Tense Public Comment Confronts New Aurora Mayor, City Council

Activists posed with their giant gavel before an Aurora City Council meeting. Mike Coffman hopped in for a photo.
Activists posed with their giant gavel before an Aurora City Council meeting. Mike Coffman hopped in for a photo. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Aurora politics won't be settling down anytime soon.

Just minutes after being sworn in as mayor, Mike Coffman stepped into a barrage of contentious testimony from members of the public at the Aurora City Council meeting on Monday, December 2, most of whom came to speak out against the recent death of a young African-American man following his interaction with police.

“This past week has not been justice for Elijah McClain. It’s been a joke," Darlene Jones, an Aurora resident wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, said at the start of the public comment period.

McClain died in August days after Aurora police officers forcefully detained the 23-year-old even though he hadn't committed a crime. At the end of November, District Attorney Dave Young announced that he would not prosecute officers involved in the incident.

One member of the public after another implored members of council and Coffman to take more action regarding McClain. Some called for a federal investigation, or demanded that police stop labeling McClain as a suspect and instead call him a victim.

"If you don't care about the life that was taken or the lives that are taken by the Aurora Police Department, I hope it happens to you, I hope it happens to your family, and I hope it happens to your loved ones, because that might be the only way that you could ever understand the travesty of this," said activist Hashim Coates.

The initial public comment period lasted about 45 minutes. Aurora City Council allows for three minutes of comment per person for an uncapped number of people.

When members of the public went over their allotted three minutes, Coffman hit his newly purchased gavel, which he ordered online after searching for the biggest gavel he could find, to coax them into stopping their testimony.

Coffman decided to buy the gavel after witnessing the November 4 council meeting, during which protesters demanding justice for McClain disrupted the meeting to such an extent that then-mayor Bob LeGare decided to hold the gathering in private chambers, albeit with a live-TV stream.

"Amazon’s wasn’t big enough," the former Republican member of Congress told Westword about his new wooden toy just before the meeting started. "It’s more kind of like a mallet."

While there were jeers from the audience when Coffman used his gavel and even clapping to the beat after each hit, there were no major interruptions during the council meeting.

"If they try and disrupt a meeting, I’m not retreating," Coffman told Westword.

Once the initial public comment period ended, Coffman moved forward with the handful of items on the council agenda, which revolved around less controversial topics, such as water, playgrounds and budgeting.

But the lack of drama during the council meeting was short-lived.

Toward the end of the meeting, councilmembers voted on a mayor pro-tem. The vote could have been the first instance of unity among Democrats on the historically conservative council, which is now made up of five Democrats, four Republicans and one independent.

However, Councilwoman Crystal Murillo and Councilwoman Nicole Johnston, both Democrats elected in 2017, each ran for the position. Johnston won after garnering eight votes, including that of fellow Democrat Allison Hiltz, to Murillo's three.

Murillo voted for herself and got votes from Alison Coombs and Juan Marcano, two political newcomers who challenged council incumbents from the left. Murillo, Coombs and Marcano are ideologically left of the rest of council.

Aurora City Council meetings are likely to continue seeing robust public comment periods, filled with angst about Elijah McClain and the immigrant detention facility in Aurora, which has been a major point of discussion at past meetings.

Although he's becoming accustomed to his new gavel, Coffman said he wouldn't kick protesters out of council chambers. "I think that would be inappropriate for me to make that decision. There are First Amendment issues there," Coffman said.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.