthy regular meeting by ratifying a letter sent to Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson and Court Administrator Eric Hogue.  The letter, signed by BOCC Chair Steve Wadley, summarized a related verbal discussion that took place on Friday, November 3 in Durango, between County Administrator Bentley Henderson, County Attorney Todd Starr, Judge Wilson and Administrator Hogue.

In an earlier letter dated October 31, Judge Wilson had requested (or demanded?) that the BOCC provide his court staff with facilities somewhere in Archuleta County to replace the facilities he and his staff have abandoned in the downtown Courthouse.  His letter requested a response within 14 days.  You can download that letter here.

The BOCC’s November 2 letter responded with a possible, albeit temporary, solution.  From Commissioner Wadley’s letter:

“…the Board of County Commissioners has a responsibility to the taxpayers and desires to mitigate the impacts [of funding additional facilities] on our citizens.  Additionally, we must also consider the financial impact on the County government of having our court 45 miles away.”  [NOTE: According to Google Maps, downtown Durango is actually 60 miles from the Archuleta County Courthouse.]

“Consequently, we are prepared to vacate our current administrative facility [at 398 Lewis Street] and make that available to the Judicial System.  Please note that this will result in a net increase of 479 square feet in favor of the judicial system.  In turn, we will relocate all occupants from our administration building to the space previously occupied by the courts, including staff and probation.  Simply put, we will switch places with you.

“Gentlemen, this is not a perfect solution for anybody, nor is it intended to be a permanent solution.  It is an attempt on our part to avoid further further hostilities between two branches of government and hopefully allow us to come back together to address what should be a mutual top priority, serving the citizens of Archuleta County.”

You can download the full November 2 letter here.

According to the discussion at the regular BOCC on Tuesday, the Judicial District has heard the offer, but has not yet given a response — either positive or negative.

The playing field has changed somewhat since Tuesday afternoon, however.  On Tuesday evening at around 9pm, County Clerk June Madrid posted election results of two ballot issues that failed to win voter approval.  One of those issues was a proposed sales tax increase that would have funded a new Sheriff’s Office and Detention Center, plus other unspecified “judicial system” improvements.  (Unspecified in the ballot language, at least.)

One of the “judicial system” improvements we’d heard discussed, on the rare occasion, was a vague plan to renovate the 14,000-square-foot west wing of the Archuleta County Courthouse into a shiny new court facility — once the Sheriff was safely housed in his new 34,000-square-foot facilities in Harman Park.

Onward, to Plan B…?

There is no Plan B, according to repeated claims made by Commissioner Wadley. Presumably, one will need to be formulated? One that accommodates the Sheriff’s Office, the Sixth Judicial District, and the jail inmates now housed in Durango, who may or may not have been convicted of a crime?

We have a jail.  We have a Sheriff’s Office.  We have courtrooms and court offices.  So here’s one way to look at the situation: the BOCC has failed to make those existing facilities attractive to the government officials who have now abandoned them.

You can’t please everyone.  But maybe the BOCC wasn’t trying hard enough?  Or maybe they simply picked a target that was… just a little too far away?

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.