Facing a candidate -- Sid Sullivan -- running on a platform of planning and cooperation at last night's League of Women Voters forum, I wanted to know what both Sullivan and his opponent, incumbent Boone County commissioner Karen Miller, would do about a non-cooperative, poor planning management style that led to a big snafu just 18 months ago.
I've long criticized the same poor planning that led County Hall to fill its coffers with empty buildings downtown, then spend their reserves and raise our taxes to buy even more. In this case, it was once again all about space. The Boone County commission leased a large space for the county clerk and sheriff, then decided to build a wall to separate them.
Boone County Commissioner Skip Elkin summed it up this way for the Columbia Daily Tribune:
"The bottom line is [southern district commissioner Karen] Miller got her boyfriend to construct a wall to separate these spaces without a bid," Elkin said. "I didn't even know the wall was being built until two weeks ago, when Karen came into the office and was asking to be paid for her boyfriend's work for this. That's when our county auditor started asking questions: 'Well where's the bid on this?' And there wasn't one."
The bill--for $4,800 from builder David Brown--exceeded state and county mandates that require bids exceeding $4,500. In other words, it broke the law.
The $300 difference cost county maintenance supervisor Ken Roberts his job, a situation whose personal toll on Roberts that Tribune reporter Jacob Luecke took the extraordinary step of describing:
"Roberts, usually a jovial man with a reputation for good humor, was depressed and pale yesterday as he told his side of the story. He said he hasn't been sleeping well and has been sick over losing his job with only a year and a half to go before retirement."
Roberts himself condemned the county commission's poor planning.
"Roberts said he was just doing his job and helping his bosses solve a problem," the Tribune reported. "'They're not organized, they don't plan ahead, and then they get in some kind of crisis situation and they want me to save them,' Roberts said. 'Save them I did. I just didn't take time to save myself.'"
Trib publisher Hank Waters even weighed in, hammering home County Hall's poor planning.
"The worst outcome is the sacrifice of Roberts, who, as he says, is a maintenance guy, not an interpreter of the law. He has a point. What kind of governmental system relies on an on-the-spot judgment of a maintenance guy to ensure compliance with purchasing rules? What should have happened, and what current county government organization does not ensure, is a solid process to follow."
Last night Sullivan agreed, noting that it wasn't just the contract but the sacrifice of a man "just a short time before his retirement" that pointed to an even more serious deficiency in the way county government operates. "That shouldn't have happened," Sullivan said. "Ken Roberts shouldn't have been forced out."
Miller, on the other hand, said she had nothing to do with the snafu, instead pointing to county clerk Wendy Noren, public works director David Mink, and Roberts himself, whom she said was running short of time and needed a fast contractor reference. "That's when I told him about David," she said.
Miller earlier reiterated this point to me after Thursday night's NAACP forum, with an expletive for emphasis. "I didn't have a f---ing thing to do with building that wall," Miller told me. "Those decisions were made by David Mink, Wendy Noren, and Ken Roberts."
But Elkin has long disputed that account. "I found out that Ken Roberts was forced and I use that word, ‘forced’ to resign," Elkin told the Trib. "And I thought, ‘No, this is wrong, folks. There’s a worm in the apple barrel right here.’ That’s when I wrote a letter to our county attorney asking these questions. I wasn’t accusing anybody of anything. … We have an inquiry on this because this is not right."
Miller told the Columbia Tribune that Elkin "was simply playing politics and grandstanding for reporters just before today’s election, in which he’s running against Steve Hobbs. 'I just think it gets his name in the paper and it makes it seem like he’s protecting the little guy,' Miller said."
Waters, on the other hand, said Elkin "acted properly to disclose the error."
-- Mike Martin