SILVERTON – Newly hired Town Administrator Bill Gardner’s voice resounds through Silverton’s historic Town Hall with a mix of laughter and seriousness at the amount of issues facing the small community of 600 residents.
“I was not immune to seeing the dysfunction of the town government,” he said. “I knew I could come in and help. I just love this place and the independent and rebellious nature of the people.”
Over the past two years, the town of Silverton has endured a recall election, a shut down of Town Hall, internal staff drama that led to two firings, and, on top of it all, a major mine blowout.
It all started in September 2014, when then-public works director Gilbert Archuleta spoke ill of then-town administrator Brian Carlson at a bar in the early morning hours, violating a “niceness contract” between the two ordered by the Town Council. Both men were eventually fired.
That feud led to months of upheaval, effectively splitting the small mountain town about an hour’s drive north of Durango into two bitter factions. In July, with the hope of bringing some sense of stabilization to Silverton, the Town Council hired Gardner, 66, who decided to come out of retirement to fill the position.
‘Hard-drinking, hard-mining town’
Gardner first visited Silverton in 1972, and he fell in love with the area. Throughout the 1970s, Gardner spent time at the avalanche school, opened the wilderness school, ran mountaineering classes and even worked in the mines. But his true calling came when he got involved with the search-and-rescue team.
By 1977, Gardner was the Town Marshall of Silverton. With three large mines in operation, the town was bustling, with bars open late into the night to serve the round-the-clock hours of the miners. And with that, a lot of late-night trouble ensued, from bar fights to domestic violence to drug abuse.
“It was real frontier policing,” he said. “A school bus would take the miners from the mine and drop them off at the bars. That was the culture then. It was a hard-drinking, hardworking mining town.”
Gardner served two years as Silverton’s town marshal, and in the best interest of his family, took a job with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, relocating to Durango. Working his way up the ranks, Gardner was elected La Plata County sheriff in 1986.
After 7½ years serving as sheriff, Gardner was beaten in a highly controversial and contentious election to Duke Schirard. Josh Joswick, a county commissioner at the time, said it was one of the nastiest political races he’s ever seen, involving smear campaigns and personal attacks.
“I had this dream I could serve for 20, 24 years, and retire because I loved La Plata County and Durango so much,” Gardner said. “It was my home. I felt welcome everywhere. We had a deep involvement in that community.”
Gardner, his wife and three children packed up their belongings and moved to Grand Junction shortly after he lost the election. There, he eventually became police chief. He stepped down from that position in 2009, and continued teaching for several more years at Colorado Mesa University.
“Then I retired – I thought – in June 2013,” he said.
A sizable portion of Silverton residents earned a living from mining during the 1970s and 1980s, when the community enjoyed a booming economy. But as mining became less profitable, the town and its inhabitants had to rely more heavily on tourism to survive. It’s a dependency on outside forces that some have embraced, and others have heatedly admonished – and as a result, created a sharp division between neighbors.
“The town was still pretty divided because of the personalities involved,” Silverton Standard & The Miner Editor Mark Esper said of the political landscape Gardner entered.
“He was facing a Town Council that was factionalized and a Town Hall that had been handicapped due to a personnel matter for several months. I sometimes say all politics is local. When you get to a town this size, all politics is personal.”
Newly elected San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad knows of the task Gardner faces. In such a small town, Conrad said the downfall comes when personalities get involved.
“I try my best not to get wrapped up in town politics,” he said. “But you can’t help getting wrapped up in them. It’s going to affect you, but you need to be careful how it affects you. That’s the most dangerous thing.”
Gardner, self-admittedly, knows he has a robust character. In his first test of confrontation last week, he and the town’s fire chief, also Gilbert Archuleta, got into a heated confrontation over a financial statement the town administrator is requiring of the fire department.
“In a perfect world I would have been able to contain my emotions,” Gardner said. “I will plead guilty to being too emotional that night. I will not apologize for seeking the truth for public tax dollars.”
Already shaking up the old ways of doing things, Gardner is aware of the fine line he’s walking.
“The only way I know how to deal with that is to have an open door and reach out to people as individuals,” he said. “Do I expect push back? Absolutely. Is that going to be fun? No. What is fun is to help this town change for the better. If I lose my job for some reason, it’s not because I didn’t try.”