County investigates overtime claims related to meeting with candidate
Garfield County officials are investigating claims of overtime pay by Road and Bridge Department employees for an hour spent with county commission candidate Steve Reynolds.Also, Reynolds’ opponent, incumbent commissioner Trési Houpt, said he should have known the meeting was inappropriate and that fellow commissioner Larry McCown played an improper role in setting it up.Both McCown and Reynolds are Republicans. Houpt is a Democrat.In a special meeting Wednesday night, Houpt, McCown and commission chairman John Martin all voted not to pay employees for campaign-related activities. The Road and Bridge Department was to take a closer look at the overtime claims this morning.The circumstances of the case bothered not just Houpt but Martin, who is a Republican. He said he wants to pursue creation of a written policy in reference to all election activities involving county employees and facilities.”That policy will be coming down as fast as I can push it because we can’t have these kinds of things happen. It’s not what Garfield County government should be engaging in,” he said.Contacted by telephone, Reynolds was surprised Wednesday night to hear of the concern. While everything he does during the election season has campaign overtones, he said, that wasn’t the goal of his meeting at the county Road and Bridge office in Rifle. He simply was trying to learn more about operations there, he said. He said he has made similar visits to other county departments.”There has to be some method of me learning this stuff as a candidate,” he said.Reynolds said employees weren’t required to meet with him, and he wasn’t aware of McCown playing any role in arranging the meeting. Reynolds said he met Kraig Kuberry, a Road and Bridge foreman, at a candidates forum in Rifle and told him he would be interested in seeing the operation at the Rifle facility.McCown, who participated by telephone in Wednesday night’s special meeting, could not be reached for comment later that evening. Both Houpt and McCown said he had played a role in setting up the meeting, which Martin said apparently was held to let Reynolds dispel notions that he planned to dismantle Road and Bridge operations if elected.Houpt said she doesn’t want to see any employees disciplined over the incident. She believes they were put in a difficult spot by McCown’s role in contacting Road and Bridge officials to set up the meeting.”I just think it was inappropriate for Larry to put them in that position. … When you get a call from a commissioner you want to do what you can to help them out.”Martin sympathized with Reynolds. He said incumbent commissioners have an advantage in that it’s part of their jobs to be visiting with various departments, as long as they don’t talk about political things, which would violate state campaign laws.”I think it was innocent in that someone was trying to squelch a rumor about himself and unfortunately in this heated political climate with everything exaggerated beyond common sense, he made a mistake by doing that,” Martin said.Reynolds said he also has heard rumors about his supposed plans to make cuts in the Road and Bridge department, when in fact he would support the department if elected.”As with most things in this process I assumed that most people are intelligent enough to consider the sources,” he said.He said he did answer a question from an employee about the rumor, but people also asked about his views on things such as equipment, salaries and handling bids.He described the meeting as “impromptu,” with employees coming and going. Houpt said it occurred Oct. 11 from about 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.She said it’s wrong for campaigning to be allowed in public places unless all candidates for an office are invited, as in public forums.Houpt first learned about the incident from county attorney Don DeFord, but later heard it discussed on the street, she said.Martin said commissioners could face a challenge under federal labor laws for denying overtime to employees who met with Reynolds. But he said the penalty to the county if it is found in violation would be that it would have to pay them triple what they would have been due in pay. If the county violates state campaign laws it would face much higher penalties and criminal sanctions, he said.Paying employees for participating in a campaign activity constitutes the inappropriate contribution of public funds to a campaign, and such activity by county employees and on county property can’t be tolerated, Martin said.”It’s … a public place. They’re public employees being paid to do a public job,” he said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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