Violence in the public sphere is a topic of discussion that seems to be increasingly brought to the fore, from the national level all the way down to the local level. In just these first few months of 2018, Americans have faced such issues as the recent serial bomber who detonated five bombs in Austin, Texas this month and the 17 shootings that have taken place in US schools in the past 11 weeks. In that same time in Grand County, citizens have seen the then-town manager of Winter Park facing criminal charges, including felony menacing, domestic violence, prohibited use of deadly weapons, and reckless endangerment, and have participated in discussion around a candidate for Kremmling Town Council who has numerous felony convictions, including one whose underlying factual basis of sexual assault requires that he still be registered as a sex offender today.
But what is the community expectation around violence in the public sector? What is the expected public response when violence is committed by a public servant or in a public space? What policies and procedures are in place to protect our local citizens and our public servants? And what can be done to increase preparedness and prevention in our community? — These are questions that have neither easy nor definitive answers, but ones that are being explored through conversations in our county and beyond.
Policy and Procedure
The Towns of Fraser, Grand Lake, Granby, Kremmling, and Hot Sulphur Springs confirm that they have policies in their personnel manuals intended to address violence in the workplace and employee safety.
The Workplace Violence policy of Fraser states, for instance, that “The Town of Fraser will not tolerate threatening, intimidating, or hostile behavior; verbal or physical abuse; weapons possession or use while on duty or on Town property by any employee who is not a sworn police officer.” The policy continues to define prohibited violent behaviors and states that any instance of imminent danger will result in police department involvement. Similar policies exist in the other responding towns.
These policies, however, are specific to personnel issues and do not directly address potential behavior of employees outside of the workplace itself. Winter Park, for example, did not take direct action to remove their employee after he was arrested on multiple violent offenses outside of work. The employee was the one who tendered his resignation nearly three weeks after his arrest. This may indicate a lack of clear policy in handling these issues, though Interim Winter Park Town Manager Stan Zemler did not respond to request to comment on policy and procedure before this story went to press.
The town managers of both Fraser and Kremmling addressed this, each indicating the difficulty of direct action when circumstances can vary widely. Jeff Durbin, Town Manager of Fraser, stated that, “especially when it’s a manager or CEO-type position, it becomes a cultural thing and inaction can send a message to other employees that it’s okay.” However, he indicated a sensitivity to substance or mental health issues that may “require treatment or support” before possible termination. But he also indicated that the Town has an expectation “of public servants to be public servants and behave in appropriate ways.”
Town Manager Jim White of Grand Lake cited a Code of Ethics that is expected to be followed by all public officers and employees of Grand Lake. He indicated that any violent behavior, whether directed at a citizen or employee, would violate that code of ethics and would be formally addressed, either by the Manager or the Board members. Mark Campbell, Manager of the Town of Kremmling, referred to a moral turpitude clause that is included in Kremmling employee contracts. He stated that the Town of Kremmling has a zero tolerance policy with regard to violence in the workplace and that any violation of the moral turpitude clause would warrant an investigation and, ultimately, if warranted, be brought before the Town Board. He indicated that further investigation than just an arrest would probably be called for and that “each case would be based on its own merits.”
None of the responding towns had specific step-by-step procedure outlined in the case of violence by an employee outside of the workplace.
Protection of Public Servants & Public Spaces
In speaking to the various town managers and town clerks, it was made obvious that a clear awareness of potential danger to public employees and violence in public buildings is of primary concern to our various government entities. Most Grand County citizens have had to go through the metal detector at the County Courthouse or had to ask for their motor vehicle registration through security glass at the County Administration Building. And the various towns are beginning to implement similar safety precautions.
As Durbin said, “Violence happens in public buildings and in public meetings. Just go on YouTube.” He indicated that there have been cameras in place in the Fraser Town Hall for some years and that internal security measures and procedures were in place in the case of a violent incident. Manager Aaron Blair of the Town of Granby indicated that there has been discussion on how to enhance security in the lobby of that town hall, though no solutions are forthcoming. And White noted that the Grand Lake Town Hall will be installing a security window for the front-line staff and that they’re currently seeking bids for installation of a security door.
Again conscious of protecting safety procedures, both Durbin and White said that they did not want to share specifics of their internal processes, but White stated clearly that “if there were a threat made, we have a close relationship with the Sheriff’s Office. We have the option of requesting that they be present at any public meeting or event in case of threat, though we have not had to exercise that yet.”
Violent Offenders in Public Office
Colorado Revised Statute 31-10-301 states that in order to run for public office in Colorado, a candidate must be a registered voter, at least 18 years old by the date of the election, and must have been a resident of the municipality in which they seek election for at least the 12 consecutive months prior to the election. Some municipalities in Colorado have more stringent codes, like the City of Aurora, which also states that “a person who has been convicted of a felony shall not become a candidate nor hold elective office.” All six Grand County municipalities follow State statute, and do not have any other prohibitions on holding public office.
At least one citizen of Grand County, 18-year-old Mykaela Jones of Kremmling, disagrees with the minimal requirements and has, so far, addressed a letter to the Mayor of Kremmling, Tom Clark, and to the Town Clerk as to how a violent offender can run for a decision-making position in the town. The response has been, so far, that the Town follows the State statute– as do all the other towns in Grand County. At the recent candidates forum, she addressed a question to the Kremmling candidates about whether or not they would support a more restrictive code, such as in place in Aurora. Only two of the 11 candidates answered definitively that they would be in support of such a restriction.
But her question raises some wider questions. How many of us would be in support of a similar restriction? Do we assume that background checks are performed on public candidates? Are we, as the public, aware that most anyone can run for and hold public office in the State of Colorado, regardless of history? And what can be done if we don’t agree with the current electoral process?
Regulatory and Statutory Change
Jones, for one, hopes to be the instigator of change in, first, her community and then in the state. “I’m shocked that our election proceedings are so loose,” she stated. “I think that felons should not be able to hold public office.”
That change, at least on a local level, appears to be possible. According to Manager Durbin, to put in place an election code similar to that of Aurora, any town citizen could attend a town council meeting and ask for discussion on the issue in public comment, they could contact the town manager or town clerk and request that an agenda item be included in a scheduled meeting, or they could contact a town board member directly and share their concern. If the topic were one of interest to the town board, a member of the board could request discussion and, if it were to have enough support, ask for a vote to enact a new municipal code. Any municipal code can be more strict than a State statute, but must at least meet the statutory expectations of the issue.
On a state level the issue becomes more challenging. A visit to the Colorado Legislative Counsel at leg.colorado.gov/content/how-file-initiatives lists 14 steps to getting an initiative on the Colorado ballot in order to change existing statutory regulation– a long process that often needs large numbers or dedicated lobbyists in order to get the attention of legislators.
Brie Franklin, Executive Director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault says that Colorado “has a particularly strong group of offender advocates” and that similar issues have been met with “push-back.” However, she stresses that when offenders are elected to public office “the message sent to victims is that their experience doesn’t matter, that while water quality is important violent victimization is not. We should hold people to a higher standard. If we hold them accountable for crimes like embezzlement, how much more important are crimes like domestic violence and sexual violence?”
In asking these questions, a frequent response has been that the decisions should be left up to the citizens, that voters and citizens should inform themselves. But they also have the option of taking action to minimize some of these issues of violence in the public sphere. If issues of violence like these or others are of concern to you or others in your community, address your town council, speak to your commissioners, contact your state and national legislators. As Jones says, “The world is flawed, but if we all put our voices together and we all stand up, we can make a change. And I, for one, am not going to stop.”