For 20 years, Steamboat resident Rob Douglas was a Washington, D.C. private detective specializing in homicide, political corruption and terrorism. Since 1998, Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado. To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.

For 20 years, Steamboat resident Rob Douglas was a Washington, D.C. private detective specializing in homicide, political corruption and terrorism. Since 1998, Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado. To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.

Rob Douglas: Ready, shoot, aim

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Rob Douglas

Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Douglas here.

In August 2002, Baltimore Sun reporter Del Wilber broke the news that Baltimore's Police Commissioner, Ed Norris, had used an "off-the-books departmental fund to finance more than $178,000 in expenses." Expectedly, Maryland's political establishment rallied to Norris' side against the hated Sun.

What surprised me was the reaction by many of the Sun's media brethren. Where I smelled a rat, their noses didn't twitch. Where I saw smoke indicating fire, they were blinded by Norris' badge.

Wilber kept digging at the Sun, and I turned the heat up via my talk radio gig at WBAL in Baltimore. And while my bosses backed me publicly, privately they warned I'd missed the mark. They said Norris was well-liked and respected, and I should ease up. I turned the heat higher.

My sense of smell proved true. Norris was indicted, pleaded guilty and went to prison.

The Norris storyline - combined with those of political corruption, drugs, failing schools and the sorry state of the media in Baltimore - became fodder for David Simon's "The Wire" on HBO. Simon, having a delicious sense of irony, gave Norris a role in "The Wire" - both before and after his prison time.

In another ironic twist, Norris is now a Baltimore talk radio host. Meanwhile, Del's doggedness earned him a beat at the Washington Post where, I suspect, he dreams of being the next Bob Woodward. And me, well, I'm here penning a column and dreaming of catching monster cutthroat trout. Don't tell Norris or Del, but I think I made out best.

So, what's the point?

I'm fairly confident in my olfactory abilities when it comes to sniffing out shenanigans by those in power. My sense of smell for political impropriety was honed on corruption I investigated in the halls of power in Washington, D.C.

From D.C. Mayor Marion Barry (who out-Spitzered Spitzer by smoking crack during his hotel tryst) to Interior Secretary James Watt (indicted for perjury before Congress) to President Clinton's transgressions, I got a noseful of the putrid underbelly of politics as both an investigator and journalist.

Pointing my schnoz in the direction of Harwigs - where members of the Steamboat Springs City Council gather after Tuesday night meetings - all I smell is beer and wine mixed with a dash of civility. Civility so lacking in the last council, it caused voters enough indigestion to throw that casserole out and start again with fresh ingredients.

So, I was surprised to read the Steamboat Today's chesty editorial Wednesday calling for the council to "put an end to the Harwigs meetings." Where a cautionary reminder to not discuss official matters would have sufficed, the editorial amounted to execution by firing squad prior to a full investigation. Quite simply, the editorial smacks of ready, shoot, aim.

While the editorial demonstrates sound instincts in questioning whether the council's one-stop pub crawl violates the letter or intent of Colorado's Sunshine Laws, the conclusion is not supported by the underlying facts. Indeed, the only article about the alleged illegal gatherings is more notable for what is not evidenced than what is.

Certainly, the article contains a subjective opinion of illegality by one councilman, Steve Ivancie. Equally certain, the article doesn't contain any specific evidence of illegality. Indeed, Ivancie, after indicting fellow council members with a list of perceived wrongdoings, acknowledges he has no actual proof of illegality or impropriety, concluding, "I just know that the temptation is there." That tidbit may speak more of past practice than illuminating current malfeasance.

Finally, while it would have been helpful had the reporter sought an outside expert in this area of the law - instead of only quoting those with a dog in the fight - City Attorney Tony Lettunich did state the gatherings are legal.

Legality aside, is there an appearance of impropriety as the Steamboat Today concludes? That's a question that requires balancing various factors. Given the public location of the gatherings and the stated intent of fostering congeniality in the shadow of a time when there was none, a call to completely abolish the gatherings is overkill.

But, should the Editorial Board disagree, I'd be happy to sit down and discuss this after the official workday.

