Government & Politics  December 3, 2023

Where’s the love?

Discord fraying the fabric of the Sweetheart City

LOVELAND — It bills itself as the nation’s “Sweetheart City.” Next month it will launch its famous valentine re-mailing program in which more than 100,000 cards from all 50 states and more than 100 other countries are funneled through its post office and stamped with a romantic verse.

In Loveland’s city government, however, Cupid’s arrows are increasingly replaced by slings and arrows of a much more pointed kind.

November’s election of a new city council hasn’t seemed to soothe Loveland’s often vitriolic divisions, a fact that has concerned and saddened some of its former leaders and mayors from surrounding cities.

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A month before the vote, the previous council unanimously adopted a new rule aimed at restoring decorum during meetings by giving the mayor authority to gavel down unruly behavior both on the dais and in the audience.

But as late as Wednesday night, council members were still speaking over each other and city staff, as well as hurling not-so-veiled accusations. Observers say the city’s spreading reputation for contentious division could damage its ability to attract and keep job-producing businesses.

The current dustup over developer McWhinney Real Estate Services Inc.’s plan to create a $1 billion mixed-use community called Centerra South is just the latest chapter in the recent history of a city struggling to keep the love in Loveland.

In fact, noted Jeni Arndt, mayor of Fort Collins, Loveland’s larger northern neighbor, the tactics of allegation and innuendo “have been used for a long time, but more people now have access to social media” with its ability to aim incendiary potshots from behind a veil of anonymity.

“I’ve never seen people so damned angry,” added Greeley mayor John Gates. “The pandemic seemed to escalate the level of tension and vitriolic talk. And it definitely comes down from the national level.”

From violence-tinged rhetoric from national leaders to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Washington has set an example of how efforts for comity can dissolve into dark comedy. A shoving match nearly broke out on the floor of Congress early this year as a vote for House speaker went to a 15th ballot, and in November a first-term Oklahoma senator challenged the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to a fight during a Senate hearing.

In Colorado, the Douglas County Board of Education has become a poster child for conflict in recent years amid recalls, lawsuits, claims of discrimination and accusations of collusion. Its president resigned during a meeting last week, warning remaining board colleagues to “pick partnership over partisanship. Don’t wait for it to get bad. You can change this now.”

On the Western Slope, furor gripped Silverton in 2021 after a newly elected mayor decreed that the town council could stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance during meetings. That same year in Grand Junction, rowdy parents shouted down members of the Mesa County School District board, forcing them to leave the meeting protected by a police escort.

Closer to home, a heated debate concluded with Estes Park voters in 2019 recalling Town Trustee Cody Walker, the mayor pro tem, over conflict-of-interest allegations stemming from the fact that a “mountain coaster” amusement ride needing town approval would be located on land owned by Walker.

It’s not even limited to our Loveland. A city council meeting in Loveland, Ohio, dissolved into acrimony and a council-member walkout six years ago; the YouTube video of the incident has collected more than 800,000 views.

“The food fighting that we would kind of put onto Washington is all of a sudden showing up in state legislatures but also moving on to local politics,” Timothy Shaffer, an associate professor of communication and the director of Kansas State University’s Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy, told Denver’s KUSA-TV Channel 9. “Often people think about local politics as being free of some of that — that kind of attacking, the grotesque nature we often associate with politics.”

Loveland’s mounting discord

The Loveland City Council, like any government at any level, has had its share of controversial issues. But the tone of conversation became heated in 2020 after Karen Garner, a 73-year-old woman with dementia and sensory aphasia, was violently arrested by Loveland police after she left a Walmart store without paying for $13.88 worth of merchandise. She suffered a dislocated shoulder, broken arm and other injuries.

The resulting tumult of accusations against police and city officials led to a federal lawsuit, criminal charges against two former officers, a $3 million civil settlement and a 2022 report by Westminster-based consultant Jensen Hughes that detailed improper conduct by police. The topic, and related lingering hostility toward some Loveland city officials, periodically crops up during the city council’s public comment periods, including at last week’s meeting.

