We’d hoped this day was coming but we were starting to wonder whether it would ever arrive when we got word Wednesday that the long Colorado Bureau of Investigation examination of city finances had come to close. It ended with the four-count felony arrest of former City Finance Director Julie Brown, who resigned in October 2019.
Brown is alleged to have siphoned more than $710,000 from the city at various times stretching back nearly two decades. The allegations came to light shortly after former City Manager Ron LeBlanc, Brown’s supervisor, acrimoniously parted ways with the city.
Brown will have her day in court if she prefers. Her explanation for her behavior, as relayed by Interim City Manager Amber Blake and quoted in the arrest affidavit, that “I got into a hole and was trying to get out,” is sadly mundane.
If you are wondering why a longtime and trusted employee of a small and delightful city such as Durango would do this to us, how she could do this to us, when she knew better than anyone how much the city needed that money; how she could do this to anyone – and worse, damage the confidence people must have in the competence of government; the answer is commonplace. It’s venality, being overly motivated by money when people are intended to act in a decent way instead.
It can happen to anyone, we suppose. But it does not happen to most of us and it does not afflict most of our public servants as far as we know, so we can be grateful for the small things. For the bigger ones, such as the lack of controls or safeguards that made this possible?
We got taken.
City Council and city government has already overseen and made steps to nail the barn door shut, but we do not know where the money is or if it can be recovered. It could be several counties away by now. It seems unlikely Durangoans will be made whole.
The city manager oversees the finance director and the elected council oversees the city manager. Council and the voters must have confidence in the manager, something that was lacking at the end of LeBlanc’s tenure. This will be relevant as council moves ahead with selecting a new manager. More than that, though, the councilors must exercise oversight, something LeBlanc loudly resisted. This means they must be able to ask questions with the support of their fellow councilors, to probe and be another cop on the beat without assuming there is more chicanery.
Because our councilors serve on a very part-time basis theoretically (and are actually compensated that way), this is also a good time to note the work of the two newest councilors, who were elected as this fiasco unfolded. We want them to keep second-guessing the city’s operations to the best of their ability. We want the next would-be defalcator to know keen eyes are on the city’s operations from the top down.
It is sad in a way to even have to say this. There are bigger, better, more idealistic, constructive and practical things to occupy the time of our five councilors, such as keeping our little mountain town humming. But for now, the arrest of Brown and the end of the first chapter of this sordid story has at least one clear moral:
Keep your eyes open. Trust but verify, as the Gipper liked to repeat.
We don’t want to get fooled again. All those dollars that allegedly passed through Brown to who-knows-where – that’s our money for our parks and trails and streets, and we came by it honestly by taxing ourselves.