Former Summit Housing Authority head threatens to sue over discrimination
October 18, 2016
On Sept. 20, Jennifer Kermode, the longtime executive director of the Summit Combined Housing Authority, submitted a letter to her newly-appointed supervisor with a number of concerns related to her job.
In the four-page document, Kermode provided a laundry list of grievances, including gender discrimination, political retaliation and open meetings law violations. She also said in the letter that she felt a number of recent changes to the agency, tasked with assisting members of the community in finding long-term housing, amounted to a demotion, undermined her authority and appeared to be a ploy to force her from her position of nearly nine years.
County manager Scott Vargo, speaking on behalf of the housing authority board, conceded open meetings failures. However, he characterized Kermode's other claims as "baseless accusations."
"We've reviewed the accusations and do not believe that there is any basis, any evidence, any suggestion that any of those accusations are accurate and true," he said.
The letter, Kermode said, was the result of a months-long buildup of miscommunications, lack of transparency with housing authority board members and administrative decisions she felt directly affected her long-term employment status. She said she believed some of these developments were related to her boyfriend, County Treasurer and Public Trustee Bill Wallace, announcing in February that he would run against incumbent County Commissioner Thomas Davidson, who is also the chairman of the housing authority board.
"They never gave me direct or indirect orders that I did not follow," said Kermode, reached by phone Thursday evening while away on vacation. "They say I'm not in alignment with them. Tell me, who has been more involved in trying to meet the mission of the housing authority? And I feel like they've punished me for it."
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County community development director Jim Curnutte received Kermode's letter via email and passed it along to members of the board. In August, Curnutte had been appointed as Kermode's new supervisor as part of the housing authority board's push to restructure the organization, which is largely funded by a voter-approved sales tax and takes in revenue of about $1.4 million annually.
The board did not immediately convene to address Kermode's letter, which concluded with the suggestion of a quiet and seemingly amicable separation. In the meantime, Kermode confirmed through another email to Curnutte her final day with the housing authority would be Oct. 5.
On Oct. 3, the board assembled and met under executive session without Kermode. The acting board at the meeting was made up of vice chair Rick Holman, Frisco Councilwoman Kim Cancelosi, Dillon Mayor Kevin Burns, Silverthorne Councilwoman JoAnne Nadalin and county manager Scott Vargo, who filled in as an alternate for Davidson (who had recused himself after being named in Kermode's letter). The board resolved to work toward a severance agreement with Kermode.
After reconvening from executive session, the board — with fellow alternate members, town managers Bill Efting of Frisco and Tom Breslin of Dillon, on hand — then appointed recently-hired county housing director Nicole Bleriot as interim director of the housing authority until at least after the November election.
Negotiations between Kermode and the board soon stalled. Following another board meeting Thursday morning, Oct. 13, the board reversed course during an executive session and, Vargo confirmed, no longer intended to reach a settlement with Kermode.
"I'm very disappointed the board has elected to take no responsibility for their actions," Kermode said. "I was hoping they would be willing to work with me in a more professional manner."
The discord couldn't come at a worse time, with the county and towns currently utilizing the housing authority to ask voters for an increased sales tax, ballot question 5A, in the amount of nearly $8 million annually toward construction of affordable housing. County officials acknowledged as much, and with Kermode now planning to file a lawsuit, the implications could be dramatic for the county's top priority project.
A SERIES OF MEETINGS
In March, the housing authority board of directors held its regularly scheduled meeting at the County Commons in Frisco. Gary Martinez, then the county manager before retiring this June, sat in as the alternate for Davidson due to a scheduling conflict. Since 2012, Martinez had also functioned as one of Kermode's direct reports — a liaison between her and the board — in addition to then-Breckenridge town manager Tim Gagan.
Kermode noticed a recommended executive session on the morning's agenda, but it had no description of its purpose — a violation of the state's open meetings laws. According to the statute, audio for all executive sessions not related to attorney-client communication must also be taken. Vargo explained Thursday he could not say one way or the other whether audio of housing authority executive sessions has been appropriately kept.
At the meeting, Nadalin called the executive session and excused Kermode for the evening. According to minutes for the March meeting, that discussion hinged on amending the housing authority's governing document and the potential impacts it may have on the organization's makeup and staff. Direction was also given to Martinez to schedule a future board meeting, without housing authority staff present, to talk through the agency's structure, future roles and responsibilities of the housing authority, and to address day-to-day operations. Curnutte was eventually appointed to replace the previous liaison structure involving town and county managers.
Based on a document provided by Vargo, Martinez sent a July 18 email to board members and alternates to set up this meeting, noting, "This meeting will not include SCHA staff." The meeting took place the morning of July 21 at Breckenridge Town Hall. Kermode said she was not made aware of the meeting and was surprised to discover a board meeting was held without her. The meeting also lacked proper public notice, as confirmed by Vargo — a violation of open meetings laws.
"The meeting that didn't have any housing authority staff at it," he explained, "that meeting was not noticed. Although that happened, it was an administrative oversight as opposed to some sort of an effort for us to conceal what was going on."
That July 21 special meeting also lists Martinez as having prepared the minutes. Asked whether he wrote the minutes, Martinez responded: "I don't do minutes, I'm the worst at minutes," later adding that "if I did, it's really not something I recall." Vargo, who took over as county manager on July 1 of this year, said the minutes were indeed written by Martinez because they were simply copied straight over from the one-page July 18 emailed meeting agenda.