Former Councilmember Don Overcash’s perceived failure to hold police accountable for the Garner case in his role as liaison between the council and the department was one of the reasons he was the subject of a recall drive in 2021. He was also accused of backing big business and big donors, as well as violating Colorado open-meetings laws.

The petition drive to put his recall on the ballot fell short of the needed number of votes, as a similar one did the next year, led by a group called Lovelanders for an Honest Local Government. Overcash, however, lost bids to become mayor in municipal elections in 2021 and last month, and no longer sits on the council.

In the wake of the recall efforts, the Loveland City Council in June 2022 — after a typically heated debate both by council members and public commenters — advanced an ordinance initiated by City Clerk Delynn Coldiron to update rules for municipal recall elections, giving a nod to an addition to the city municipal code that expands disclosure requirements for recalling council members.

Loveland mayor Jacki Marsh and Councilmember Andrea Samson chafed at the new rules, saying they would make it more difficult to file recall petitions, a process that already has a “high bar.” But Councilmember John Fogle called their views “an argument against transparency.”

In 2016, a year before unsuccessfully running for mayor, Fogle had sent a meme to the personal email accounts of then-councilmembers Overcash, Troy Krenning, Hugh McKean and Dave Clark. The meme showed former president Barack Obama and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump shaking hands, with the caption: “Actual photo of Donald Trump grabbing a p—y.” The email was made public by a former council candidate in 2017, and Krenning demanded that Fogle resign. Fogle said he had apologized for the email a year before and had simply gotten caught up in forwarding election-related memes.

More recently, Fogle’s service was marked by clashes with Marsh. During the public-comment period at an August 2021 council meeting, attorney Krenning — who had previously served one term on the council and was sent back to the panel by voters on Nov. 7 — walked up to the microphone and said, “Mr. Fogle, I would like to introduce you to my friend and process server Jeremy. You’re being served with a lawsuit, Mr. Fogle.”

Krenning represented Marsh, who was suing Fogle and a citizen for defamation and other issues stemming from the timing of obtaining a required permit for a remodeling project at her house. Marsh contended that a misunderstanding between her and one of her plumbing contractors led to a delay in filing for the work permit with Loveland’s building division. Another contractor at the site expressed his concern to Fogle, along with photos from the inside of her house.

Marsh contended that the result was a long campaign by Fogle and others to publicly defame her during council meetings, as well as in the broadcast and social media, hoping to derail her campaign against Overcash to be re-elected as mayor.

Fogle countered that he was fulfilling his duties as a city council member by raising the concerns, and the city retained attorneys from the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency (CIRSA) to defend Fogle in the suit. Krenning cited CIRSA’s involvement as one of the reasons he filed a motion a month later to dismiss the lawsuit.

Like many Loveland controversies, however, this one sprang back to life this year. In response to what Marsh called a “set-up” question about the disposition of the lawsuit during a public comment period at a council meeting in October, Fogle requested that the city attorney’s office make documents from Marsh’s defamation suit public, which it did two days later. Fogle denied that he spread lies about the situation and again asserted that his questioning of Marsh’s actions were part of his job as a city official. Marsh, however, also supported making the court filings public, expressing hope that the allegations against her were without merit.

Like Overcash, Fogle also lost his council seat on Nov. 7, ending his controversy-laced 12-year term.

Loveland’s acrimony came to a head this year, both through citizen protests of a city-initiated rezoning proposal for four tracts in Loveland’s west end and especially the debate over Centerra South, which fanned the flames of division between Marsh and Overcash.

Centerra South, a mixed-use commercial and residential project to be located south of U.S. Highway 34 and west of Interstate 25, is anticipated to cost approximately $1 billion to construct, according to city documents, and would require approximately $155 million in public infrastructure investment. To accomplish that goal, the land area designated for the project would need to be removed from the US34/Crossroads Corridor Urban Renewal Plan and placed in a new Urban Renewal Plan, but that required completion of negotiations related to the tax-increment revenue-sharing agreements and the proposed Centerra South Master Financing Intergovernmental agreement.

Marsh bristled at an April council meeting after Deputy City Attorney Vincent Junglas used effusive language to describe McWhinney’s Centerra South proposal:  a “gold project,” “a project of significant magnitude with state-of-the-art world-class structures,” “an attractive pillar of Loveland’s entryway” and “a home-run deal” for the Thompson school district.

