All Fired Up
The wild West is making a last stand in bucolic Elbert County, where the new county motto may be "Make My Day."
Ranked as the second-fastest growing county in the country--it trails only neighboring Douglas County--Elbert County has been embroiled in constant battles over growth during the past few years. And the hard feelings have brought an air of paranoia to the quaint red-brick courthouse in Kiowa, the county seat southeast of Denver.
There have been rumors, spread by a county commissioner himself, of threats to bomb the county courthouse, along with veiled allusions to personal vendettas. The county sheriff has launched an investigation after revelations last month that two of the three county commissioners regularly carry guns to public meetings. The fact that commissioners Dan McAndrew and Robert Morrison are packing pistols has alarmed many citizens, who now say they're afraid to challenge their own elected representatives in public hearings.
But battle-weary residents had better hang on to their saddles: The election of maverick John Dunn as county commissioner last month means local politics are about to get even nastier.
"It's only been three weeks since I was elected, and it's been the most interesting three weeks of my life," says Dunn, whose term begins in January. "Now they've started a recall against me, and I haven't even taken office."
Dunn says an ally of Dan McAndrew's is behind the alleged recall effort. But McAndrew, whose four-year term expires in 1998, could find himself a target as well. A group of residents that includes several county employees is so upset over the gun controversy that they may this week file an intent to recall McAndrew. If so, they'd have ninety days to collect the more than 1,000 signatures required to call an election.
Dunn promises to shake up the county, which he believes has been run for years by an incompetent network of good ol' boys. "We've had a really screwed-up county government," he says.
For the past year Elbert County residents have been riled up over a Diamond Shamrock gasoline pipeline now being built over shallow aquifers that provide many families with their drinking water. Dunn was one of the leaders of the unsuccessful effort to stop the pipeline. The fears of pipeline opponents grew in October, when crews building the new pipeline punctured an existing pipeline, spilling 3,800 gallons of unleaded gasoline into a trench.
While they're worried about the pipeline underfoot, many locals are having their windows shaken from above, as dozens of aircraft bound for Denver International Airport descend over the hay fields and country homes of Elbert County. With plans on tap to run a new power line through forested bluffs and a legion of developers waiting to bulldoze the rolling hills around Elizabeth for acres of "country estates," the citizenry can be excused for feeling under siege.
But they'd still like to feel safe in their own county courthouse. Some say the gun-toting commissioners have frightened them so much they're afraid to exercise their right to free speech.
"I don't want to have a disagreement with McAndrew," says Byron Wood, a prominent political activist in the county. "There's an intimidation factor. I don't know where the gun is. Is it in a holster, or his pocket, or a briefcase? There's nothing that can justify this."
Wood says the commissioners have frightened both residents and county employees. "The employees say if they'd brought a gun to work, they'd be arrested on the spot, labeled a nut and probably terminated," says Wood. "If we're going to have self-appointed enforcers, we should do away with the sheriff's department and let these commissioners literally call the shots. I call it the Shootout at the OK Courthouse."
The gun issue came to light at a commissioners meeting October 30. The recent pipeline spill was still on everyone's mind, and many wondered if John Dunn would appear to confront the commissioners. The air of tension apparently affected McAndrew, who was sitting next to administrative aide Terry Lepke. According to Lepke, McAndrew showed off his gun during a break in the meeting.
"They were talking about if John Dunn comes to the meeting, tempers might flare over the pipeline," Lepke recalls. He says McAndrew then decided to pull open a drawer next to his chair and show off his handgun. "It was important to Dan to open the drawer and indicate he had a weapon," Lepke says.
Lepke says he asked McAndrew if he planned to shoot someone. He says McAndrew claimed he wouldn't fire unless someone came after him first, but he might have to shoot out the ceiling "to get their attention." Lepke says McAndrew mentioned that Morrison carried a gun to meetings as well.
"This jackass was waving a gun around, talking about how he was going to shoot anybody who comes after him," says Lepke. "It's a different management style than I'm used to."
McAndrew told the Elbert County News that he had never threatened to shoot anyone, but he acknowledged saying he might have to shoot out the ceiling. Morrison told reporters he had been prompted to carry a gun by threats "of a personal nature" and that there had been unspecified threats to bomb the county courthouse by people involved in anti-government militias. The third commissioner, Charlotte Heinz, said she does not carry a weapon to meetings. Morrison, a third-generation Elbert County rancher, was defeated in the August Republican primary. McAndrew works for US West. Neither commissioner returned calls from Westword seeking comment.
Lepke says he went home, discussed the incident with his wife and decided to resign the next day, after he walked into the courthouse and found dozens of local schoolchildren in the building. "The final straw was on Halloween afternoon," he recalls. "All the kids come to the courthouse to trick-or-treat. There were hundreds of kids there, and I'm thinking, 'What if something happens and a bullet goes through a wall?' If I'd never said anything and I read a month later that John Dunn or a citizen had got hit with a stray bullet, I'd have to live with myself."
The level of hostility in Elbert County politics startled Lepke. "I was thinking: What kind of public servants would feel they have to carry a gun?" he says. "Apparently, they feel they've made such harsh enemies they have to have a gun to protect themselves. All I can tell you is that Dan McAndrew wears a holy Bible belt buckle as big as a plate and carries a gun. I find it unusual, unless your name is David Koresh, for you to be praying and packing a gun."
A Vietnam veteran who worked for many years as a manager at the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons factory, Lepke commuted 86 miles each way to Kiowa from his home in Coal Creek Canyon. He says his experience in the military taught him to respect the power of a firearm. "My background is that handguns are designed for one thing--to kill people," he says.
