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Daily Editorial: Taxpayers left in the dark

Vail Daily Editorial Board

Over the past two years, the two top public executives in Eagle County have been paid to go away.

In May 2005 it was Jack Ingstad, the county administrator. Last week it was John Brendza, the county school district superintendent.

The cases are similar only in the lack of explanation to the public about what’s really going on, handsome payouts to the departing leaders, and lots of kind words that belie whatever caused them to leave in the first place.

Ingstad’s case actually was fairly straightforward, if not admitted. A new majority took over the Board of County Commissioners and wanted change. There was enough smoke just before Ingstad left to doubt the cool explanations that the county administrator just, you know, felt it was time to go. We still doubt them, frankly, and that has left the slightest tang of distrust in those politicians ever since.

The school board, a much more disciplined body than the county board of the time, offers exactly zero insight into what caused their split with the district superintendent. The settlement between them and Brendza even spells out contractually that no unkind word will be said by either party.

What typically happens from here is the public body that has spent a large amount to send its chief executive on his or her way then spends more to find a new chief executive at higher pay.

In the county government’s case, this led to happy endings for both parties. Ingstad got a better job at better pay in a place he liked better than Eagle County. The new majority got their choice of a replacement, and so it goes.

Meantime, there has been no demonstrable improvement in county governance for the taxpayers as a result of all that spending ” at least, nothing that the county could not have accomplished with the administrator the commissioners sent packing.

The county operated pretty well under Ingstad, and it operates pretty well under his successor, Bruce Baumgartner, if perhaps with a bit less local knowledge at the helm. Time, of course, will correct that. Unless a new board decides they need their own guy, and the cycle turns anew.

The school district has had uneven luck searching nationally for new superintendents. We applauded the internal choice of Mel Preusser after the rather disastrous term of Ray Glynn, and we applauded the appointment of Brendza in 2003, when Preusser retired.

Brendza worked his way through the district ranks over 24 years from teacher to principal to superintendent. By outside appearances, it seemed to us that Brendza did a pretty good job in a difficult transitional era for the district.

We ” and you ” do not know the details of the ruptures between these administrators and their elected boards other than they resigned and were not fired, and that those resignations came at a price that included making sure the folks who foot the bill would not know what happened.

The problem with this is that the public cannot evaluate its elected officials appropriately. Did these boards make wise decisions? Who knows?

Laws safeguarding the confidentiality of personnel matters exist for good reason, of course. We wonder, though, if in the case of a public body’s chief administrator there ought to be legal provision for a bit more insight into this crucial position.

Failing that, we can only wonder if changing chief administrators every few years is particularly prudent. Firing for actual cause is a different matter entirely. And maybe that’s the better standard for public boards contemplating whether they need a change of chief executives. As in, is there actual cause?

Experience and longevity in these positions pay dividends, too. It may well be worth riding through the sorts of disagreements or whims that perhaps too often lead to payouts and carefully chosen explanations that explain precisely nothing.

” Don Rogers for the Editorial Board


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