This rendering, looking northeast, shows Centerra South’s museum concept, hotel and, on right, the office building complex, all built around the center green. Courtesy McWhinney.

Marsh responded by asking, “How, in that capacity, giving legal advice to the city and city council, is that propaganda that you just read?” But Overcash objected to what he called the mayor’s “Improper use of language.”

An incident in July, in which city council candidates Kat McManus and Erin Black — the latter of whom won a council seat on Nov. 7 — charged that Councilmember Steve Olson had spread “misinformation” to members of the city’s Youth Advisory Council about Proposition 300, the citizen initiative to eliminate the sales tax on food purchased for public consumption. Olson disputed their claim, and the debate deteriorated.

Samson responded by starting a discussion about decorum in council chambers, finding support from Fogle and Overcash but skepticism from Marsh, who worried about squelching free expression. Despite Marsh’s concerns, the council in October unanimously added language to its rules to control decorum — ironically after a contentious public-comment period in which Olson told a citizen to “shut up” and the citizen called Olson a “liar.”

When the westside rezoning proposal sparked heated opposition, especially from a group calling itself the West Endies, Olson asked each member of the public who spoke in opposition what they’d like to see happen to the contested parcel instead.

In recent weeks, the council’s kerfuffles have taken a far more serious turn.

Angered by what it saw as the city’s caving to McWhinney’s requests, voters by a more than two-to-one margin passed Ballot Issue 301, which subjects any urban-renewal plan approved or modified by the city council to a final say by Loveland voters. Empowered by the election results and the new mix on the council, Marsh responded by introducing resolutions to rescind the previous council’s approvals of the urban-renewal agreement and master financing plan with McWhinney for Centerra South, but took up nine minutes of the allotted 10-minute time for debating the URA resolution and refused to call on council members who wanted to speak in opposition.

Marsh has contended that the agreements were invalid because they were violations of state law and that the meeting where they were approved was held without proper public notice. 

The votes to rescind the agreements followed threats from Sarah Mercer, an attorney at Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP who represents McWhinney, to pursue legal action against the city, and Troy McWhinney, the developer’s CEO, who said he had been finishing a deal with a major corporation to locate its headquarters to Centerra South but could seek to have the site annexed by Johnstown instead.

McWhinney followed through on its threat, suing the city for breach of contract and seeking injunctive relief. In a special meeting last Wednesday, Krenning pushed through a motion to hire attorney Michael D. Plachy of Denver-based Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie LLP to defend the city against the lawsuit — even though Plachy also represents Water Valley Land Co. president Martin Lind, who has threatened litigation against the city. Lind alleges that Northern Colorado Regional Airport, jointly owned by the cities of Loveland and Fort Collins, has granted “preferential treatment and exclusive rights to JetCenters of Colorado” at the expense of its competition including Lind’s Discovery Air.

Before Wednesday’s meeting, Garcia had handed out profiles of several attorneys, including some recommended by CIRSA. Councilmember Patrick McFall accused the council majority of “ramrodding” Plachy’s hiring through, adding that “I feel that what you are doing is an injustice to this city.”

Krenning, who had sparred with Garcia just after being sworn in over whether the city charter required council members to submit to a background check, also has announced that he plans at this coming Tuesday’s council meeting to introduce motions calling for the firing of Garcia and City Manager Steve Adams. According to the Loveland city charter, such terminations would require a two-thirds vote of the nine-member city council.

Krenning cited past legal issues surrounding Adams, including a criminal case and a pending lawsuit, and also alleged “past collusion” among Garcia, McWhinney and former council members Fogle and Overcash.

Adams had been charged in June 2022 with criminal harassment of independent journalist Stacy Lynne over an incident that occurred three months earlier inside the Larimer County Justice Center. Lynne alleged that Adams “shoulder checked” her as she recorded city officials leaving a courtroom. Adams remained on the job and agreed to enter an adult-diversion program rather than go to trial. After he attended a conflict-management course and completed community services, the charges against him were dismissed and the case records sealed. However, last March, Lynne sued Adams in 8th Judicial District Court.

Among other allegations against Garcia, Krenning said he should have advised the city that approving the Centerra South agreements in the first place was unlawful.

Further reacting to voters’ vocal opposition to the McWhinney project, the council on a pair of 7-2 votes last week imposed temporary moratoriums on new applications for fossil-fuel drilling and on the creation of residential metropolitan taxing districts, despite Councilmember Dana Foley’s warning that “a moratorium could set a precedent of weaponizing that word against an applicant and potentially creating more liabilities for the city.”

On Friday, Larimer County District Judge Carroll Michelle Brinegar set a preliminary hearing for 1:30 p.m. Dec. 18 to consider McWhinney’s request for a preliminary injunction in the Centerra South development case. However, she declined to issue a temporary restraining order against the council’s action overturning the Centerra South agreements.

Other leaders call for healing

Don Riedel, Loveland’s mayor from 1986 to 1989, describes himself as “bothered” and “disenchanted” by what is happening in Loveland’s governance. And he should know.

Riedel was mayor when members of his council secretly met with dissatisfied members of the community and mounted a recall campaign against him and a few others on the council.

The issue was the development of the city hall complex — the rehabilitation of an historic school building, construction of a city hall annex, construction of a new public library and of the Chilson Recreation and Senior Center — all on the same campus east of downtown Loveland.

Some on the council felt the project should be done by local contractors, while others believed that the scope of the project was beyond what was available locally.

Voters sided with Riedel and overwhelmingly rejected the recall. But that didn’t end the problem; the divisions remained. It was up to him to reunite the council and the community.

Riedel sees similar circumstances in Loveland, and it bothers him. “I wish I were 15 years younger,” the 80-year-old Riedel told BizWest in an interview. He’d like to get involved.

“For the rest of my term, we dealt with the fallout (from the recall),” he related, but added that the size of the vote helped. A key to reuniting the community was being able to communicate through the newspaper. He gave credit to the Loveland Reporter-Herald at the time. 

“The Reporter-Herald wanted to present the case properly, the broad perspectives. The R-H was the connecting force in the community at that time,” he said. He lamented the declining influence of that connecting force today.

Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver, agreed that the corporate dismantling of local news outlets has been harmful to public discourse.

“People’s news sources are just increasingly turning into national politics,” Masket told KUSA-TV. “There [are] just fewer local news sources than there used to be. There [are] fewer newspapers.

Reidel said that immediately after the recall, the city forged ahead with development of the civic center, and that took center stage and the community’s focus. “They (those who opposed the chosen path for the civic center) were allowed to state their case to the council, and the city eventually rallied around the new center.”

The public today “has forgotten the struggle we went through, which I guess is OK,” he said.

“I still think about those opposing council members,” who are now deceased, he said, “and I wonder if they really meant what they ended up doing.”

“I still remember the dedication of the civic center. Bud Westerman (councilman, clothing store owner) cited a story about a boy reading at the new library and how meaningful that was to him. “I told the crowd that when you bring your grandchildren here to show them, they’ll see how great this city is,” Riedel said.

He said he toured the civic center with his grandchildren just two weeks ago, an emotional journey for him.

“The dedication involved all of us” — those who opposed and those who supported, Riedel said.

“I’m disenchanted by what’s happening today. If this council wants to deal with future projects in a different way, it can, but it needs to respect what the previous council has done.”

Riedel noted that he supports the McWhinney developments. “We’ve been fortunate to have McWhinney in town. It’s added immensely to our community,” he said. “A lot of communities would give a left arm to have them as part of the community.

“They’re people who have had a vision.” he said, noting that the McWhinney organization adapted its vision for Centerra South based on what people said at public hearings. 

Greeley mayor Gates, who served eight years on the Weld County seat’s city council and is in his seventh year as mayor, was hesitant to call out Loveland specifically, initially only saying during an interview with BizWest that “it has come to my attention that things in a neighboring jurisdiction have become quite hostile.

“I couldn’t believe the lack of decorum I saw,” Gates said. “I found it sad, distasteful and very inappropriate. And I don’t believe it has to be that way. I hope what I saw is temporary, but I don’t want to watch them any more right now. I don’t understand it. I wish them luck going forward.”

