On Dec. 5, the Durango City Council agreed on one thing: they'd rather discuss anything other than agenda item 15.3. The task that day? Consider a future resolution “reprimanding and reproaching” Councilor Olivier Bosmans.
The resolution, to be voted on Jan. 2, 2024, is to take action against Bosmans for “acting in a manner unbecoming of a councilor, bringing disrepute to the Durango City Council and issuing a letter of apology to the city manager and his staff.”
The incident that prompted the resolution has been described both as a bad-faith effort to undermine trust in city officials and as a genuine concern over city finances and transparency.
“In this case, (Bosmans) created really unsubstantiated doubt in the integrity of our staff. And that is why in this case, we wanted to consider an upcoming meeting, a formal apology, and an official resolution denouncing his actions for the public record,” Durango Mayor Melissa Youssef said.
“It seems Council is considering a resolution to reprimand and reproach me along with the city council apology letter to the city manager. And I'm wondering if that apology shouldn't go to our community,” Bosmans, who was elected to the seat in 2021, said.
Bosmans maintains that the dispute is one of city transparency and process while some on the city council think it may be the local off-shoot of the same type of decorum breakdown associated with the U.S. Congress or the unfriendly atmosphere that has some wanting out of the Colorado Statehouse.
Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said that speaking generally, councils that are experiencing turbulence are usually struggling to identify where policy differences and personal differences start and end. The goal, he said, is for elected officials to remember “that every individual member of the local elected governing body comes into it with goals, things that they're passionate about. And, that there is no way — even with the best of intentions, even with the best of alignment — there's no way they can ever align everything that each one of them want and have everyone get everything that they want.”
“It's hard to do,” Brommer added. “And especially with all the pressures that come from citizens and outside groups. Certainly, the way that people have become accustomed to speaking to each other, especially through social media and all that, presents a lot of challenges even to the purest of souls with the best of intentions.”
Bad faith or bad budget?
The recent flare-up is not the first issue on Durango City Council, but it is the first in a while. Bosmans said meetings had previously been disorganized and contentious, leading to ethics complaints being filed between council members. The Durango Herald reported Bosmans was the subject of an ethics complaint in February over social media posts and, before that, Bosmans had filed ethics complaints against other members.
Bosmans credits City Attorney Mark Morgan, who took the job this year, with getting the council back on track.
“(Morgan) has made some very good recommendations that were implemented to make the city council meetings run smoother and more professional,” Bosmans said. “So I think that's definitely good steps in the right direction.”
Morgan said the changes implemented included tighter adherence to meeting standards and a clear direction for how the City Council could police its conduct or the conduct of individual members.
One such way they can do that? A resolution to reprimand and reproach.
“It just very simply means that there has been a public admonishment, which will be put out to the public on all the different forms that we have that the Council did not approve of the way one of their members was attempting to conduct business,” Morgan explained. “And that is not reflective of the council as a whole.”
During the Nov. 7 City Council meeting, Bosmans either undermined the reputation of a city official in a bad-faith effort to tinker with budget proceedings or was trying to be a good steward of the people’s money, depending on who is telling the story.
What is clear is that toward the end of the meeting, Bosmans asked to schedule an executive session to discuss a personnel matter. Council members and Morgan were unclear what the issue was, but some worried it could be something serious — a concern that is more potent given an embezzlement scandal in Durango from 2019.
“It really came out of left field and whatever the personnel issue that was at hand, I felt like it needed to be dealt with,” Council Member Dave Woodruff recalled. “ And when you don't have any of the information and we're talking about something to that severity, it was important that we don't try to sweep this under the rug.”
During the meeting, Morgan, the city attorney, recommended adjourning so that he could advise Bosmans on what action needed to be taken. Morgan also noted that a personnel matter could only concern the municipal judge, city manager, or himself, in which case he’d have to recuse himself.
Bosmans told CPR News his issue actually pertained to a budget matter: about $750,000 for a pilot program that would provide rental vouchers to Durango workers. He said the matter was not appropriately discussed in an open meeting.
