One of the services we provide our loyal readers is keeping tabs on El Paso County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meetings. You never know what Commissioners or staff will mention in the meetings. Take a peek at this clip that prompted us to file a recent Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request.
It was clear that the County Commissioners and other “senior leadership” used taxpayer dollars to send county staff to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo for multiple private events this summer. And, we discovered it’s not the first time we’ve paid for county employee zoo outings. We’ve paid for past zoo events, too.
In our CORA, we asked for invoices, contracts, and email communications related to the county employee zoo days. In his CORA response, new County Administrator Bret Waters went so far as to provide a notarized affidavit telling us why he’s not producing some of the records we requested. Through this affidavit, Waters told us in a very formal way that 31 emails are being withheld, because they are, “so candid or personal that public disclosure is likely to stifle honest and frank discussion within the government.”
Think about that: there are 31 emails where County staff was talking about rewarding employees, the disclosure of which would stifle conversation within the government. For goodness sake, we are talking about zoo days, not Middle East peace talks!
What do you think they are hiding?
Here’s the CORA response.
Mr. Waters went on further to describe what was withheld.
- Six documents from January 2021 to April 2021 which reflect discussions among executive-level staff on ideas, and the available budget, for staff appreciation.
- Twelve documents from May 2021 which reflect continued discussion and the sharing of ideas among executive-level staff and other staff on possible options for staff appreciation.
- Thirteen documents from June 2021 which reflect continued discussions among executive-level staff and other staff centered on gathered information and price quotes received from the zoo as well as possible methods of implementation for staff appreciation day at the zoo. The documents also reflect discussions among executive level staff and the other staff in the decision to implement additional zoo days to accommodate all employees overseen by county administration.
In other words, government employees are talking about what to spend our tax dollars on, in order to recognize government employees who are paid with tax dollars, but the taxpayers don’t get to see the conversation about the spending. Got it.
What we received in the CORA response:
According to emails, county employees were surveyed in May 2021 and were given outing ideas and voted for their favorite between: the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, a Switchbacks soccer game, or the Olympic Museum. The zoo was the overwhelming winner with 452 of 746 votes.
Incidentally, only 133 employees out of the 746 employees who responded to the survey chose the museum. We bring that up, because after the survey saying that most of the county employees didn’t want the museum passes, the County worked out a deal to hand over $500,000 of your tax dollars to the Olympic Museum and give the county staff free passes to the museum. Yes, the museum passes most of them didn’t want.
The Olympic Museum staff had started emailing county staff back in January 2021, trying to work out a county staff museum day. They ended up much better off financially with $500,000 of our money in their pockets.
Back to the zoo. How much did it cost you to send the county staff to the zoo?
According to emails, each of the 3 events cost $15,174. That’s a grand total of $45,522 for the three summer private events.
County Commissioners and senior leadership are fond of county staff. They work with them day in and day out. Close relationships are bound to form. We get that.
That money isn’t county leadership’s own personal money, though. It’s money you and I worked very hard for. They aren’t being generous with their own money. They are being generous with our money.
A private business is able to provide as many perks and rewards as they want when they are footing the bill. There should be no expectation that taxpayers —many that have been financially hurt by lockdowns over the past 18 months—should fund government employee appreciation events.
Contact your County Commissioners. Tell them your thoughts about picking up the tab for county zoo day outings. And while you’re at it, ask what their County Administrator is hiding in those 31 emails he refuses to release.
Holly Williams HollyWilliams@elpasoco.com
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