Some River District constituents challenge hiring of Zane Kessler | PostIndependent.com

Some River District constituents challenge hiring of Zane Kessler

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Journalism

The Colorado River District says it stands behind the recent hiring of Zane Kessler as communications director, despite concerns from some of the more-conservative counties in the district about his past political activities regarding oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area.

Scott McInnis, a Mesa County commissioner and Glenwood Springs native, represented the Western Slope and Colorado's 3rd District as a Republican in Congress from 1993-2005. He said at a special River District meeting in Grand Junction last week that he wants to ensure Kessler is "riding the River District brand," and not that of his former employer, the Thompson Divide Coalition.

Kessler was executive director for the TDC from 2012 until earlier this year when he took the communications job as part of the River District's external affairs team.

In his previous role, Kessler championed the TDC's efforts to either buy out leaseholders or have the Bureau of Land Management cancel several oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale.

Late last year, the BLM, following an extensive review, did in fact cancel 25 undeveloped leases in the Divide.

Most of the canceled leases were on lands within Garfield and Pitkin counties, but three leases were partially in Mesa County, covering about 3,800 acres.

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A broader BLM review of 65 leases in the region resulted in other leases outside the Thompson Divide in Mesa County near De Beque being modified with new restrictions. Other leases were re-affirmed in full.

In addition to lobbying for the leases to be canceled, the coalition also advocated for the White River National Forest to close off the Thompson Divide area to new leasing as part of its 20-year oil and gas leasing management plan approved in 2014.

Root of the issue

At the Dec. 6 meeting, McInnis and a posse of other county commissioners from Mesa, Moffatt, Rio Blanco and Hinsdale counties, called Kessler's allegiances into question.

Their concerns track to a comment Kessler made in a Sept. 6 Glenwood Springs Post Independent article about his departure from the TDC that he may continue to volunteer for the organization, if the opportunity arose.

McInnis said Mesa County had "deep differences" with Kessler and the TDC. He said he's worried that the coalition might next turn its attention to the Colorado River, and said he was upset no one had called Mesa County to ask about Kessler.

Kessler started as communications director for the River District on Sept. 5. He reports to Chris Treese, the district's external affairs manager. Like Treese, Kessler is a registered lobbyist for the River District, which was formed in 1937 to protect and develop Western Slope water interests.

The district's board is made up of representatives from 15 Western Slope counties, appointed by the commissioners in the member counties for three-year terms. Member counties include Delta, Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Mesa, Moffat, Montrose, Ouray, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Saguache and Summit counties.

GM backs decision

Outgoing River District General Manager Eric Kuhn, who is in the process of handing duties over to new GM Andy Mueller, assured McInnis and the others that he was comfortable with the hiring process and the ultimate decision to hire Kessler.

Kuhn acknowledged in a Sept. 8 memo to River District board members that he had received a call from a "very concerned county commissioner" about the Kessler hiring, in apparent reference to McInnis.

"Both Chris [Treese] and I have confirmed that Zane has severed his ties with Thompson Divide and works exclusively for the River District under Chris," Kuhn wrote in that memo.

He said the district received 25 applications for the position. Eight candidates were interviewed by a committee of five district employees, and Kessler was the unanimous choice, he said.

"It was competitive. It was not arbitrary. There are no political litmus tests. We don't ask what political party they belong to or who they voted for, or anything else of that nature. Where we had concerns, we vetted those issues," Kuhn advised the board.

McInnis was perturbed by Kuhn's reference to a "political litmus test."

"This has nothing to do with partisan politics," McInnis said in a phone interview after the meeting last week. "I don't care whether he is a Democrat, a Republican, unaffiliated. I care about who he led.

"He was the four-star general for the Thompson Divide, and we had a rough history with them, coming into Mesa County, uninvited," McInnis said.

Kessler, in a Sept. 12 Post Independent letter to the editor sought to assure his critics.

"While I am no longer working for the coalition, I look forward to continuing to work with diverse, Western Slope interests to protect western Colorado water for the welfare of the entire district."

Contacted after the River District meeting last week, Kessler declined to talk on the record, but offered in a follow-up statement via email: "I have one job nowadays: to advocate on behalf of the Western Slope's water interests and the water interests of every county in the district."

