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GUEST COLUMNIST: Time to eliminate unaccountable public trustee positions

By: Jeff Crank
August 10, 2012

How would you like a job that paid $72,500 per year, plus expenses, in which you weren’t accountable to anyone for how you performed your duties or spent your office budget? To sweeten the deal, we’ll throw in a new car and other generous perks like full health coverage and regular back massages.

If you think such a wondrous job couldn’t possibly exist in today’s struggling economy, then you obviously aren’t one of Colorado’s appointed county public trustees.

Each county in Colorado has a public trustee whose job is to oversee foreclosures. In most counties, these duties are performed by the county treasurer’s office, which receives a modest stipend and expenses for handling the additional administrative responsibility.

But in 10 of the state’s largest counties, the public trustee is a patronage position appointed by the governor. These appointed trustees are largely independent, unaccountable to taxpayers or to other elected officials who could supply needed oversight and budget discipline. Predictably, that lack of accountability has led to serious abuses of office by the appointed public trustees.

In July, the Denver Post detailed questionable spending and contracting by appointed public trustees. For example, when Carol Snyder assumed the Adams County trustee post in 2007, the Post reported, she rewarded herself with a new vehicle despite the fact that most of her duties are office responsibilities. In Pueblo County, Nick Gradisar moved the public trustee’s office into a building he owned, collecting some $120,000 in rent in the past five years. In Arapahoe County, Ana Maria Peters-Ruddick provides her employees with lunches, gifts and massages — all paid for with public funds, of course.

As always, sunlight is the best disinfectant when it comes to government abuse. Just days after the exposé was published, Gov. John Hickenlooper requested resignations from the 10 appointed public trustees. In response, nine immediately resigned, and one retired from service.

So far, the governor has left the door open for retaining the appointed public trustees. His office issued new guidance intended to tighten oversight of public trustee operations, and Hickenlooper is expected to refill the positions soon. In fact, the public trustees who resigned last month are eligible to reapply for appointment — five have already done so. But given what we now know, it’s going to be difficult to wash the taint of corruption from the office.

The governor deserves credit for taking the decisive step of demanding the trustees’ resignations. Now he should go a step further and work to end these unaccountable positions once and for all.

In the last legislative session, state Rep. Ray Scott introduced a bill to merge the appointed trustee positions into county treasurer’s offices, as is already done in the 54 other counties. On July 13, Scott asked Hickenlooper to delay reappointing public trustees until January 2013, while working to eliminate the appointed patronage positions and transfer those duties to the county treasurer’s office in the 10 affected counties.

“The voters of Colorado deserve the end to these patronage jobs which act outside of the oversight of local government,” Scott wrote in his letter to the governor. “Voters deserve to know their government officials are not enriching themselves at the expense of hard earned taxpayer money.”

That gets it exactly right. Ending this abuse of public office would restore public confidence in the public trustee positions, opening up their operations to public scrutiny and ensuring that the funds collected by the trustees are spent appropriately.

It’s time for Gov. Hickenlooper to follow through on what he’s already started and work with lawmakers to finish the job of making all Colorado public trustees responsible to the taxpayers. That would be a true victory for public accountability in our state.

Jeff Crank is the Colorado state director of Americans for Prosperity, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to limited government, reduced spending and taxes and expanding economic freedom.

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