County opts for community rep to help with oil, gas complaints
A key liaison position between Garfield County, the oil and gas industry and citizens has taken a new turn. Since losing three oil and gas liaisons in as many years, the county commissioners officially took a step Monday that they hope will keep someone in the job. Two of the three people who have held that job since its inception in 2003 left to take more lucrative jobs in the oil and gas industry. A third was fired after only a few weeks on the job.Monday, two members of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, Peggy Utesch and Duke Cox, urged the commissioners to hire a liaison with technical expertise in the business, not a public relations person.Utesch said the liaison, also called a local government designee (LGD), represents people impacted by gas drilling and production who “don’t know what their rights are. The LGD offers expertise to the landowners,” she said.When Tim Pinson, who was hired in June, left the liaison job in September, the commissioners appointed assistant county manager Jesse Smith as acting oil and gas liaison.GVCA has been vocally opposed to Smith, saying he has not fulfilled the requirements of the job. Smith said in a memo to the commissioners Monday that the number of complaints from residents about gas drilling impacts “has greatly subsided.”But Utesch countered that there is a perception the job is not manned and so complaints come to GVCA.”The number of complaints I’m personally handling have gone through the roof because they think the job is empty. Jesse is not neutral and doesn’t have the expertise Doug (Dennison, the first liaison) had,” Utesch said. “We need someone to be an advocate for landowners.”Utesch also praised Dennison’s handling of complaints.In his memo to the commissioners, Smith outlined two scenarios for the liaison position, both of which include a field technician to be shared by the liaison and the environmental health manager’s office. The first scenario involved hiring an oil and gas liaison, a field technician and a clerical support person. The second scenario, which the commissioners voted to adopt Monday, calls for a “semi-professional” community support representative to work under the liaison to field complaint calls from citizens and refer them to the appropriate agency or county department. No clerical support would be provided by the county. Salary for the oil and gas liaison suggested in Smith’s memo was $90,350 including benefits. The community support representative’s salary would be $44,000. The scenario also involves a $5,000 salary increase for Smith as the oil and gas liaison.The community representative will work under Smith for a year with the possibility of taking over from him as oil and gas liaison after a year of training.Commissioner Trési Houpt, who voted against the second scenario, said there were areas of concern not covered under that plan. The community representative would not have “knowledge of reclamation and environmental issues related to oil and gas,” she said. She also questioned Smith’s ability to challenge industry on the information it provided to the county. “There were many times when Doug challenged the response of industry (to complaints),” she said. To Smith she said, “You’re a very talented administrator, but how do you know when you’re getting accurate information?”Smith defended his performance.”I have the same background Doug had,” he said, pointing out both he and Dennison had to learn about the industry while on the job. Dennison came to the liaison job with experience in supervising environmental cleanup at nuclear production plants.County manager Ed Green said the idea of a field technician was to have someone familiar with the oil and gas industry, rather than the community representative.Houpt also worried that even with the community representative and the field technician, the liaison job would put a serious crimp in Smith’s time.”You’re being pulled in a million different directions,” she said.However, hiring someone with little or no oil and gas industry experience could also mean that person would not be quickly snapped up by the industry.”We recognize we can’t pay anybody enough,” Green said. “The most we can pay is $60,000 to $65,000, and as soon as they hit the deck running, the oil and gas industry would pay them double.”Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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