Anyone who has attended Ouray County commissioners’ meetings since August may have noticed something out of the ordinary: One of the elected officials attends the meetings on a computer screen, participating virtually, from more than 2,000 miles away.
Nearly three years after the previous group of commissioners first adopted a policy allowing officials to attend meetings remotely during the pandemic, Commissioner Lynn Padgett is using her ability to govern from afar to pursue a master’s degree at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which will keep her out of the county until mid-December.
Padgett, who is paid more than $71,000 per year as a commissioner, has missed five meetings, joined at least four meetings late and attended the rest remotely for almost three months. While the pandemic initially prompted the county to adopt the hybrid-style meetings allowing remote participation, Padgett’s extended in-person absence is unprecedented.
When asked how she balanced pursuing the degree with her role as commissioner and living more than 2,000 miles away from her constituents, Padgett said, “Is that a question that you ask working parents?”
She compared getting the degree while working as a commissioner to balancing the job with parenting or owning a business. She said her youngest child recently left home (her son graduated from Ridgway last spring), and she’s trading in the time she used to spend driving her children to sporting events while being a commissioner with continuing her education.
Padgett said taxpayer money is not being used to fund her degree, and a Plaindealer review of county expense records since May 1 confirmed this is true.
Padgett has missed or partially attended most Wednesday work sessions, and attends Tuesday meetings on Zoom, often joining in about an hour late. Her program runs until mid-December, and commissioners have tried moving some meetings around to fit her schedule. She said she reads commission materials closely each week and leaves notes and analyses on important items even if she can’t attend the meeting where they are addressed.
She said midsemester changes may be made to her schedule, and described adjusting her schedule to attend an Oct. 26 budget workshop as a “heroic effort.”
The county’s meeting policy allows commissioners to attend meetings remotely. Commissioner Ben Tisdel, as well as former commissioners Don Batchelder and John Peters, adopted a resolution regarding virtual meetings in March 2020, after the board declared a local disaster emergency because of the pandemic. The resolution acknowledged that remote meetings have drawbacks, such as not allowing attendees to assess nonverbal cues, but laid out ground rules including that members of the public should still be able to fully view all meeting materials.
In November 2021, the current board including Padgett, Tisdel and Commissioner Jake Niece adopted a resolution with the approved 2022 meeting schedule that included a condition allowing for either in-person or virtual attendance at all meetings.
Batchelder said when the original resolution was passed in 2020, it was necessary to allow the county to conduct business while meeting in person was unsafe because of the pandemic. He said the board at the time didn’t consider scenarios like a commissioner attending remotely in order to pursue a master’s degree. But he said if Padgett’s actions are in line with state and county regulations, he doesn’t see a problem with them. He doesn’t recall a similar situation ever occurring before, but said in the past commissioners attended meetings remotely from time to time to handle emergency situations or time conflicts.
Peters, who lost his seat to Padgett in the last election, also said the original resolution allowing for remote participation was a product of COVID-19.
“The remote portion was only to deal with the pandemic, and the pandemic is pretty much gone,” he said. He said the original resolution wasn’t intended to be used by commissioners for pursuits outside of the community, and that commissioners should stay local. “A master's degree, I’m not sure if that’s appropriate,” he said.
Padgett began taking coursework in 2016 that led to her qualifying for the one-semester program at Harvard. That year, she was one of seven local Colorado leaders chosen to receive a Gates Family Foundation fellowship to attend the three-week Senior Executives in Local and State Government course at the university.
Each year, the foundation helps pay for community leaders and local officials to attend the course, which Tisdel participated in last summer. He was originally selected in 2020, but the program was postponed for two years because of the pandemic.
Tisdel attended meetings remotely, and missed two, for three weeks while participating in the program. He said the coursework was intense but worthwhile, and allowed him to make connections with local leaders from across the country and learn new problem-solving strategies.
After that course, Padgett continued her education over the past six years by taking seven- to 10-day courses in-person and taking seven classes online as part of Harvard’s Public Leadership Credential program. This allowed her to jump on the opportunity to complete the school’s midcareer Master’s in Public Administration, which usually takes a full year, in one semester. At a meeting in September, she said this required her to take about 10 hours of classes on Mondays and Wednesdays with 15-minute breaks in between, though her schedule is subject to changes.
Though her program requires Padgett to be out of the county, she said residents can still reach out to her, and the pandemic has shown that remote work is effective.
Padgett said she is not the first to pursue higher education during her tenure as commissioner, as Heidi Albritton, who served on the board from 2004 to 2012, began completing courses toward a master’s degree in that time. Albritton said she chose an online program at University of Colorado Denver so she didn’t have to miss meetings, and completed most of the program after she resigned from the commission in 2012, a few months before the end of her last term.
“I chose that program for that reason,” she said over text regarding the online degree. “I started with a course or two of the program during my last year in office but did the bulk of the program after I left Ouray.”
Padgett said her situation is temporary, and the skills she’s learning at Harvard will benefit the county when she returns.
Fellow board members noted that Padgett’s attendance was acceptable under county policy, but could cause complications.
Tisdel said having commissioners attend meetings remotely for long periods of time can create awkward situations, and that Padgett’s remote attendance can make meetings more complicated.
Niece said the situation probably wouldn’t have been possible before the pandemic, but he has gotten used to working in hybrid environments and believes meetings can be fully effective even with Padgett attending remotely. But he said it’s a shame she can’t participate in most work sessions on Wednesdays, and her absence has made scheduling more difficult.
Padgett said she thought hard about the program before attending, and tailored her schedule to include classes that would translate to struggles the county faces. She is taking 20 credits, and said one of her goals is improving her ability to communicate.
This is something the commission has struggled with. Many of the board’s meetings have been marked by arguments, infighting and squabbles. A recent example involved an hourlong back-and-forth about funding affordable housing projects – with Padgett accusing Tisdel of making personal attacks and characterizing the meeting as a “hostile negotiation.”
Padgett’s coursework also includes classes focused on climate change solutions and problem-solving analysis. She said some courses involve learning how to react in complex situations, where instead of knowing a determined outcome, students might react to a number of complexities in a model situation.
Padgett said these courses are taught by global leaders, and the trade-off of her not being in Colorado is her ability to bring back this knowledge and incorporate it into her work, to serve the county in the long-term.
“I ran on the platform that I didn’t just want to have the job, I want to do the job, and that is how I still feel,” she said.
Kylea Henseler is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program that helps boost journalism in underserved areas. To support her work in rural Colorado, visit https://bit.ly/3VhJmvW.