Cripple Creek voters to decide fate of two targeted council members

Cripple Creek voters to decide fate of two targeted council members

Tensions escalate between pro- and anti-summons groups

Rick Langenberg

Election fever has reached a boiling point high in Cripple Creek, unprecedented for at least two decades.

In late January, voters will decide the fate of two council members, targeted by a no-confidence campaign organized by a number of prominent former leaders and a group of citizens. According to city officials, the summons, which began several months ago, garnered more than enough signatures to force citizens to vote.

Last week, before a large crowd and during one of the hottest meetings in months, Cripple Creek City Council voted 2-1 to approve an ordinance, setting a no-confidence election for January 24. The members targeted are Mark Green, representative of Ward 4, and Charles Solomon, representative of Ward 5. Elections will be by mail vote. It will be the city’s first impeachment election in two decades.

The vote itself was highly controversial, as four of the five members of the committee had conflicting relations with the issue, and had to either abstain from voting or were forced to disclose their conflicts with the Secretary of State’s office. Conflict of interest relationships are not unusual in small communities, but they must be disclosed under current state law.

The group leading the overthrow effort is called the Citizens Withdrawal Coalition, and is led by Steve Zoelner, a professional former mayor, and a few well-known former civic leaders. The group asserts that the targeted council members do not represent the public interest and follow their own agenda.

However, the real spark that ignited the campaign came during last summer’s meeting when Green, Solomon and Mayor Pro Team Tom Leatherland agreed to agree to a plan, signaling the green light for a retail gift shop at Cripple Creek Heritage Center. The room was full of small business operators, who strongly protested the move, and said the city was trying to compete with them. They were outraged by this council’s decision, and Mayor Milford Ashworth and Council member Melissa Trinari opposed it. Previous councils have denied similar retail plans exist at the Heritage Centre

“It has stopped funding private events and local nonprofits, and is now promoting the Heritage Center to compete with local retailers. The center is supposed to direct business to the rest of the city,” Zoelner said at the time.

The group also argues that current council members have played a leadership role in killing special events, such as the American Veterans’ Tribute. They earlier released a message titled “What Happened to Cripple Creek” which attracted huge interest in social media posts.

But supporters of the targeted council members say the impeachment is a huge waste of money and claim the organizers are orchestrating a completely “hidden agenda”, aimed at replacing council members for unwillingness to fund a salute to American veterans, which is now taking place in Woodland Park. “Both petitions charge that merchandise support with a vote at the Heritage Center is the sole and primary cause of the subpoena; but the evidence speaks to the contrary,” Green said in an official statement.

Critics also accuse the group of having candidates already in place, supporting the salute march and trying to bring it back to Cripple Creek at a cost of thousands of dollars.

Emotional arguments on both sides

These tensions took center stage at last week’s meeting, when the decree was introduced to proceed with the vote of no confidence. Both sides were very enthusiastic about this issue.

“It baffles me,” said Kurt Sorenson, president of Two Mile High Club. There is a hidden agenda here. “Some people didn’t know what they were signing,” he added, describing the impeachment petition. “This is getting a little crazy. This really is all power play.”

A few other residents echoed similar views and asserted that the recall would only divide the community. Furthermore, remembrance critics note that the gift shop in question was a very small display, approximately three square feet, in the Heritage Center. They distributed a photo of the retail display, with the slogan, “The recall will force the city to spend upwards of $30,000 on a special election.”

“We’re doing a lot to do with nothing,” Sorenson added.

However, recall efforts certainly have proponents.

John Freeman, owner of The Creek Restaurant, hasn’t held back, and said he hates doing the recall campaign. “I hate to see this,” said Freeman, a frequent speaker at council meetings. But Freeman emphasized that the targeted members do not represent citizens and challenge the interests of local business operators

“I have a dog in this fight day in and day out,” Freeman said. He confirmed that he and his wife, Mickey, have invested thousands in the community and own and operate several businesses.

He said that many residents consider Green and Solomon’s actions anti-business. At the meeting in question, he noted that no one had spoken in favor of authenticating the Heritage Center retail store. As a result, he said, he and other civilian figures believed the targeted members had their own agenda.

Crystal Brown, Teller County clerk and recorder and wife of former mayor Bruce Brown, questioned the $30,000 figure for the special impeachment election, a figure rejected by impeachment critics. In her comments, she noted that it could only cost about $5,000, and that $30,000 could practically fund elections for the entire county.

After a barrage of comments and a final vote to determine the election, Mayor Milford Ashworth, who endorsed the petition, said, “We had no choice in this. There is nothing we can do (to stop the voting).” Ashworth was referring to the fact that the recall group got enough signatures to force a vote.

Conflict of interest?

In fact, the election to initiate a formal vote of no confidence has turned out to be a very complex scenario. City prosecutor Erin Smith concluded that four of the five members had conflicts over the issue. She mentioned the two members targeted in the recall, Green and Solomon. Both agreed not to vote on the issue.

But Ashworth and council member Melissa Trinari both signed motions of impeachment. The attorney concluded that they could still vote on the matter, but only if they signed the appropriate documents with the Secretary of State’s office, and they did. Smith noted that conflicts of interest among elected leaders are not illegal, as long as the member in question will not receive financial gain. But under current laws, such potential inconsistencies must be disclosed before a member takes any kind of vote on a related issue.

Leatherland objected to the two sharing the tally. By signing the no-confidence petition, he said, “their neutrality has been invalidated.” Despite this, Trinari argued that they were exercising their “Constitutional Rights of the First Amendment” by signing a petition of impeachment. In the final vote, Litherland did indeed choose to abstain, an action the attorney saw as a tally against moving forward with the election.

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