Ordinarily, most people might consider a departmental meeting routine business, but the events leading up to a Jan. 4 meeting of the Elbert County Community & Development Services Department (CDS) and its aftermath appear to be indicative of a widening political divide in Kiowa.
CDS oversees and administers development within the county, and the department recently became another flashpoint in an internal rift between elected officials and some members of county staff, which became public at an unprecedented Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting on Nov. 18.
At the November meeting, several county elected officials, members of county staff, and nearly a dozen employees of the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office, including Sheriff Shayne Heap, called for the resignation of Commissioners Kelly Dore and Larry Ross over a resolution to place County Attorney Wade Gateley on a 30-day administrative leave, a contractual precursor to a potential termination.
An unusually high attendance required the meeting to be relocated from the courthouse to the Elbert County Fairgrounds, and the large size of the contingent from the sheriff’s office forced the Elizabeth Fire District to cover non-emergency public assist calls often handled by deputies.
Following more than an hour of comments in support of Gateley by Commissioner Robert Rowland, a group of elected officials and some members of staff, Dore and Ross ultimately agreed to withdraw the resolution.
Since the November BOCC meeting, tensions in Kiowa have remained palpable, and once again emerged, centering on a department that has become one of the battlegrounds in the divide.
At the following BOCC meeting on Dec. 9, new business was placed on the agenda by Ross and supported by Dore to take temporary control of CDS away from County Manager Ed Ehmann and place it under the direct control of the BOCC.
Rowland spoke against the resolution and strongly objected to what he described as “an end-around attempt” to put the resolution on the agenda, which was added by Ross following a regularly scheduled meeting the previous Monday. Rowland also said the action was inappropriate for a public meeting.
Gateley, the county attorney, also spoke strongly against the resolution, saying the action violated the BOCC’s Code of Conduct and conflicted with the county manager policy.
Ross and Dore argued that discussions regarding the department were stalled, and placing the resolution on the agenda was a way to deliberate and move toward resolving issues within the CDS department.
Following more than 40 minutes of contentious discussion, including talk of possible legal action, the BOCC voted two to one in favor of the resolution.
Tension continued throughout the holidays as CDS Director Kyle Fenner proposed a meeting with her new bosses, suggesting a meeting on Jan. 4.
Rowland declined the meeting invitation sent on Dec. 28, stating that he would be out of town. Rowland added, “I suggest if the other Commissioners are available and wish to meet that you proceed without me.”
Rowland, who on Dec. 9 said that he would not take on the role of oversight of the CDS department, later objected to the agenda sent by Fenner on Dec. 31.
“Please note that the agenda proposed by CDS represents complex issues and decisions that need to be made by the BOCC,” Rowland wrote in an email to his fellow commissioners, which was copied to staff members and other public officials. “I initially responded to CDS to meet without me, but that was prior to the disclosure or full understanding of the nature of the issues to be discussed and addressed in this oversight of CDS by the Board.”
He also asserted that the issues should be discussed at a “decision-making” BOCC meeting.
“… and any attempt to direct, answer for operational direction, decisions or guidance to CDS in a non-decision making meeting would not be appropriate,” Rowland wrote.
The meeting proceeded as scheduled and was also attended by Gateley, Ehmann, Heap, County Clerk Dallas Schroeder and several other members of the county staff.
At the meeting, officials and staff addressed the administration and staffing requirements of the CDS department in the short and long term, but the growing animosity and tension among a few participants was obvious.
Following the meeting, the conflict was once again brought to the public forefront by Schroeder, who sent an email to members of the county’s “Sunshine List” (a distribution list of citizens who have signed up to receive email notifications of public meetings).
In his email, Schroeder wrote that he had not been made aware of the meeting between CDS director Fenner and Commissioners Dore and Ross until the morning it occurred, and he was therefore unable to properly post the meeting in accordance with the 24-hour posting requirement.
“It appears this was a meeting put together by the two commissioners mentioned and the Director of CDS. Due to this lack of information I was unable to notify the citizens on the Sunshine list. I have no documentation of when this meeting was posted by the CDS Director. Please know that I will fulfill the commitment to notify you of meetings, when I am made aware of such meeting(s),” Schroeder wrote.
Though not directly notified by Fenner, the meeting appears on the county’s webpage calendar (an unofficial posting location), and Elbert County News has obtained copies of email exchanges between members of the BOCC copied to Schroeder ahead of the work session, including one written by Rowland warning his fellow commissioners not to make decisions regarding CDS.
Time stamps on the emails, however, indicate they were copied to Schroeder after the close of business for the week ahead of the New Year, and Schroeder said that he had not checked his inbox until he returned to the office after the holiday weekend on Jan. 4, the morning of the meeting.
Schroeder said that given the current political climate in the county, he felt it necessary to send an explanation to the Sunshine list as to why the Jan. 4 meeting was not properly posted, though he made no mention that the meeting had not been noticed during his attendance.
Schroeder said that he did not think to mention it at the time.
In the meantime, oversight of CDS will remain with the BOCC and will be a routine part of staff reporting at scheduled meetings.