May I suggest Harwigs?

Comments

another_local 6 years, 5 months ago

Nice one, and right on target. I don't see smoke OR fire. The council should certainly keep the rules in mind, but going for a beer after work should not be a problem and it just might help by fostering a better level of understanding between these people that need to work together.

Ivancie is another story. He is holdover from the discredited previous group. It is disappointing that he does not have the bandwidth to adapt and be effective in the new group.

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QuitYerWhining 6 years, 5 months ago

If I may offer a suggestion...make it a matter of public notice after each formal council meeting that the council members will get together at Harwigs to discuss non-council related business and that anyone from the public is welcome with the understanding that council business will not be discussed.

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Rob Douglas 6 years, 5 months ago

another_local and QYW: Thank you for weighing in on this topic. Hopefully, the council will abide by Colorado's sunshine laws while also developing a sense of camradarie that will allow for spirited, yet civilized, debate while dealing with the numerous important issues facing the city. I hope you'll continue to share your opinions in the weeks ahead. Rob

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Nitro 6 years, 5 months ago

Rob, I enjoy your columns and perspective on most issues; however, I must disagree with you on this one. Council members socializing after a public Council meeting, on the surface appears harmless. But most of us realize from our own experiences in the work place, that discussion of the meeting topics usually continue after we return to the office or go out after work for a drink. When it's work that pulls you together then most often, "shop talk" is the topic of conversation, even in a social setting.

The biggest concern is that this group, in an effort to encourage comaraderie, may also be meeting behind closed doors elsewhere, formulating policy, meeting and making preemptive decisions on issues that affect the entire community and possibly other decisions not in their realm of authority. See the attached editorial from today's Denver Post. http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_8733036

One of Cari's campaign issues championed the public forum and criticized the former Council for what she deemed an extraordinary number of executive sessions. This type of "social" gathering only fuels speculation that this group does in fact meet elsewhere, outside of the public arena, and comes to public meetings with predetermined agendas and decisions just as they accused members of the former Council of doing. I hope some of their actions are due solely to inexperience. Once they fully comprehend the necessity of following the letter of the law and code of ethics for elected officials, they will more fully understand that public perception is just as important as reality.

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Rob Douglas 6 years, 5 months ago

Nitro: Thank you for your feedback. I appreciate all the input I can get on the issues I raise. Particularly when it is done in a civil fashion, something that is often lacking on this forum. If I might, let me respond to several of your well-founded concerns in an attempt to more fully explain my reasoning on this issue and specific set of facts. I only have room for between 600-700 words each Friday in the column, so often I have to edit out material for space. Talking your points in order with your position and my response: 1) Council members socializing after a public Council meeting, on the surface appears harmless. But most of us realize from our own experiences in the work place, that discussion of the meeting topics usually continue after we return to the office or go out after work for a drink. When it's work that pulls you together then most often, "shop talk" is the topic of conversation, even in a social setting. --I agree. Human nature being what it is, it is very easy to cross the line. The council members have been advised by the City Attorney concerning where the line is and what they must do to avoid violating the Sunshine laws. I am willing to give the members the benefit of the doubt, as I would to anyone with any legal and/or ethical obligation, until I see facts that demonstrate a violation of law or ethical requirements. I don't think those facts are there at this time. 2) The biggest concern is that this group, in an effort to encourage comaraderie, may also be meeting behind closed doors elsewhere, formulating policy, meeting and making preemptive decisions on issues that affect the entire community and possibly other decisions not in their realm of authority. See the attached editorial from today's Denver Post. --Again, a valid concern. But, there is no evidence of that happening or having happened. I hope that the SP&T reporters will continue to be vigilent and to continue to report on this issue--as they should. As to the situation discussed in the Denver Post you provided, I believe that is a far different fact pattern containing evidence of at least one closed door meeting with union officials and a vendor in clear violation of the law. In other words, where our local situation has no real proof of a violation, in Denver there is. But, I would agree the Denver case is a cautionary tale of what we need to be on guard for here. (continued below)

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Rob Douglas 6 years, 5 months ago

