Longform

VILLAGE DIN

part 1 of 2
If it's true that, as one resident says, God has smiled down on the city of Greenwood Village, he must have turned a blind eye to the local government.

In this wealthy Denver suburb, a quiet community split between modern upscale tract homes and 1950s ranch homes with private horse pastures, members of the city council refer openly to their political foes as liars, puppets, stooges, foils and handmaidens. Grenade-launching by elected officials is a time-honored tradition here--and despite a recent election in which a new mayor and five new councilmembers rode into office on a wave of optimism, it shows no signs of fading away.

The political battles in the town the locals refer to simply as "Greenwood" have become semi-legendary in Colorado political circles. Controversial former mayor Freda Poundstone once sued a city councilman for libel--and was herself the target of a grand jury investigation into alleged corruption. (Neither the libel suit nor the grand jury probe proved fruitful.) Current councilwoman Carol Johnson, termed a "bitch" by councilman Jim Underhill (she in turn describes him as a "political assassin"), earned her own place in town history last year when she became one of the few elected officials in Colorado to be publicly "censured" by her colleagues--not once, but twice.

Five years after Poundstone gave up the mayor's job to pursue her career as a political lobbyist, conspiracy theories and hints of secret deals abound at the town hall on South Quebec Street. The current mayor says he's heard rumors that his office is bugged. At least two councilmembers keep secret dossiers on other councilmembers. One former elected official hints darkly of having information capable of ending careers.

Despite hopes that last November's general election would signal a truce in the town's ongoing political brawl--now largely a turf war between equally affluent and equally acerbic factions from the community's east and west sides--the contest and its aftermath proved even nastier than usual. Several council candidates (successful and unsuccessful) complained that the town's weekly newspaper skewed their voting records and refused to print letters from constituents who supported them. And the city manager turned in her resignation two weeks ago, an action sources say was forced upon her because of a "political vendetta."

The rancor in Greenwood Village certainly isn't due to money woes. Enriched by sales tax revenues collected along its lucrative Arapahoe Road commercial corridor, the community of 8,000 people ended 1993 with a budget surplus of $6 million. The council voted last year to repeal a controversial auto-use tax--largely because the city couldn't find anything to spend it on.

Insiders instead attribute the down-and-dirty political atmosphere to a combination of greed, a lust for power and a surplus of locals with egos far too large for their Range Rovers. "It's a bunch of high-powered people with definite opinions and the time on their hands to wallow in this minutiae," says former councilman Neil Macey. "That's the root of all problems in Greenwood Village."

Greenwood Village was originally conceived in 1950 as "a poor man's Cherry Hills," says former mayor Rollie Barnard. It was designed for people who might not have as much money as their Cherry Hills neighbors to the north, but who were after the same sense of community and feeling of small-town life. They wanted nice homes with plenty of room for horses, chickens and a pumpkin patch. And for a time, that's exactly what they had.

The landscape was radically altered in the mid-1960s when construction began on the gleaming office towers of the Denver Tech Center. The office complex and the interstate freeway adjoining it now serve as a literal and symbolic dividing line for the town. The Tech Center's urban flavor, along with an influx of new residents, reshaped the town's traditional rural character. