Progress still being made
By Alissa Johnson
What could be an exciting time for the Gunnison County Metropolitan Recreation District (Met Rec) continues to be marked by tension and distrust as board members quarrel and rumors run rampant in the community. Despite a 2019 budget increase of more than $200,000, simply conducting business as usual has become something of a challenge.
Many of the issues seem to stem from the fallout of a November 19 board meeting, when Met Rec directors went head to head over process and personnel issues related to the district’s mission of providing over-the-air television and recreation funding.
Those disagreements continued at a Monday, December 17 meeting, albeit calmer than in November, as the board took public comment and tackled strategic planning, personnel matters, and approval of the 2019 budget. Decisions did, however, get made.
Rumors in the community
This fall, voters passed a ballot initiative to “de-Bruce” the Met Rec District, or remove it from spending constraints imposed by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. That resulted in the more than $200,000 budget increase, and it was a move intended to help the district fund both television and recreation.
Total revenue in 2019 is projected to be $548,561, and of that, $189,800 is currently earmarked for operations expenses related to providing free, over-the-air television channels. The board has also allocated $84,500 for recreation funding, plus another $35,000 committed this year to two 2019 recreation projects in the Gunnison area. Board members also want to look ahead to plan for $600,000 to $700,000 in capital improvements identified by staff to replace aging television infrastructure.
Despite the fact that funds have been reserved for both television and recreation, the overarching sense in the community seems to be that one or the other is in jeopardy. Approximately 50 members of the public attended Monday’s meeting, with many people clearly worried that Met Rec will discontinue television services or fail to complete upgrades.
“There are rumors afloat, justified or not, that certain members of this board have on their agenda [a goal] to discontinue over-the-air television,” said longtime Gunnison physician Dr. John Tarr. “That would be an enormous disservice to a very large number of Gunnison County citizens who pay their taxes in order that they will have over-the-air television and not be ripped off by the satellite and cable providers.”
His sentiments were echoed by several individuals, including many who don’t want to or can’t afford to pay for other television services. Dan Vader, who grew up in Gunnison, reminded the board that the Met Rec District was originally created to provide television. And former Met Rec board member Dave McGuire emphasized that the district’s first priority is television.
“TV is the biggest form of recreation there is,” McGuire said. “Doing what you can with leftover funds for people who apply for [recreation] grants is going to be great… but I know that TV is going to need some overhauling.”
Judy Ebaugh personally campaigned to de-Bruce Met Rec because the ballot initiative supported television and recreation. On Monday, she questioned staffing issues raised at the November meeting, namely a desire by some board members to fire staff. Because those staff run television, she felt it was “another way to get rid of TV.”
Yet many people, from up valley and down, spoke in favor of funding both TV and recreation. Mt. Crested Butte resident Laura Daniels also campaigned for de-Brucing, and she felt that Met Rec was uniquely positioned to support both services.
“Met Rec can do so much on so many levels, but they have to have funding to do it. To de-Bruce is this huge open door to suddenly be able to provide and sustain services, provide and sustain infrastructure. I got involved because it seemed like a win-win for lots of parts of our community,” Daniels said. She also submitted a petition to the board that contained approximately 110 signatures in favor of funding recreation.
Cathie Pagano, Gunnison County’s community and economic development director, reminded the board that the One Valley Prosperity Project uncovered county-wide interest in addressing recreational impact issues like signage and public toilets. “There is a need that we’ve heard from our community members for recreation to be addressed, for negative impacts to be mitigated,” she said.
And representatives of many Gunnison Valley recreation groups, including the Gunnison Nordic Club, Crested Butte Nordic, Gunnison Trails and the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, also spoke in favor of recreation funding. None of them spoke against television, and many said that they support and/or use the over-the-air TV channels too.
That did little to assuage some television supporters, who audibly grumbled, groaned and sighed when people spoke in favor of funding recreation projects as well as television. Met Rec chairperson Dave Clayton and other board members did their best to quell rumors that they want to get rid of television.
“Since the passage of [ballot initiative] 7A, I don’t think any director I know is against TV,” Clayton said. “I know I’m not. I support TV. I support sustaining TV, improving the reliability of TV and expanding TV as we can do so and still be able to maintain it going forward.”
Business as usual, with some distrust and anger
Following the public comment session, the board of directors turned its attention to strategic planning, personnel issues and the budget. Frustration arose with nearly every major point of discussion.
