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Public should be able to trust trustees

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If you can’t trust a public trustee with the public’s trust, whom can you trust?


That’s the question Gov. John Hickenlooper had to address last week after the latest in a series of stories in the Denver Post about the actions of the trustees in the 10 counties in which he makes appointments. The governor chose to ask for the resignation of all 10 of them. Nine complied, and one retired.
Additionally, he imposed new restrictions and reporting requirements on the appointed trustees and their offices.
Most of the previous stories had centered on actions of the association that represents the public trustees and a seemingly too-cozy relationship between the association and an attorney who had benefited by legislation supported by the trustees.  
The last story highlighted examples of questionable expenditures of public funds by a number of the appointed trustees. They ranged from the Pueblo County trustee renting space for his office in a building he owned without any public disclosure of the fact to some trustees receiving more benefits for themselves and their employees than other county workers.
It should be noted that the story made no allegations of any questionable actions or expenditures by Jefferson County trustee Margaret Chapman, who has held her post since 2007 under both Hickenloooper and prior governor Bill Ritter.
Public trustee functions, which are primarily to oversee the disposal of foreclosed properties, are conducted by an odd hodge-podge of officials in Colorado. Ten counties have trustees appointed by the governor and serving at his pleasure. Denver and Broomfield, which are combined cities and counties, conduct the function under the auspices of the clerk and recorder. In the remaining 52 counties, the elected county treasurer also serves as the public trustee.
The issue found its way to the General Assembly earlier this year after disputes between the Mesa County commissioners and Mesa County trustee Paul Brown led state Rep. Ray Scott of Grand Junction to introduce legislation to have the trustees’ responsibilities be assumed by the county treasurer in Mesa and two other counties.  
The bill later was amended to leave the appointed trustees in place but to subject them to additional oversight by both the state and county commissioners. Scott is reported to be planning to introduce legislation to move trustees’ functions to county treasurer offices in 2013.
Hickenlooper has invited the trustees who resigned to re-apply for their jobs. It will be interesting to see how many take him up on the offer and how many of them retain their jobs.  
The broader question is what the legislature and governor will do next year with structural changes that could run the gamut from eliminating the public trustees and replacing them with the county treasurer or some other official to imposing much more oversight.
When I worked in government, one of my favorite quotes to work into speeches was Henry Clay’s “Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people.”  
As we move forward with addressing the issues raised over the last year about functions of public trustee offices throughout Colorado, Clay’s vision should help to guide us.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.