Controversy over county code, recall petition create "the perfect storm"
Durango and La Plata County have had their fair share of local controversies – the plastic bag ban, Lake Nighthorse or the 2011 County Comprehensive Plan. Oh, and don’t forget the fluoride debate.
No matter how much residents battled at the ballot boxes or in the public square, the community never let those issues get in the way of a good Snowdown celebration or beer festival. In the end, everyone always came back to the table.
But, this time it’s a little different.
As far back as 1876, La Plata County has never had a recall election for a county commissioner. Of course, record-keeping a hundred years ago was not what it is today. But when La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Parker scanned those pages from the past, she said she couldn’t find the word “recall” in any of the books.
No, it’s not the first recall petition to be circulated in the Southwest, either. The most recent was a recall petition filed in 2013 against then-representative Democrat Mike McLachlan after he voted in support of stricter gun regulations.
That effort didn’t garner enough signatures to get the issue on a ballot, but it was in response to a specific vote.
In the case of La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, it’s not about a specific vote. Reasons given for the recent petition to recall her include her attendance record at commission meetings (Lachelt has attended 91 percent of the meetings, while Commissioners Julie Westendorff and Brad Blake have attended 95 percent), general advocacy work, Lachelt’s employer and an ethics complaint.
Currently, Lachelt serves as executive director for the Durango-based nonprofit Western Leaders Network, which she founded last spring. Western Leaders is built on the idea that there is strength in numbers. The group brings local elected leaders from across the interior West together to address pro-conservation issues, like support for the Bureau of Land Management’s methane rule or the Greater Sage Grouse conservation plans.
Covering eight states – Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming – the group’s network includes Democrats, Republicans and Green Party members.
In May of last year, Lachelt went to Washington, D.C., on behalf of Western Leaders Network to advocate for the BLM’s methane rule. At the time, Congress was considering a bill that would have voided the rule. In the end, just a few Republican senators voted with the Democrats and the rule was kept in place.
After Lachelt returned, several residents expressed concerns about who paid for the trip to Washington, and questions were raised about possible conflicts of interest regarding her work with Western Leaders.
Questions were also raised about a separate trip Commissioner Brad Blake had taken to the nation’s capital. He joined Durango City Councilor Dean Brookie, San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier, and San Juan Mountains Coordinator for Trout Unlimited Ty Churchwell on a trip to advocate for funding for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
Blake’s trip was paid for by Trout Unlimited, a national nonprofit dedicated to conserving and protecting the state’s coldwater fisheries and watersheds, and Lachelt’s trip was paid for by Western Leaders.
The county turned to an independent third-party, Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu, to review the matters. He found no ethics violations on the part of Blake or Lachelt, but did recommend some best practices. As a result, officials chose to update the county’s ethics policy in an effort to clarify issues brought up during the review, and those policy changes will likely be approved later this month.
At the same time, Dave Peters – one of three residents who co-sponsored the recall petition – filed an official ethics complaint against Lachelt with the state, which was ultimately dismissed.
La Plata County attorney Sheryl Rogers said she sent Peters a letter in response to the complaint and met with him. In early December, she received a letter from Peters stating that Rogers had conducted a clear and thorough review. She considered the matter closed.
Several weeks later, Lachelt is again being questioned.
Lachelt said she thought the 2016 election – when she was re-elected for a second term – was her last campaign. After all, she is term-limited and wouldn’t be able to run again. Instead, she finds herself running another campaign. This one, though, is encouraging residents not to sign the petition.
Both of Lachelt’s fellow commissioners, Blake and Westendorff, have expressed their opposition to the recall effort. “I am absolutely not in favor of the recall,” Blake said.
“I’ve made that clear.”
The sponsors of the recall have until the end of March to circulate their petition. They need to have 7,505 valid signatures. Parker said she always recommends petitioners get 15 percent more than what is required because of typically high rejection rates. The recommended amount would then be 8,630.
Once the petition is completed and submitted, Parker has 15 days to verify the signatures. She said she would likely bring in other county employees to help with the effort. If the petition has enough valid signatures, it would be another 30 to 60 days before the special election is held.
Parker is also preparing for La Plata Electric Association’s board elections in May, the primary elections in June – which for the first time are open to all Colorado voters, not just those who’ve registered with a political party – and the November elections.
Because of the timing, any recall election would likely take place in the hot summer month of July.
“It’s a well-orchestrated matter,” Lachelt said of the recall effort. “When (Americans for Prosperity) has a stated goal of homing in on smaller communities and ousting progressive local elected officials, it’s the perfect storm.”
Many area residents, besides Lachelt, have expressed their beliefs that Americans for Prosperity, a national organization known for its financial backing from the Koch brothers and which recently opened an office in Durango, is pushing the recall effort.
A common theme among the social media threads supporting the recall effort are “Land Use Code.” Although some residents have said the two are not related, others believe the county’s recently released draft code is connected to Lachelt.
In the fall of 2016, all three County Commissioners – Lachelt, Westendorff and Blake – directed staff to move forward with updating La Plata County’s 30-year-old land use code.
County Planning Director Jason Meininger headed up the effort, and county employees began to address the lengthy document, line by line. Late last year, they released the first of three draft sections, or modules, of the updated code.
When it came out, county staff touted the new code as providing predictability and certainty for residents; something that was lacking in the older version. But the community came away with a very different perspective.
Residents showed up by the hundreds, and even thousands, to community meetings and public forums, lashing out at what they saw as inconsistencies and government overreach.
“What I think we should have done is spent more time in making sure the draft worked for our community,” Meininger said. “We should have taken more time up front.”
He described the code’s unsuccessful first draft as a combination of poor draftsmanship and misunderstanding.
For example, one of the biggest complaints from residents was about a section in the first module titled “Scenic Overlay District.”
The intention of county staff was for these regulations to apply to new development. It was not meant to restrict residents or dictate to homeowners what they can or cannot do with their property. But, that’s exactly how it came across to La Plata landowners.
Meininger said in the next draft attempt, expected to come out this spring, they plan to remove the Scenic Overlay District portion altogether.
Other points of contention resulted from the tables staff used to describe what kind of agricultural and residential uses would be allowed on county lands.
For example, staff used the letter “P” when listing what specific activities would be permitted or allowed. But many residents thought the letter “P” was describing what activities required a special permit. Also, it wasn’t clear what some of the listed activities were meant to describe. Meininger said staff included a shooting and archery range on the list primarily because of the recent request from the Red Dawn Shooting Range and Wolverine School of Personal Safety.
The shooting range and gun safety school, which received its permit from the county in early January, had been operating for several years unaware of the need for a special permit. Following complaints from neighbors, the owners were informed they did need a permit and subsequently began the application and review process.
Because of the confusion, county staff attempted to include shooting and archery ranges in the draft code. But it only came across as an attempt to limit residents’ rights.
“Sometimes we’re too close to see how the language has missed the intent,” Meininger said.
In the mid-2000s, county officials attempted to update the code but it was mired in controversy and ultimately abandoned. This time the plan is to address residents’ comments and concerns in a second draft.
Meininger believes not only can these issues be resolved, but that residents will give staff the chance to do just that.
“I think we could do better,” he said. “That’s our intention.”
In the end, the questions remain – is the controversy over the land use code, like others before it, one La Plata County and Durango can overcome? Or, like the recall petition, is this one something different?