La Junta tourism board chair rebuts calls for resignation
The La Junta City Council spent time at its Monday meeting rehashing calls for Tourism Board Chair John Yergert's resignation.
Yergert attended Monday's City Council meeting to address concerns raised at the Jan. 19 council meeting predominantly by council member Ed Vela. Mayor Jeffri Pruyn apologized to Yergert for the discussion that unfolded at the previous meeting when Vela called for Yergert's resignation.
Yergert said he felt blindsided by a lengthy discussion at the previous council meeting after Vela raised concerns about transparency from the tourism board and suggested that Yergert resign from his volunteer position as board chair.
"Last December, my term was up. In January of '20 I was voted back on the board," Yergert said. "At that time I spoke up and asked if anybody else would like to be chairman. Mayor Pruyn, you were there along with councilman Ed Vela, and nobody wanted the position. At least, nobody spoke up then. So I was happy to stay on as chairman of the board at that time. So I kind of felt like I was blindsided a little bit by your last meeting."
Yergert said he wasn't sure where Vela's grievances stemmed from.
"With COVID and everything else going on, I don't quite understand where this came from. Just the way it was done, it should have, in my opinion, have been addressed at one of our meetings," Yergert said. "Another thing for the record, it was kind of strange, I get a call a week later from councilman Vela stating that he didn't really want it to make the front page of the paper, but also that Mayor Pruyn asked him to do it. And I'm like, 'Wow, really?'"
Yergert said he called Pruyn after Vela suggested Yergert's resignation from the chair position had been her idea. Pruyn denied that she had told Vela that Yergert should resign.
"I just thought it was very inappropriate the way it was brought up," Yergert said. "I don't think it looks good on council the way it was done. I'll leave that at that."
Vela said he asked Yergert to resign but did not intend for Yergert to remove himself from the tourism board completely.
"The only thing we wanted from you, John, was to resign as the chair of the tourism board but yet stay a member," Vela said. "I told you that in our conversation that we had last time. The 'inappropriateness,' well I don't know. I and several other people don't feel that I was inappropriate because if you don't say something, you'll never get change. And that's how I felt about it."
Vela said he also wants to see more "energy" and "enthusiasm" brought onto the tourism board before he pivoted to revisit a subject he inquired about at the Jan. 19 city council meeting. He asked why a local hotel has not paid its tourism taxes and why the board hasn't followed up on other funds it has granted out.
Tourism & Events Director Pam Denahy told Vela that an Arkansas Valley Resource Grant was not delivered after the grantee did not take the money due the COVID-19 pandemic.
"They have chosen to postpone that event and when they do have that grant again then we will revisit that application," Denahy said. "The money was never given because the event never happened due to COVID."
Council member Paul Velasquez said he'd been contacted by constituents who said Vela's conduct at the Jan. 19 city council meeting was "unprofessional" and a "direct attack on a citizen volunteer and a city employee."
Velasquez said several people who had reached out to him had told him, "How do they expect me or us as a City Council ... to step up and take these difficult roles of being a citizen volunteer and employee if they're going to be attacked?"
City Attorney Phil Malouff said that the city owed Yergert a huge apology and clarified that just because it is one council member's opinion that a board chair should exit that position does not mean that the council as a whole or the city endorses that opinion or has taken action on it.
Council member Scott Eckhart, who initially supported Vela's call for Yergert's resignation but then settled for more transparency about meeting minutes at the Jan. 19 City Council meeting, asked Malouff what rules or regulations there are for city boards and the sharing of minutes.
"We have passed a resolution," Malouff said. "In that resolution we indicated that all city boards would have to comply with open meetings rules. With regard to posting of meetings the requirements are simple: They have to be posted as you would post any council meeting at least 24 hours in advance."
Malouff also advised that council members can formally or informally request more information from boards or attend the various board meetings to get information first-hand.
Pruyn added that due to COVID-19, the City Council has not been hearing board reports as regularly as they used to. Pruyn said she thinks the council can start hearing board reports again on a quarterly basis.
City Manager Rick Klein said that Urban Renewal Director Cynthia Nieb is already scheduled to appear at the next council meeting and that the tourism board is slated for the next meeting after that.
Malouff advised Vela and other council members that if they have specific questions for the tourism board, they should put those into writing and deliver them to the board.
"There's a process here, and if we respect the process it'll make things much easier for tonight," Malouff said.
After the tourism board has made its recommendations for changes in bylaws, those can be presented to the City Council, Malouff said.
"In my very humble opinion, this was way out of order (Monday night) and it was way out of order two weeks ago," Malouff said. "If there needs to be a discussion with a regard to any board's rules of operation, those things should first start at that level and then filter up to us. At least give the board a chance to consider and to regulate."
The council passed on second reading the expansion of the tourism board from seven to nine members, which had been discussed at the Jan. 19 meeting.
Tribune-Democrat reporter Christian Burney can be reached by email at email@example.com.