Below the Belt

Former Durango mayor Jeff Morrissey is accused of striking a low blow in the fight for a controversial southern Colorado water project that he supports. As a result, he faces two counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly making lewd comments to two women who oppose the Animas-La Plata water project.

If what the women allege is true, then Morrissey violated an agreement worked out by Governor Roy Romer that calls for each side to treat the other with "dignity and respect."

On October 17, Cathy Stanford says, she was pulling out of a parking space at the First National Bank of Durango when she noticed two men, one seated in the car next to hers and the other standing outside of it. The man outside the car, later identified as Morrissey, a former Durango mayor and current boardmember of the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District, saw a bumper sticker on Stanford's car with the letters "ALP" (for Animas-La Plata) and a red slash through them.

According to Stanford, who had her window rolled down, Morrissey approached her and started talking about another popular bumper sticker that she didn't have, one that states, "ALP sucks water." The proposed water project, supported by local business and agricultural interests and generally opposed by environmentalists and taxpayer groups, would pump water out of the Animas River hundreds of feet up into a yet-to-be-built reservoir at a cost of hundreds of millions of tax dollars.

Stanford, who moved to Durango from North Carolina five years ago, didn't know who Morrissey was. But this is the way she recalls the conversation:

"He asked, "Are you 'A,' and does that mean you give blowjobs?' I said, 'No.' And for some reason, I started to explain what my bumper sticker meant. He laughed and said, 'Too bad, because I was going to ask you to get on your knees and do me.'"

Stunned, Stanford says, she asked him, "'Does talking like that make you feel good?' He just laughed. So I called him an 'old shit' and flipped him off."

Stanford says she was frightened and intimidated by the 51-year-old Morrissey, who stands 5'10" and weighs 185 pounds. "I was also angry," she adds. "If I'd had my pepper spray, I would have given him a real surprise."

After she drove away, the thirty-year-old woman decided not to let the matter drop and returned to the parking lot to get the license-plate number of the car by which the man had been standing. She got the number and noticed that the man who had accosted her was now speaking to another woman.

Nineteen-year-old Crista Mahlum had pulled into the spot vacated by Stanford in a car that bore an "ALP sucks" bumper sticker. According to Mahlum, Morrissey asked her if her name was Alp.

"It didn't click," she recalls. "He just kept asking if my name was Alp. He said I was too pretty to have a name like Alp.

"Then he asked if I just sucked water or did I suck other things, too. And would I suck him."

Mahlum, a Durango native, says Morrissey got closer until he was within a foot of her, and his voice rose to where he was yelling. "He said I must have a low mentality to have a sticker like that," she recalls. "He identified himself as a former mayor of Durango, but he didn't give his name. I didn't know him."

And the women didn't know each other, either. Both separately reported the incidents to police, and Stanford gave the license-plate number. It turned out to belong to a car leased to the local cattlemen's association (which supports the water project) that had been driven that day by Brice Lee ("who didn't do a thing when this was going on," Stanford says).

According to a report by the investigating police officer, Lee admitted that Stanford's description of his companion "sounded like Jeff Morrissey." The officer contacted Morrissey and, according to the police report, the former mayor admitted that he had talked to the women "about the bumper stickers and that he made comments about how they must like to give blowjobs." Morrissey was cited for disorderly conduct and released pending a No-vember court date.

Morrissey told Westword last week that he'd been told not to comment by his lawyers. But then he went on to say, "I don't think this is news for you. It's a trumped-up deal. I'm going to plead not guilty. I had a guy standing next to me the whole time, and he'll testify for me."

Morrissey says the women's complaints constitute "harassment" by opponents of the water project.

"They didn't like me questioning their bumper stickers," he says. "They had vulgar ones. They put them on their cars and call it free speech. It's pretty stupid--people go ruining other people's lives."

Morrissey added, "I'm worried about your newspaper. This has nothing to do with you. It's a Western Slope thing."

In the past few weeks, opponents and proponents of the water project have been meeting to see whether a compromise can be reached. And their discussion is supposed to be civil, according to an agreement worked out through Romer and Lieutenant Governor Gail Schoettler. Under the terms of the agreement, representatives of the various groups, including the water-conservancy districts, are supposed to "recognize that each party deserves, and indeed must, be treated with dignity and respect for fruitful discussions to progress. During the course of the Romer/ Schoettler process, each party agrees to refrain from publicly voicing or publishing personal attacks on the character or motives of the other parties."

Proponents of the water project, the first phase of which would be paid for mostly by the federal government, include Durango-area real estate interests, "dryside" farmers and ranchers, and leaders of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes ("Rough Waters," June 13). The opposition is a coalition comprising environmental activists, anti-development and taxpayer groups, and members of the Ute tribes who, noting that there is no funding to bring the water to their reservations, oppose it on economic and cultural grounds.

Stanford says she opposes the project on environmental grounds. Mahlum, a political-science major at Fort Lewis College who describes herself as a "far-right-wing Libertarian," says she opposes it "because it is not the job of the federal government to build it...If it was a private enterprise, fine."

Other opponents of the project vow to take the Morrissey incident up with the governor.

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