Score One for Courthouse Bullies

Originally appeared in Fort Collins Now

13 July 2007
Eric Fried

Score one for bullying.

Last week Chairwoman of the Board of County Commissioners Karen Wagner abruptly resigned over what she called fellow Commissioner Glenn Gibson’s “abuse,” “harassment” and “menacing.”

I’ve never personally witnessed Gibson’s imitation of Nikita Khrushchev banging on a table, turning blue in the face and ranting incoherently, but plenty of other people have. Gibson’s explanation that he wasn’t singling out Wagner- “I treat everybody this way!” – is much more disturbing than comforting. Just as disturbing was the enabling statement by local Republican Party chair Ed Haynes that Gibson’s actions were “heroic” because he drove a Democrat out of office. (Memo to Mr. Ed: Always put brain in gear before starting mouth.) There’s nothing heroic about being a jerk, even if you get your way. By that twisted logic, wouldn’t it be even more heroic if a Republican posse were to drive all elected Democrats out of office at gunpoint? It sure would, if the ends justify the means.

I can’t fault Karen for protecting herself against possible serious stress-related health damage. But surely there was a better way for her to handle the situation than by quitting. If any county employee is subjected to a hostile work environment, we have to complain to our supervisor, then to their supervisor, and eventually to the county manager. At the commissioner level at the top of the county food chain, there is no higher authority to appeal to. As one of three equal elected officials, Karen had to work it out herself, without naively expecting help from Gibson’s fellow Republican commissioner Kathay Rennels. Personally, I would have barked right back at Gibson until he backed off. Nor was resigning really the only way to publicize Gibson’s indefensible behavior. Why not hold a press conference, confront him during a public meeting, file a civil suit or seek a restraining order?

I consider Karen a friend, and volunteered on her campaign, but I am sorely disappointed she walked away from her elected office. Karen was the only Democrat among ten elected officials, which was apparently one too many for some diehard Republicans who feel entitled to run county government like their personal club. One-party rule is not good in Beijing, Washington DC or Larimer County, because party affiliation trumps everything, from honest debate to fiscal oversight to loyalty to principle. Under Karen’s leadership, the county has started a Green Business Practices Committee to save energy, resources and taxpayer money, has joined Fort Collins’ Climatewise, and was looking more broadly at transportation options beyond “Pave the Planet.” Wagner was the only commissioner to oppose giving herself a raise and extending her term limits.

The one bright spot in Wagner’s shocking resignation is that it makes it more likely a progressive will hold the seat in 2008. When state Senator Steve Johnson announced he was considering running for commissioner, Wagner declined to say whether she planned to seek re-election. Now we know why. Any Democrat appointed to finish her term will have a better shot at winning as an incumbent than they would have as a newbie next November. Johnson is popular precisely because he is a reasonable and modest guy, not one of the uber-ideological Republican Kool-aid drinkers who consider people with different ideas as enemy combatants to be banished to Guantanamo.

In a just world, Gibson would be resigning in shame, not driving Wagner from office. The best thing we can do now is help Gibson into early retirement next year, so he can devote full time to anger management classes. But to really break up that old county club, we need district elections for county commissioners.

Karen: get well soon. We miss you already. Randy Eubanks: welcome and good luck. If you find Glenn Gibson in your face ranting like Mel Gibson after a night out drinking, don’t take it personally. In fact, don’t take it at all.

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