According to Thompson Divide Coalition board member Chuck Ogilby, the coalition is in a quiet mode, and there are no plans to expand their mission beyond preserving the Thompson Divide area.

pressing the issue

After Kessler's letter appeared, McInnis and fellow Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese fired off a letter to 50 people, including all of the River District's board members.

"Mr. Kessler, as an anti-oil and gas activist, has led the effort, for many years, to cancel oil and gas leases on public lands, including retroactive action to existing leases," McInnis and Pugliese wrote. "These cancellations will have a broad and far reaching detrimental impact on energy related needs and jobs on the Western Slope."

They said Kessler's prior positions on behalf of the coalition "conflict with many of the River District's goals and positions, and are harmful to the critical water rights the River District is charged with protecting for the multi-use concepts of energy, development, agriculture, to name a few."

During the ensuing weeks, letters critical of the hiring decision were also sent from commissioners in Moffat, Rio Blanco and Hinsdale counties.

The three commissioners in Rio Blanco County advised the River District in a Sept. 25 letter, "it is our hope that the hiring of Mr. Kessler is not an indication of a change in direction or philosophy by the Colorado River District board."

On Oct. 3, Kuhn responded to the Rio Blanco commissioners, "None who interviewed Zane and none who have had the opportunity to work with him had any question that he is a consummate professional who understands what it means to be an advocate for his employer."

He also noted that the River District's two attorneys once both worked for Front Range water interests, and that had not kept them from loyally serving the River District.

But the issue did not die down. In fact, it morphed to include other concerns about the River District.

On Nov. 9, Kuhn sent a memo to the board informing them that Mesa Commissioner Pugliese was asking about the size of the district's staff of 25 people, their salaries and benefits, and the district's offices.

"I have to share with you that, to me, the most troubling implication of these questions and this controversy is the suggestion that the River District Board is not properly executing its fiduciary responsibilities," Kuhn told his board.

On Nov. 13, the three Mesa County commissioners sent a letter to Tom Alvey, the president of the River District board, assuring him it was not a political issue and that they thought the River District staff was using the suggestion of a "political litmus test" to "spin" the situation and "avoid answering the legitimate inquiries" made by Mesa County.

Then, on Nov. 22. Pugliese raised the issue of whether Mesa County should even stay in the River District.

"I am still trying to determine if it is beneficial for Mesa County to stay in the River District, and if staff is really representing the interests of our Mesa County constituents," she wrote.

All that led to the Dec. 6 special meeting in Grand Junction, where McInnis reiterated his concerns to River District board members and staff, including incoming GM Mueller.

"If we don't have the toughest, smartest, shrewdest voice in that state capitol, we are going to find an internal rift, and we're going to find we're losing a lot of ground," McInnis said.

Mueller responded by saying he took McInnis' comments to heart.

"We will be examining all of our staff members and expecting that they will all be the best," Mueller said. "And I do mean the best team for everybody in the room. We will be reviewing our personnel hiring process."

He added, "I do think that getting input from our constituents is important when we're engaging in critical hiring."

Kessler did get some support at the meeting from other constituent county commissioners.

Rachel Richards of Pitkin County said she considered it "a vendetta meeting," and warned the other commissioners about "wrongful interference" with the district's employment practices.

"It seems like an attack on all the citizens of the Crystal River Valley, the ranchers, agriculturalists, the outfitters, the fisherman, everyone who came together to become the Thompson Divide Coalition," Richards said. "Zane Kessler might seem like a figurehead to that group, but I've never seen as much unanimous support by a huge diverse community as I saw behind the Thompson Divide Coalition."

Merritt Linke, a commissioner from Grand County, added, "He is obviously good at what he does. … Maybe we can accept that someone on this staff knew what they doing, and he is going to be able to ride for the brand."

Even McInnis said during the post-meeting phone interview that he had respect for Kessler's professional abilities and the job he did for the Thompson Divide Coalition.

"It mushroomed into this large, very-well-politically-connected, very-well-financed, strong organization under the leadership of Zane," McInnis said. "I've never questioned Zane's ability to organize something. He did a good job with them — it's just the wrong goals — but anyway, he did a good job."

He also said he was satisfied with the outcome of the special meeting.

"The River District is going to take a close look at their personnel policies in January, and if they need tightening up, tighten them up," McInnis said.

Editor's note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.