Directors Paul Foreman and Larry Parachini both took issue with a letter that director Derrick Nehrenberg sent to the Crested Butte News. In it, Nehrenberg stated “There are staff, Met Rec Board and TV supporters that are thwarting Met Rec’s intentions to focus more on recreation.”
“I would point out that everything that has come up recreationally to the board since I’ve been on it has been supported by Paul [Foreman] and [me],” said Parachini. “I really resent, Derrick, your letter, inferring that we are anti-recreation. We are not.”
“That’s a slanderous letter,” Foreman added. “I’m the guy that pushed hardest to get the mission of this board to include recreation other than TV, and you go and shoot off and say the staff and two board members and, sin of sins, some of our constituents, are obstructing recreation. I’d like for you to take that back.”
A similar divide surfaced when the board discussed staff reviews. Clayton suggested making some changes to and formalizing the review process, but neither Foreman nor Parachini saw how that process could be fair.
“At the November meeting you, Ian [Billick] and Derrick [Nehrenberg] all got on record as wanting to terminate staff,” Foreman said to Clayton. Though Clayton clarified his statement as having been a desire to see someone more forward thinking on staff, that didn’t ease Foreman’s concern.
“This is a toxic work environment our staff is working in. People are looking for them to do things wrong,” Foreman said.
“I don’t know how we can possibly go forward in an objective way given what happened in November. The process is going to be tainted and I don’t see that changing in any way,” Parachini later added.
Nehrenberg did concede that “November was a very sloppy meeting. It went on too long and a lot of things were said that shouldn’t have been said. But the fact of the matter is that we have to figure out how to stay on task.”
That proved difficult, given that Foreman took further issue with how Nehrenberg and other board members had conducted themselves since the November meeting. District manager Lori Patin also weighed in, expressing concerns that staff would not be able to speak freely during reviews and saying that she had never seen employee issues handled in such a way. Clayton remained committed to doing the best they could, given the circumstances.
Additional frustrations surfaced when Clayton, Nehrenberg and director Ian Billick raised concerns with the out-of-town attorney contracted to support Met Rec. They were frustrated with questions that have gone unanswered and suggested looking for a local attorney who could advise the board on proper procedure and possibly attend meetings. They cited the November meeting as evidence that such help might be needed, but the idea did not sit well with Foreman or Parachini. They both seemed to suggest that the questions were too simple to require an attorney and that answers could be found online.
Frustrations also grew out of strategic planning discussions. Parachini took issue with the way that some board members and members of the public had begun to use the word “sustain” in relation to television service. He felt that it implied a lesser level of service than “maintain.”
And Parachini and Foreman also raised concerns with the exploration of telecommunications opportunities, as well as moving forward too fast with an idea to partner with Gunnison County’s Sustainable Tourism & Outdoor Recreation (STOR) Committee as a way to allocate Met Rec’s recreation funds.
While it is not part of Met Rec’s charter to complete telecommunications projects, Clayton, Billick and Nehrenberg all see the potential to partner with telecommunication companies. Clayton explained that Colorado Central Telecom has placed equipment on some of Met Rec’s towers that enable the company to provide backup internet for the hospital and the college. And Nehrenberg pointed out that finding other opportunities to do so, through a Request for Proposals, could be a boon for residents and bring leasing income into Met Rec.
Despite the ongoing contention, the board did take several votes throughout the meeting and decisions got made. A board subcommittee will work with staff to look into an independent audit of the television system and put together a plan for maintenance and improvement. Another subcommittee will put together a plan for recreation, likely to include a proposed partnership with STOR, and yet another will establish a review process for staff.
Parachini was originally slated to participate in the latter, but withdrew because he did not believe the process could be fair. He also abstained from participating in the vote. And in a separate 3-2 vote, another subcommittee was formed to seek out three possible local attorneys to be considered by the board; both Foreman and Parchini voted no.
In addition, the board passed the budget and set a new meeting schedule. The Met Rec board of directors will meet the third Wednesday of every month in 2019 and alternate meetings between Crested Butte and Gunnison to allow for greater public participation. Met Rec will also be seeking to fill two citizen advisory committees.
Though the meeting was often contentious, Clayton takes issue with the suggestion that the board is dysfunctional. “To me what you saw there last night was the definition of functional. Even though there were passionate disagreements over what people thought, they got together and actually made decisions for the benefit of the community.”