Routt County Treasurer’s office leaders criticized in ‘unprecedented’ memo | SteamboatToday.com

Routt County Treasurer’s office leaders criticized in ‘unprecedented’ memo

Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins and former treasurer candidate Nikki Knoebel listen to Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn speak during a candidates forum.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Three Routt County officials recently sent a memo to the county's human resources department detailing several concerns they had about the work environment and top management at the county treasurer's office.

The memo, which outlined the observations of Yampa Valley Regional Airport Director Kevin Booth, Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins and Clerk and Recorder Recording Supervisor Barb Houston, stated the three officials walked away from a grievance hearing for a treasurer’s office employee thinking "there is reason for concern about fair and equitable treatment of (treasurer's office) employees below the level of Chief Deputy Treasurer."

The memo raises serious questions about Treasurer Brita Horn’s leadership of the office at a time she is seeking higher office in the state as Colorado’s treasurer.

The officials wrote in the memo they had heard enough evidence at the private grievance hearing to "substantiate reason for concern that employees below the level of Chief Deputy Treasurer fear retaliation from their supervisors if they question the actions, methods and/or directives of their supervisors."

The officials also stated in the memo the county should be concerned about whether the workload distribution in the treasurer's office is equitable, whether supervisors and bookkeepers have adequate training and whether Treasurer Brita Horn has adopted adequate checks and balances in the wake of a nearly $6 million property tax error her office made this summer.

Booth’s, Wiggins’ and Houston's critical observations of the treasurer's office came after the three officials served together on the grievance board, which was convened to decide whether Horn was justified in terminating employee Rani Gilbert this summer.

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In an interview Thursday, Horn defended the work environment at her office and said there is a “strong moral fiber” among current members of the staff.

Horn blamed a major property tax distribution error on Gilbert and fired her for other reasons, but Gilbert contested the firing and alleged unfair treatment and discrimination under Horn's leadership.

While the grievance board ultimately voted to uphold Horn's termination of Gilbert and said it did not receive enough evidence to support Gilbert's claim of retaliation and gender discrimination in the office, they took what other county officials described as an "unprecedented" step of issuing a letter outlining concerns they had about the treasurer’s office.

County Manager Tom Sullivan said Thursday he had not seen a grievance board take such an action during his 16-year tenure at the county.

"This is new to me," he said.

Steamboat Today obtained the Aug. 31 memo about Horn’s office through an open records request Thursday morning.

The memo is signed by Booth, who chaired the grievance board.

Booth and Wiggins did not return messages on Thursday seeking to discuss the memo, and Houston referred questions about the document to Booth.

Reading at times from prepared notes, Horn, who is currently running for state treasurer, stressed her office has an open door policy and that she has made necessary staffing and policy changes at the department in recent years.

She said when she arrived, the treasurer’s office “had a lot of tradition and a lot of problems and people who have been here way too long.”

Fast forward to today, and Horn praised the office environment she says she has created with her chief deputy treasurer, Patrick Karschner.

Karschner is currently running to replace Horn.

“We’re looking forward now with our whole new team,” Horn said. “We have great people who are extremely productive. We have a great moral fiber going on in our office. Everyone is working together, working really well together. People coming to our office can’t believe how efficient and productive we’re being.”

Horn invited prominent Routt County Republican Chuck McConnell to sit in on the phone interview about the memo with the newspaper and Karschner.

Asked in what capacity he was sitting in Horn’s office for the interview, McConnell said he was listening in as an “interested citizen.”

Other officials react

Tim Corrigan, chairman of Routt County’s board of commissioners, said he thought the memo outlining the concerns about Horn’s office “spoke for itself.”

He added the credentials and reputation of the three grievance board members lent credibility to the concerns that were outlined.

“I think (Kevin Booth) and the board did not take this lightly,” Corrigan said. “It certainly was not a requirement for them to produce this memorandum. Apparently they felt strongly enough about what they heard to take the step of producing it.”

Corrigan said he feared the release and publication of the memo will be viewed by some members of the public as political maneuvering, but he felt “that’s just simply not the case here.”

“This just is what it is,” he said. “It’s painful for the county to be embroiled in this type of situation, but on the other hand, the public has a right to know.”

Per county grievance hearing procedures, Booth was named to the grievance board by the county commissioners. Wiggins was named to the board by Horn, and Houston was named to the board by the employee who was appealing the termination by Horn.

Asked if the memo from the grievance board could prompt any inquiry from outside of the treasurer’s office, county manager Sullivan said per state laws, the statutory authority of elected officials at the county would prevent such intervention from a different office.

But he did note the treasurer’s office has been participating in an “organizational culture” exercise with other county departments focused on best practices and contributing to a positive work environment.

“We took very big concern about every one of these (concerns raised by the grievance board), and every one of these has been solved,” Horn said.

Memo and responses from Horn by Scott Franz on Scribd

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10.

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