What extraordinary times these are! On April 21, my term as mayor comes to an end. In a reflection of how life in Durango has changed, I’ll pass the gavel virtually. As tradition would have it, Mayor Pro Tem Dean Brookie will assume the position.
Durango’s encounter with Covid-19 has changed my outlook and reshaped the message of this, my final column. Looking back on my previous monthly columns, I’m struck by how different my concerns for the residents of Durango are now compared with the first three-quarters of my term.
Those columns were undoubtedly important, but in light of the current scramble to meet our community’s multilayered needs, both in terms of the virus that literally threatens the lives of our most vulnerable residents and the economic shutdown that threatens the livelihoods and lifestyles of all Durangoans, my earlier columns seem almost trivial.
But they were far from trivial. City Council’s responsibilities this past year have been anything but business as usual. From the day I took office, our city has faced a steady series of shake-ups, controversies and crises.
City Council began the year challenging the status quo by creating more relevant City Council goals and developing a rigorous, new evaluation system designed to provide greater accountability and transparency in Durango’s city government.
We faced the sudden and contentious departure of City Manager Ron LeBlanc. We hired Interim City Manager Amber Blake to keep the city running smoothly as council began the process of searching for LeBlanc’s replacement. (This process is now temporarily on pause, given the pandemic.)
The city’s finance director resigned and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation is still investigating allegations of misappropriations of funds.
We discovered that the 2020 budget LeBlanc submitted shortly before leaving was riddled with errors and inconsistencies. An interim finance director was hired to work with the finance team and correct errors and fund balances. It was ultimately necessary to bring in the state Department of Local Affairs. (On April 7, City Council finally had the opportunity to approve an amended and corrected budget.)
A forceful public outcry over a controversial bridge project demanded immediate attention, resulting in a series of heated community meetings with large public attendance and vehement community input. (The project has now been deferred because of budget constraints caused by the pandemic.)
Once Covid-19 struck in Durango, our lives began changing by the day, even the hour. Purgatory closed, then schools; we reduced Durango’s workforce by 50%, followed by a stay-at-home order.
Roles and responsibilities of city staff and council dramatically changed. My role as mayor expanded to include nonstop communication seven days a week with community members by email and telephone – clarifying policies, listening to concerns, offering reassurance, accepting feedback.
I participated with city staff on critical next steps and in regionwide leadership meetings to determine emergency health responses. I engaged with business leaders, county commissioners, San Juan Basin Public Health and elected officials, both local and state.
Today, we are in unchartered territory with many factors beyond our control. We must plan ahead for a new reality, by prioritizing basic, essential needs and figuring out when and how we reopen our economy. Coping with losses and getting our lives and businesses fully back on track will take months, and possibly years.
In spite of so many challenges, I have never doubted Durango’s ability to survive and thrive. It is the strength, resilience, nobility and generosity I see in our community that keeps me going.
I admire and respect our strong and caring community and consider it an honor that I have been able to be of service during all of these events. As an ongoing member of City Council, I will continue to serve Durango to the best of my ability.
There’s not enough space here to thank everyone I want to thank. But I must include a special thank you to Interim City Manager Amber Blake, for stepping up to the plate in such turbulent times and demonstrating bold leadership. Thank you, Dirk Nelson, city attorney, for your legal guidance and expertise; and Kevin Hall, assistant city manager, for your leadership with community development, homelessness and beyond. Thank you, City Council, for your countless hours of hard work and your dedication in protecting and providing for our community.
As I pass the gavel, I thank all of you, residents of Durango, for your support, feedback and input during this past year and for giving me the opportunity to serve you. Stay healthy and well!
Melissa Youssef is mayor of Durango, a position rotating among members of City Council. Reach her at Melissa.Youssef@DurangoGov.org.