However, he acknowledged that the pendulum of public opinion has swung drastically in Loveland.

“To be fair, the citizens of Loveland spoke, and I respected that,” he said, “but I don’t understand how a government body with that much friction can get anything done.”

In Greeley, Gates said, “we don’t roll that way.”

“If our city council was doing that, I would intervene. Somebody’s got to lead from the dais. I take that very seriously,” said Gates, serving his fourth and final term as mayor. “While I’m not the boss, I’m steering the bus. I expect decorum at the meetings. We have differing ideologies, but they’ve found a way to get along. I respect immensely that our city council can disagree and move on.”

He was reluctant to single out Marsh’s leadership, however.

“I like to have collegiality among mayors,” Gates said. “We all have similar issues to deal with. [Fort Collins mayor] Jeni Arndt and I are two polar opposites, but I can call Jeni, and we can find common ground.”

Reached while she was attending the 28th annual United Nations Conference of the Parties in Dubai, Arndt said “I will work with anyone the voters select.

“We respect the will of the voters in all matters,” she said, “We have a great system in the United States where a majority vote prevails. In Loveland, the people decided who they wanted to have represent them. I haven’t met many public servants who aren’t committed to represent the people, and not just the people who voted for them but all people they serve.

“And besides, their service is almost free,” she said. “Most of them are doing it out of conviction and goodwill.”

Arnst has served on the National Institute on Civil Discourse and recently was asked to help Boston’s city council work out the same types of problems, although her schedule forced her to decline.

“I really believe in these things,” she said. “We had a trained facilitator workshop, where a Democrat was paired with a Republican. My partner was usually this 6-foot-4 former football coach. We did different exercises, and it was mostly something to build empathy among people.

“Everybody has a story,” she said, “and when people start talking, it usually ends up being something everybody in the room can relate to — and eventually it gets into policy.”

She told the story of a delegate who had been a counselor at Planned Parenthood who was teamed with a hard-right rural representative from Delaware who was ardently against abortion.

“As it turned out, they both cared about human lives, she the young women and he the unborn children,” Arndt said. “It ended up that everyone in the room was crying. I don’t think it changed their votes, but it helped them understand that the other one was not a person they shouldn’t like. There was a renewed sense of understanding of each other.”

Arndt recalled her own sometimes contentious debates with a member of the city council before she learned of his difficult childhood.

“A deep understanding of where people are coming from helps build respect — not necessarily agreement, but respect and empathy,” she said. “In my experience, when you sek to understand where someone is coming from, it builds trust and respect. Through this civil-discourse training, if we build empathy, we can respect each other and govern better.

“It’s time to lead with integrity and grace – and a big, huge heart because people are really hurting,” Arndt said. “We need to get ready to just set an example of kindness, fortitude and strength.”

As Shaffer, the K-State professor, noted, “If we can engage in a human way and we can strip away this immediate framing of, hey, I’m a Democrat and I’m a Republican and vice versa, if we can function in more of a humanistic way … at that human level, then it affords us to say, hey we see the world a little differently.” 

Editor’s note: Ken Amundson moved to Loveland in the middle of Don Riedel’s term and after the recall had taken place. Coverage of the recall preceded his involvement with the Reporter-Herald as managing editor.

Dallas Heltzell
With BizWest since 2012 and in Colorado since 1979, Dallas worked at the Longmont Times-Call, Colorado Springs Gazette, Denver Post and Public News Service. A Missouri native and Mizzou School of Journalism grad, Dallas started as a sports writer and outdoor columnist at the St. Charles (Mo.) Banner-News, then went to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before fleeing the heat and humidity for the Rockies. He especially loves covering our mountain communities.

Ken Amundson
Ken Amundson is managing editor of BizWest. He has lived in Loveland and reported on issues in the region since 1987. Prior to Colorado, he reported and edited for news organizations in Minnesota and Iowa. He's a parent of two and grandparent of four, all of whom make their homes on the Front Range. A news junkie at heart, he also enjoys competitive sports, especially the Rapids.
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