Since there's no law against bringing guns into the courthouse, the Elbert County Attorney has said that the commissioners didn't do anything wrong when they brought guns to meetings. But that hasn't stopped county sheriff Jack Knous from opening an investigation into possible criminal violations by the commissioners. That investigation, Knous says, will likely soon be taken over by the district attorney of the 18th Judicial District. As for bringing guns into the courthouse, Knous says, "I thought it was inappropriate."
Dunn says he'll move to clear up any legal uncertainties when he takes office in January. With the support of another newcomer to the board of commissioners, Ralph Johnson, Dunn says he'll work to pass a resolution making it illegal to carry weapons into public buildings.
"We have a million people working in the courthouse, and they don't need to be afraid of the county commissioners having a gunfight," he says. "It really makes us look stupid. We'll have to put a new item in the county budget for bulletproof vests."
All this talk of violence, real or imagined, has rattled many Elbert County denizens, who have long thought of their county as a refuge from the big city. For decades Elbert County was dominated by ranching families, but suddenly development pressures are spilling over from Denver and from booming Douglas County. Workers in the Denver Technological Center, for example, have discovered that a quaint old farm town like Elizabeth is only a 35-minute drive from their offices. The result is a building boom that's made Elizabeth look like Parker did thirty years ago.
Elbert County added almost 5,000 people between 1990 and 1995, an increase of 51 percent that brought the population to nearly 15,000. "We're just buried, man," says Knous. "We weren't set up for the boom we're enduring right now."
Dismayed at being absorbed into the Denver megalopolis, residents are lashing out at each other, and the pipeline controversy has polarized the county for much of the past year. Wood was a leader of the effort to block construction of the Diamond Shamrock gasoline pipeline that now traverses the west side of the county ("Gasoline Alley," May 2). Like most of the people in Elbert County, Wood depends on water from underground aquifers to serve his home. Opponents of the pipeline argued that it could endanger the county's water supply. An angry battle ended last June, when McAndrew, Morrison and fellow commissioner Heinz unanimously approved the route through western Elbert County.
That fight prompted Dunn to enter the Republican primary against Heinz. Dunn defeated Heinz and won the general election in November with a promise to turn politics in Elbert County upside down. Another challenger, Johnson, defeated Morrison. There's no fondness between Dunn and the remaining incumbent, McAndrew, and commission meetings could grow even more acrimonious when Dunn takes office in January.
"I know I can't work with McAndrew," says Dunn. "It's impossible."
A tall man with a booming voice, Dunn has lived in Elbert County for 33 years. A former executive with Martin Marietta, he once commuted to the Martin plant in Jefferson County by air, flying a small plane from a landing strip on his ranch near the town of Elbert and touching down on a baseball field by the huge complex.
Dunn will now have to face the complex issues besetting the fast-developing county. He wants to enforce tough new guidelines on proposed development and to take action to protect the county's fragile water supply.
"We're not ready for the growth we're facing," he says. "I want to slow growth down." Dunn favors directing most of the county's growth to the existing towns instead of creating a sprawl along highway 86. He also wants to require subdivision developers to build water and sewage systems, rather than the wells and septic tanks that now serve most of the new developments. An Elbert County water commission was recently formed, and Dunn hopes that group will come up with guidelines to protect the county's groundwater.
"Growth and water are the main things people are concerned about," agrees Johnson, a plainspoken second-generation rancher from Agate. Johnson will be the swing vote between Dunn and McAndrew on the commission, but it's unclear which way he'll swing. He campaigned as a critic of the way things have been handled in the county, but he says he won't take a position on issues until after he's sworn in next January. "I'm new at this political game," he says. "I've been laying low for now."
Besides development, another issue is inadequate county services. According to Sheriff Knous, a single guard at the county jail has to watch the prisoners at night and also handle all 911 calls. If the guard is distracted or has to tend to the prisoners, there's a delay until the call rolls over to dispatchers in Douglas County or the town of Parker.
Lepke shares Dunn's view that Elbert County government has been overwhelmed. He took the job as an administrative aide thinking it would be interesting to work in a rural county trying to deal with rapid growth. What he found, he says, was a county government out of the 1950s trying to cope with an avalanche of new development.
There were huge piles of documents in county offices waiting to be processed, says Lepke. Because of low salaries, Elbert County has a high staff-turnover rate, as employees find better-paying jobs in nearby Douglas County or the Denver area. Lepke found that much vital county business is unattended to. "The county administrator job has turned over a zillion times, because they don't pay anything," he says. "I found people to be clueless. There were all kinds of things with loose ends."
According to Lepke, county government lurches from crisis to crisis, and little planning has been done on how to prepare for the thousands of new residents who will arrive over the next decade. "I told them they need to have some vision other than what's five minutes down the road," he says.
Dunn wants to change the way the county does business, but he knows a tight budget will make that difficult. The incoming commissioner claims that every new home costs the county $7,000 per year, when charges for roads, schools, police and fire protection are factored in. He'd like to see the county build up its tax base with the construction of a new state prison north of Kiowa on the road to Bennett. He says such a facility would provide $1 million a year in tax revenue and claims that many of the employees would live outside Elbert County.
For now, Dunn is eager to jump into the fast-paced life of a county commissioner. He knows the $24,000-a-year job may be more than he's bargained for, yet despite the trend toward pistol-packing at the courthouse, he has no plans to go in armed.
"In a year I may have my wife start a recall on me," says Dunn, laughing. "I've had everybody tell me this is probably the roughest start a commissioner has ever had. I'll have hide like a buffalo before I'm ever sworn in."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.