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Looking for a good time

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Let's get this straight: Three months ago, El Paso County intergovernmental Government Affairs Coordinator Shyla Tulley formally complained that she was the target of harassment and retaliation after she rejected the romantic advances of elected County Commissioner Jim Bensberg, as well as a senior manager in the county's planning department.

The county, which currently has no program in place to train employees, managers or elected officials on how to avoid sexual harassment in the workplace, hired a company that specializes in protecting employers' -- not employees' -- rights to conduct an investigation, which was completed late last month.

This company, Mountain States Employers Council determined that Bensberg, as well as county manager Imad Karaki, were innocent as newborn babies and actually painted Tulley, 26, as some kind of manipulative Jezebel.

The county's acting attorney, Bill Louis, as well as another lawyer who had been hired as an impartial overseer and two elected county commissioners, expressed serious concerns about the results of the investigation. Specifically, they said, the report did not accurately reflect statements that were made during interviews with the parties involved. And, important statements and observations from others who had been interviewed had been omitted.

The whole mess came to a head last Thursday, when the five-member Board of County Commissioners brought the matter up for review. Not coincidentally, that day a front-page article appeared in the daily newspaper in which Bensberg, through his lawyer, accused commissioners Tom Huffman and Wayne Williams of intimidating witnesses.

In public session, an angry Williams lambasted Bensberg for his retaliatory activities and chastised him for previously illegally voting on this issue -- in which he had a direct conflict of interest. Williams said that he found Bensberg's conduct "reprehensible" and advised him to either recant his public statements or consider resigning.

Commissioner Huffman, who has been Tulley's ally during the whole affair, termed the investigation a "whitewash."

The week before, the county's acting attorney advised that, in accordance with state and federal laws that prohibit elected officials from voting on matters in which they have a direct conflict of interest, Bensberg should recuse himself from voting or participating in any action related to Tulley's complaint. After all, Bensberg was one of the men accused of harassing and then retaliating against her.

Bensberg, however, decided he had every right to vote in his own favor.

In a nutshell, the divided commissioners accepted the flawed report. On a 3-2 vote -- with Bensberg casting the deciding vote -- the commissioners decided that the county was not legally responsible for the accusations set forth by Tulley and that the report did not indicate that she had been sexually harassed, exposed to a hostile working environment or retaliated against.

They voted to reinstate Tulley to her job, reporting directly to her former boss, County Administrator Terry Harris.

Most interesting was their split decision to implement a county employee sexual harassment and gender relations program, in part to avoid similar problems in the future. When Commissioner Williams made a motion for such a program, Chuck Brown, the chairman of the Board of County Commissioners actually said this:

"I think our county administrator is married; that's probably as much gender education you could ever get."

In response to Brown's utterly provincial statement, Williams stuttered the following:

"Mister Chairman I, um [long pause], I am uh, [long pause] uh trying to tactfully ... I have to say that I disagree with that statement."

The motion to instruct the county's Human Resources department to come up with a gender relations and sexual harassment training program for employees, managers and elected officials ultimately passed on a 3-2 vote.

And yes, Bensberg opposed the proposal. As did the only female on the board, Jeri Howells, who said she would support the idea of creating a working committee to study the matter, but wasn't ready to fully commit to such a program.

After the commissioners adjourned, Bensberg called a press conference where he publicly declared that he had been exonerated and his "good" name restored.

What Bensberg didn't mention was that his self-proclaimed vindication was the result of his own participation in a process in which he engaged in a direct conflict of interest. His colleague, Commissioner Williams, was so disgusted that he has asked District Attorney Jeanne Smith to investigate. Smith has said she plans to ask an outside special prosecutor to determine whether Bensberg's insistence on participating in an issue involving himself was legal.

Commissioner Bensberg hasn't cleared his name, by any stretch. He's given himself a new one: Mud.

-- degette@csindy.com

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