Vargo affirmed that board meeting minutes were all approved on the consent agendas of future meetings. However, no minutes from his review included the necessary signatures. Per the housing authority's governing document, the secretary of the board, Cancelosi, is technically charged with both ensuring proper notice of all meetings and that minutes are kept. Vargo said for practical purposes though, not unlike many other boards and nonprofits, that duty falls to agency staff regardless of the organizational bylaws. (Cancelosi declined to comment through a spokesman for the town of Frisco.)
"Clearly, this is an administrative component that has been inconsistent to say the least," Vargo said of the multiple open meetings infractions. "We recognize that. However, I would say that the content of the meetings, and the discussion within the meetings and the activities of the board have not been nefarious or unethical or illegal in any regard. It's not our intent to have held clandestine meetings or anything along those lines. It's an administrative oversight, and it's something that we clearly need to tighten up the ship on those things."
When Kermode learned of the meeting, as well as a new clause added to the authority's governing document that put her job up for annual review, she began to worry. She said she had already begun developing significant health issues from added stress. At that point, she contacted an attorney.
The allegations in Kermode's letter include more than one instance where she said she felt pressure from high-ranking Summit County government officials. She detailed multiple interactions with county officials that she thought were initiated to affect decisions to curry favor and offer preference on housing rulings to benefit friends and officials themselves.
She cites two calls placed to her by assistant county manager Thad Noll in June to inquire why the housing authority had denied a longtime friend a spot in an affordable housing project. The individual had been rejected based on outdated income information, Noll said, so he phoned Kermode to "make sure all of the rules have been applied properly." He said he did not believe he had applied undue influence in reaching out.
"Absolutely not," said Noll. "Something was not right. I get approached by citizens and people all the time. And I probably called her at work the next day or several days later to follow up on it."
Another allegation was lobbed at an exchange pertaining to county assistant attorney Keeley Ambrose, who in July was trying to sort through the process of buying a home in the Lincoln Park development in Breckenridge. Kermode said she felt threatened by an email she was carbon-copied on to a member of her staff from Ambrose's county email address. Ambrose's email detailed her frustration with housing authority staff in processing her application.
Ambrose admitted using her work email to address the matter "probably wasn't the wisest course," but that she "never represented that it was anything but me personally."
"I felt bad I had cc'd her," said Ambrose. "I just wanted to explain this was a bad experience, not something anybody should go through. I thought that she should know. My impression is the housing authority should not only be a gatekeeper, but also a resource, and I thought that it was important to express, from the other side of the table — from the user perspective — this was not good."
The paperwork was ultimately processed and Ambrose also received the home.
In addition, Kermode asserts that Curnutte told her during a five-hour meeting on Aug. 19 to no longer contact board members outside of meetings and that she needed approval to send emails. It was also requested that Kermode's staff, often a mainstay at board meetings, no longer attend regular board meetings.
Curnutte disputed that Kermode now had to get individual approvals on emails she would send, but that he did request a chance to review staff reports to ensure they clearly conveyed information in the packets that went out to the board ahead of meetings. He also said the board did offer him feedback that it would be better if Kermode didn't reach out to individual board members with questions about major decisions, but rather wait until the regular meetings so all could be involved.
"There was a general comment that if Jennifer didn't contact (them) individually outside of meetings and save up her questions and ask at meetings," said Curnutte, "they could make decisions together. It wasn't, 'Don't ever contact board members.' But for important decisions, she shouldn't contact individual board members."
The decision to exclude housing authority staff was one made by Curnutte.
"I felt like staff was being kind of rude to board members," he said, "so that's not good for staff to kind of talk down to your board members. I said, 'For the next couple of months, how about they just not come to the board meeting if they're not going to talk respectfully to their bosses.'"
COUNTY DENIES CLAIMS
Vargo came down more firmly in denying each of Kermode's claims. After investigation, he said the accusations are without merit. He also questioned Kermode's timing, given the vote on the 5A construction fund taking place over the next three weeks.
"We find it curious," he said. "Our perception is that, based on the timing, perhaps she believes this is her best opportunity in terms of leverage to leave the position. It would be very disappointing if the question associated with helping to address the housing crisis within Summit County is brought to its knees because of a set of baseless accusations being made by an executive director who was in no way asked to, suggested to or enticed to leave."
Kermode said she would never think to attempt sabotaging the affordable housing ballot measure and that doing so is not a goal. She said she would love to see 5A pass.
"I have worked tirelessly for nine years to make workforce housing happen in Summit County," she said through tears. "We have supported, and we have invented, and we have created ways for workforce housing to happen. I absolutely loved my job. I loved my job, and they took that away from me."
The fissure between the two sides remains and a lawsuit appears inevitable. How voters choose to interpret the breakup with relation to the future funding of affordable housing in the county won't be known until Nov. 8.
"All we can do is try to be as forthright as possible around the issues, and recognize where we've made mistakes," said Vargo. "I don't think that those mistakes are indicative of a significant dysfunction within that agency, or within our individual governments making up that housing authority. And I don't think that they should be decision points about whether (citizens) should or shouldn't vote for 5A."