(continued from above) 3) One of Cari's campaign issues championed the public forum and criticized the former Council for what she deemed an extraordinary number of executive sessions. This type of "social" gathering only fuels speculation that this group does in fact meet elsewhere, outside of the public arena, and comes to public meetings with predetermined agendas and decisions just as they accused members of the former Council of doing. --I think this falls in the category of politics. If Councilwoman Hermacinski believes she is in the right with these gatherings and there is no proof to the contrary, I am not going to call foul legally or ethically absent evidence. But, voters are certainly able to make their own individual assessment concerning whether Ms. Hermacinski is following through on her campaign positions. Anyone is free to judge her and all the council members on any action and decide whether to retain them in the next election. 4) I hope some of their actions are due solely to inexperience. Once they fully comprehend the necessity of following the letter of the law and code of ethics for elected officials, they will more fully understand that public perception is just as important as reality. --I agree completely. And I think they realize they are being watched and judged by their actions. But again, so far I see no ethical or legal violation. (continued below)

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Rob Douglas 6 years, 5 months ago

Nitro, Let me give you a bit more of my thinking when it comes to allegations of illegality and/or impropriety that we often - myself included - throw at public officials a bit too casually. First, I have a general bias developed over the years that the impropriety standard, subjective as it is, can be too easily wielded to harm the reputation of perfectly good and well-intentioned professionals. To call anyone, much less a politician, a law breaker or ethical violator is a very serious charge. And, as public officials, by definition they have little legal recourse against anyone making the charge absent actual malice. So, I am always loathe to allege wrongdoing until there is sufficient evidence to warrant the charge. Because once I do it, there's no going back - the damage is done. Most folks never see the retraction or correction, but they sure do remember that politician so-and-so was called unethical or illegal. Hence, I am slow to pull the trigger. Second, I think we all need to guard against imputing the worst case scenario in every situation against every individual official or group of officials. On my radio show, I would often find myself getting caught up in my own rhetoric and referring in broad terms to the City Council, or the State Legislature, or Congress, or my favorite - all politicians. As in all politicians are corrupt, all pols are self-serving, etc. But that is not the case. There are many good men and women who sacrifice much to serve the public good. Again, I take my public positions seriously and don't allege wrongdoing until I think the facts are there. Doesn't mean I'm not looking for it. And doesn't mean I won't go after an official ruthlessly when I find it. But, I have to feel confident I have a fact pattern that warrants it. Nitro, I hope this helps explain my thinking. Thank you for your time.

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Nitro 6 years, 5 months ago

Rob,

Thank you for explaining your point of view. I appreciate the intended "long" version of the article and have a better understanding of your perspective. I can only hope that this Council realizes that as elected, public officials, they are under the watchful eye of the public and must be above reproach. There is considerable speculation that some members of this Council do indeed engage in backroom politics, an activity for which they admonished some former Council members. I don't want the majority of our elected leadership to be the spokesperson for the minority who may have the money and clout to architect the future of our community which benefits only the few. As with their predecessors, this Council needs to understand their role as policy makers and avoid the temptation to micromanage. To earn trust, one must have trust. I encourage Council to earn the trust of their constituents by being a true represenatative of the collective, listen to their appointed leadership, who has more experience in this arena and trust this community to work towards the common good.

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424now 6 years, 5 months ago

Thread,

Simply put,

We need to feel we can trust them to act on our behalf. There are ways of governing that engender faith.

Nitro,

Your comment said it precisely; "they are under the watchful eye of the public and must be above reproach" They don't get to cry foul because the perception is that they may be a little too chummy. They ran for public office. The council needs to maintain our trust. That trust will lead to faith.

We didn't trust the last Council. There was a decision. We have a new Council. If Harwigs is to be a team building practice, lets increase the size of this team. Why doesn't Council invite Rob or any of the Citizens from Council Chambers at the end of the scheduled meeting. When the lights go out in chambers we're all citizens again right? The fact is no we are not. The elected leadership has a responsibility to the constituents. With power come responsibility, It is the Councils responsibility to not only earn but to maintain the constituents trust.

This city is still shaking after the last battle. Is this something that will engender the trust of an already nervous population.

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