Skin City

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

A veteran Sheridan official who once ran for mayor, West is leaving his post at the end of this year to spend more time with loved ones. He says he's troubled by the influence Lowrie now wields in Sheridan and the refusal of Smith and Beacham to recuse themselves. "If Troy Lowrie really cared about this city," he says, "then he wouldn't threaten to bankrupt us because he can't have nude dancing."

Others observers insist that the settlement with Lowrie made good economic sense, allowing the city to focus on more important issues. But even some who've defended the arrangement in principle admit to having misgivings about the way it was handled.

"They're fighting over a G-string," says Jim Sidebottom, the former city manager who was summarily dismissed last month and now works for the city of Centennial. "But there's also a perception that part of the council is bought and paid for, and that's more troubling than whether there is nudity in Sheridan. The council cut the best deal they could to save money, but it looked bad."

The bottom line: Ousted city councilwoman Vicki 
Johnson says her colleagues are "selling out" 
Sheridan to strip clubs.
Anthony Camera
The bottom line: Ousted city councilwoman Vicki Johnson says her colleagues are "selling out" Sheridan to strip clubs.
The bottom line: Ousted city councilwoman Vicki 
Johnson says her colleagues are "selling out" 
Sheridan to strip clubs.
Anthony Camera
The bottom line: Ousted city councilwoman Vicki Johnson says her colleagues are "selling out" Sheridan to strip clubs.

The potential for conflicts of interest on Sheridan's current city council are more extensive than most people realize. Consider the case of Don Smith, who has been Lowrie's most vocal defender on the council for some time. Smith not only has a son working for Lowrie, but he's been steadfast in his attacks on Johnson, writing a letter to the Denver Herald Dispatch to castigate her ("Vicki Johnson has created nothing more than a hostile environment and divided our city") and buying an ad himself urging voters to defeat her efforts to repeal the pro-Lowrie ordinance.

In recent weeks, Smith, who is self-employed, has been observed visiting PT's and All Stars in the early morning, before the clubs open for business. He's been seen unlocking doors, hauling in electrical equipment, even tidying up the parking lot.

Smith, who earns $300 a month as a member of the Sheridan City Council, says he's done maintenance work as an independent contractor for Lowrie for "quite a while" -- a relationship he's never disclosed to Sheridan voters. Asked whether he was doing work for Lowrie at the time he voted on the settlement with All Stars last April, Smith replies that his contract started a few weeks later, in May. He discussed his work for Lowrie with the city attorney, he says, and was advised that there was no legal problem. But even if he'd been working for Lowrie at the time of the vote, he adds, "I probably would have still voted the same way. It's an issue of the First Amendment."

Mayor Carter, City Attorney Windholz and Troy Lowrie did not respond to numerous requests for interviews.

The last time Vicki Johnson actually talked to her nemesis was during a break in a court hearing a few weeks ago. Lowrie had sued the City of Sheridan for breach of contract, arguing that putting Johnson's referendum on the ballot was a violation of the deal he'd struck with the council. (Arapahoe County District Judge Marilyn Leonard subsequently threw out his suit, noting that Lowrie could refile his claim if the ordinance was repealed.)

According to Johnson, Lowrie approached her outside the courtroom and proposed that they try to find common ground. If what she was really worried about was other clubs coming in, he suggested, then he could show her how to close the loopholes in the current ordinance.

"So you want a monopoly," Johnson replied.

Johnson knew she shouldn't have been talking to Lowrie at all. A few weeks earlier, Lowrie had filed a defamation suit against her, claiming that she'd made numerous false assertions about his business in various written and oral statements. Johnson had accused him of violating liquor laws and "using All Stars to corral and employ prostitutes," Lowrie complained. She'd also insinuated that he'd "gained control of the members of the council." All of this had damaged Lowrie's reputation, driven patrons away and inflicted severe emotional distress, his complaint alleged.

Much of the suit relied on two pieces of evidence: a four-page open letter to the city council that Johnson wrote back in January, and a flier distributed by Johnson's Sheridan Cares Committee, citing research on the negative socioeconomic effects of sexually oriented businesses. Johnson's attorney has argued that both documents are protected under the constitutional right to petition and that Lowrie's suit is so groundless as to constitute a "blatant and unabashed example" of a SLAPP case -- short for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. (SLAPP suits, which are usually brought with the sole purpose of stifling a speaker's right to participate in a public debate, have been dealt with harshly by many courts.) Johnson has filed counterclaims of her own, alleging abuse of process, malicious prosecution and outrageous conduct; she's seeking damages and attorney's fees.

Several of Johnson's statements at issue in the case could be considered matters of opinion; their truth or falsity is subject to interpretation. Her open letter to the council, for example, stated that Lowrie "plays on people's low self-esteem -- especially with the girls he hires to dance." In an interview with Westword three years ago, Lowrie acknowledged that many of his dancers suffer from low self-esteem. That's why "it feels good to have guys throwing money at you," he explained.

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