Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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This week, the Steamboat Today reported that economic analyst Scott Ford terminated his relationship with Yampa Valley Data Partners because of political fallout resulting from Ford’s public statements to the Steamboat Springs City Council criticizing the timing and terms of the pending sale of the city’s downtown emergency services building.
As the Today reported, “According to Ford, (Data Partners Executive Director Kate) Nowak questioned why he had become so involved in the opposition to the sale and that the line between him and the organization as a whole was too ‘fuzzy.’ Ford also said Nowak told him Steamboat Springs Interim City Manager Deb Hinsvark and Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association CEO Tom Kern were upset about Ford’s stance on the issue and questioned the reliability of future economic data and information coming from what could be seen as a biased source.”
Also according to Ford, after a series of conversations with Nowak, he resigned because he was given three options: terminate his relationship with Data Partners, provide only contracted services with limited public interaction, or continue as before but limiting public activity seen as controversial.
In his resignation letter to Tyler Jacobs, Data Partners’ board chairman and a Steamboat Today employee, Ford noted that the pending sale of the emergency services building was not a matter that Data Partners was involved with and that he was acting as a private citizen when he criticized the deal. Ford set forth what he saw as Data Partners’ bias, writing, “I am confident that if I would have taken a supportive position we would not be having this conversation.”
Ford’s resignation letter makes it clear that Ford views Data Partners’ ultimatum as an assault on his rights as a citizen. “In a career that has spanned almost 40 years, I have never had an organization that I was associated with attempt to limit my rights as a private citizen to speak out. From my perspective, any attempt to do so would be shameful. Too many people have sacrificed much more than I have been asked to in order to protect this fundamental right of citizenship.”
In addition to the financial harm done to Ford by Data Partners’ Hobson’s choice of an ultimatum, Ford’s allegations raise constitutional and legal questions about whether his right to freely criticize the government and his professional relationship with Data Partners were interfered with by a government official and a business association executive — no matter how subtle that interference may have been.
Before this sordid chapter in Steamboat politics deters others from speaking openly on matters of public concern, all those involved should sit down and repair the damage done to Ford in a manner that will restore the sense of community that is the cornerstone of Steamboat.
Citizen participation in government was so important to the Home Rule Charter Commission for Steamboat Springs and to the voters who approved the charter in 1973 that they codified their vision in the prefatory synopsis of the charter, stating, “The underlying concept of this document is the need for a flexible and responsive government. Such a philosophy emphasizes popular involvement and encourages citizen involvement in all matters of local and municipal concern.”
In a city built by those who toiled to create a sense of community — even before those words were recorded in the charter — Scott Ford is a model citizen who gets involved “in all matters of local and municipal concern.” We need more citizens like Ford, not fewer. The Yampa Valley is blessed with citizens who have a broad range of backgrounds and talents that our elected representatives can benefit from as they make difficult decisions about the future of the valley. But, they will only benefit if those citizens feel they can step forward without fear of retaliation.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.