EDITORIAL: Courthouse Fantasies, Part Four

Read Part One

Following an executive session Tuesday afternoon, the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners decided to have a trio of county representatives seek a meeting with the state court administrator to present a plan for the “further rehabilitation” of the Archuleta County Courthouse.

— Pagosa Springs SUN, Jan. 4, 2018

Not too many members of the public had waited out the hour-long executive session held by the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners on the afternoon of January 2, 2018.

As I recall, only two non-County-employees — Pagosa Springs SUN reporter Randi Pierce and myself — were present when the BOCC reconvened in open public session. We were hoping to hear an open and honest discussion about the County Courthouse.

Reporter Pierce summarized the subsequent events like this, in the January 4 edition of the SUN:

Upon coming out of the executive session, Commissioner Michael Whiting made a motion. “So, Mr. Chair, I move that the chair, county administrator and county attorney meet with the state court administrator to present a plan for the further rehabilitation of 449 San Juan St., which plan will contemplate a significant capital expenditure intended to meet the court’s future needs,” Whiting said, continuing that the meeting is to take place on or before January 31 of this year, at which point the BoCC will convene a special meeting “to consider the filing of an original action to mandate the reoccupation of 449 San Juan St. by the courts…”

…Following the meeting, [County Administrator Bentley] Henderson noted that the plan referenced would likely be one previously produced for the courthouse. There was no public comment, and no further discussion by the commissioners on the matter, before the meeting was adjourned.

An accurate summary of the events, as far as it goes. The participants in the closed-door executive session had included the three commissioners — Ronnie Maez, Michael Whiting and Steve Wadley — plus County Attorney Todd Starr, County Administrator Bentley Henderson and County Executive Assistant Tonya McCann.

The Archuleta Board of County Commissioners consider their next move on January 2, 2018. From left, Ronnie Maez, Steve Wadley, Michael Whiting.

One thing that Ms. Pierce did not mention in her article was a statement by County Commissioner Steve Wadley at the beginning of the re-convened open meeting — assuring us that “no decisions were made during the executive session.” As many of our readers know, it’s a violation of the Colorado Open Meetings Law for a government body to make a decision during an executive session. Decisions must be made only in open, public meetings.

It appeared, however, that a BOCC decision had in fact been made behind closed doors. Following the executive session and before re-convening in open public session, the BOCC had taken a ten-minute recess to allow Executive Assistant Tonya McCann to type up a certain document. That document was then handed to each of the commissioners (and was later distributed to the press.)  It contained the wording that Commissioner Michael Whiting then recited when making his motion.

Judging by the fact that the wording had (apparently) been crafted during the executive session and provided to Ms. McCann, and had then been recited verbatim by one of the commissioners… and had generated no discussion whatsoever before being unanimously approved by the three commissioners… it seemed pretty clear that the decision had been made in executive session, and that the public vote was merely an act of rubber stamping that previous decision.

How County Attorney Todd Starr allowed this to take place on his watch, I cannot explain.  But the whole thing is pretty much a mess, anyway.

And has been a mess for years.

A brief history.  Archuleta County was created by the Colorado legislature on April 14, 1885, carved out of western Conejos County. (It was named for J. M. Archuleta, “head of one of the old Spanish families of New Mexico”, and in honor of Antonio D. Archuleta, who was the Senator from Conejos County at the time.) To judge from various news stories from that era, Archuleta County qualified as part of “The Wild, Wild West” back in those days.

Circa 1928, the County government moved into a sturdy brick building at the corner of San Juan Street and Pagosa Street.

Rumor has it that the building was originally a “bank,” and was converted to government use in 1928, but that history fails to explain the existence of a fully-decked-out courtroom facility on the second floor.

Around 1989, the County was ordered to build a compliant detention facility, and that order resulted in a 16,000 square foot West Wing addition to the Courthouse — not counting a 9,000-square-foot parking garage. (I am guessing at the size of this addition. I’ve reviewed numerous County planning documents and have been unable to find an exact figure for the size of the West Wing.)

In 1999, the BOCC purchased about five acres of sloping property on Hot Springs Boulevard, across the street from what would eventually be the site of the Ross Aragon Community Center and the adjacent Pagosa Springs Town Hall. Some vague plans were made to build a new County administration building on that five-acre site — while a deed restriction prohibited the construction of a jail or justice facility on the property.

Perhaps as a result of that 1999 purchase, subsequent County budgets seemed to be constructed around the idea that the old Courthouse was eventually going to be abandoned, and didn’t deserve to be thoroughly maintained. Most certainly, there were no efforts by the BOCC to modernize or upgrade the old Courthouse to any noticeable extent. In particular, the West Wing suffered from constant roof leaks.

Eventually, the strange odors that seemed to originate in the West Wing caused the County to begin testing for indoor pollutants, but no pollutants were consistently identified. However, around this time, the BOCC bought a second-hand building on Lewis Street and relocated their own offices… out of the West Wing… in 2015.

Also in 2015, the BOCC finally decided to repair the roof on the jail, but a severe rainstorm took place in the midst of that roof repair, and subsequent flooding inside the detention center ruined some of the jail’s electronic equipment. Strange odors continued to plague the occupants of the West Wing, and the Sheriff moved his staff to new quarters… and then moved back into the West Wing… and then moved out again this past September.

Also in September, the Sixth Judicial District — frustrated with a shortage of space and with a County government that had spent two decades refusing to invest in the old Courthouse — used the presence of unidentified odors and the lack of maintenance as an excuse to abandon the building, and to move all its operations to La Plata County. That “emergency move” might, however, be a violation of state laws that require the courts to maintain a presence in each Colorado county.

It now appears that the Judicial District is planning to locate a few of its staff members in Archuleta County, at some as-yet-unidentified location.

It also appears that the BOCC is preparing to file a lawsuit to compel the Judicial District to re-occupy a Courthouse that has essentially been allowed to rot since 1999… but that also might — now, finally — see an investment of taxpayer funds to bring the indoor environment up to 2018 standards?

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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.