“It is very concerning to me that the city can start such a program and commit three-quarters-of-a-million dollars without any transparency to Council,” Bosmans said. “I have various red flags regarding the program itself that may include its function and its viability, the legality, the processes in place for transparency and financial oversight. So I wanted more information and to have a discussion with Council in a public setting. And as a result of that, I brought up a new business item to Council.”
Youssef, the mayor, said the impact of the way Bosmans handled it could be seen as undermining city staff, including City Manager José Madrigal.
“I think that it appeared to be a political ploy as an attempt to block our progress, but in so doing, he insinuated that there was an unfounded personnel matter out there against one of our appointees, in this case, the city manager,” Youssef said, adding that there were numerous other times during the budget process that Bosmans could have raised his concerns without issue.
“When you start thinking about an executive session to talk about a personnel issue, the first thing that you go, in my mind, was, ‘Oh gosh, are we dealing with another embezzlement? Are we dealing with a sexual harassment or potentially even sexual assault?’ Your mind goes to all of these different places,” Woodruff said.
Bosmans said he didn’t intend to spark such concerns. He said he’s not a fan of how budget questions are answered by staff, noting that he’ll ask what he thinks is a simple question about the city fund balance only to receive a voluminous report. He also said that part of the friction may stem from a reluctance to consider other opinions.
“In my opinion, it's a lot of trying to silence and retaliate and harass anybody who does not fit the mold,” Bosmans said.
"People just aren't very nice"
Disagreements in city governance are common, but Woodruff said this may be reflective of governance issues seen from the U.S. Senate to school boards.
“Look at the status of our federal legislature. The schism and the divide between parties is prevalent and we are not immune to that. We are a microcosm of those greater issues countrywide. But how do we deal with them on the local level? We talk to our constituents. We decide as a body about what we're going to do and what we're not going to do and we move forward,” Woodruff said.
Youssef, who’s served both on the school board and city council, said she’s never seen anything like what’s happening in Durango before. Bommer, with the Colorado Municipal League, said a lot of people are wondering if dysfunction is greater now than it’s ever been.
“I don't know if there's necessarily more, I just think that it's often amplified or seen more because of social media and instant communication,” Bommer said. “It's just the world we live in, and it is often fueled by outside groups or individuals as well, and maybe not always with the purest of intentions and certainly not the same commitment to teamwork that maybe individual council members may have. The other part of it is, look, I mean, and maybe it's related to social media, but people just aren't very nice to each other anymore.”
From spates between elected officials to the tenor of public comment periods, Bommer said there’s an edge to municipal discourse that’s not helping cities. In 2024, the Colorado Municipal League will kick off a campaign focused on civility and good governance.
“(We want to) try to really focus on building a new narrative from the ground up. I just don't think we're going to see it coming from Washington D.C., for example,” Bommer said.
Jan. 2, 2024
Woodruff said the resolution regarding Bosmans is not what he wants to be discussing as a city council member.
“I really wish that we could talk more about all the cool things that we're doing,” he said.
Bosmans is also hoping the city can return its focus to matters of good governance.
“I hope Council will professionally look at this (resolution) and address the actual concern instead of wasting more time and money as we have. In Durango, in my opinion, we waste a lot of money instead of sidetracking from the real issue of concern.”
Youssef said the January resolution is “the least consequential approach that we can be taking while at the same time recognizing it publicly,” and that she’s looking forward to moving on.
A few days after the City Council discussed the possible resolution, the city of Durango sent a press release regarding an open records issue centering on Bosmans’ emails that were requested by The Durango Herald. The release said additional pages of emails were uncovered between Bosmans and a member of the Infrastructure Advisory Board.
The release states that the advisory board member, John Simpson, was previously attempting to circumvent open records requests by writing “private communication, not subject to CORA (Colorado Open Records Act)” in the emails. Further investigation, the release says, showed that Bosmans had additional emails sent to himself in which he was blind copying others, which is why they were not initially made available to The Durango Herald based on the paper’s public records request.
Bosmans said the emails were just between him and a concerned citizen, and “shows really nothing of concern,” but he does wonder about the way they were made public and if that will further erode trust in city government.
“It's very strange, to say the least,” he said.
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