Skin City

Is Vicki Johnson an enemy of free speech -- or the last person speaking freely in the fight over who runs Sheridan?

As it turned out, she didn't even have to campaign; she ran unopposed. She took a class offered by the Colorado Municipal League to learn more about her new job and studied the home-rule charter that Sheridan was in the process of adopting. "I was just in awe of the responsibility I had," she says.

Her awe quickly turned to alarm. She was in office only four months when the city suddenly faced trouble on two fronts: Troy Lowrie and the police chief.

Early in 2001, Lowrie had applied for a modification of the liquor license issued to All Stars, seeking to exclude a portion of the building from the license. The odd request was similar to what he'd done with his Glendale club in order to bring in all-nude dancers; state law bans alcohol from all-nude clubs. When Sheridan councilmembers asked Lowrie if he was planning such a move at All Stars, he denied it.

Sheridan councilman Don Smith, who voted for 
Lowrie's proposal, performs maintenance work at 
PT's and All Stars, two of his clubs.
Sheridan councilman Don Smith, who voted for Lowrie's proposal, performs maintenance work at PT's and All Stars, two of his clubs.
Repeal supporter Cynthia Radke says that letters from 
Lowrie's attorney threatening legal action only 
strengthened her opposition to nude dancing.
Anthony Camera
Repeal supporter Cynthia Radke says that letters from Lowrie's attorney threatening legal action only strengthened her opposition to nude dancing.

The following year, however, Lowrie submitted a revised request to modify his building. The new plan was to create a VIP room for all-nude entertainment. The entrance would be manned by an employee who'd ensure that no alcohol would be brought into the nude club-within-a-club.

The plan didn't exactly wow Johnson and several other councilmembers. Live girls behind glass, exhibiting their private parts to furtive men in solitary booths, was one thing. Nude dancers in a bustling, large-scale nightclub, with alcohol served just a few feet away, was -- well, something else. On April 9, 2002, the same night that Lowrie's request was scheduled to be heard, the city council launched a pre-emptive strike, adding new restrictions to the public-indecency ordinance. In effect, the council banned all-nude dancing in Sheridan, a ban so complete that the council would have to tone it down a few weeks later in order to grandfather in the Adult Palace.

Lowrie's attorneys took the matter to court, arguing that the retooling of the ordinance had been done with the sole object of restricting All Stars' ability to do business. They argued that their all-nude scheme ought to be grandfathered in, too, since the city's definition of nudity seemed to include "buttocks with less than a fully opaque covering"; by their interpretation, that description also fit dancers in G-strings, so All Stars was already offering nude dancing. Eventually, Lowrie lost on all counts, but the legal maneuvering put more pressure on the council to reach some sort of compromise.

At the same time, potential lawsuits were brewing over the council's showdown with Sheridan's police chief, Ray Sample. A popular figure in Sheridan, Sample has repeatedly clashed with other city officials since he became chief in 1996. The matter came to a head two weeks after the nude-dancing flap, when Sample went to the city council to complain about alleged misconduct by the city clerk and Sample's own supervisor, an interim city administrator, claiming that they were downloading child pornography on their computers. He took the same charges to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Sample's accusations, which stemmed from the clerk's effort to investigate the Internet modeling business of James Grady, never resulted in any criminal charges. The case against Grady fizzled, too ("A Model Prisoner," August 14). Before the mess was cleared up, though, another purge was in the works. People found themselves locked out of their offices at city hall. Mayor Egan accused Sample of insubordination. Sample claimed he was being punished for blowing the whistle on bureaucratic perverts. The council voted four to three to fire Sample. Sample's supporters started organizing a recall campaign, targeting those who'd fired him.

Johnson was unprepared for the attacks that followed. "They really capitalized on our lack of understanding of how to campaign," she says. "Here I am, six months into office, and I'm supposed to be out there trying to save my seat and still keep up on the city stuff. It was a huge smear."

Last fall, Sheridan voters ousted Mayor Egan, Johnson and longtime councilwoman Aileen Marple. (A fourth councilmember who voted for Sample's termination, Dallas Hall, survived the recall.) They were replaced by Mayor Mary Carter (the fire chief's wife), Cliff Mueller and Chanele Beacham, all staunch Sample backers. Only a quarter of the city's registered voters bothered to vote, half of them by mail-in ballots. The recall of Johnson, who'd been in office only nine months, was the closest of all.

"I lost by eight votes -- nine, after the recount," she recalls. "I went home and cried. But I was up at three in the morning on my computer, trying to figure out why this happened."

Most people viewed the recall as a simple matter of whether citizens supported Ray Sample or Mayor Egan. But Johnson didn't see it that way. After the election, a clearer picture of the true forces behind the recall began emerging. Yes, it had been partly about Sample's firing -- but it was also about All Stars. The primary financial backer of the recall was Troy Lowrie, who was listed as donating $1,550 to the cause.

According to Johnson, other monies spent on the recall never showed up on any campaign reports submitted to the state. She went to court to try to get more disclosure; a thorough accounting eluded her, but the head of the recall committee did concede that many of the group's materials and services were paid for by a Lowrie employee.

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