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.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers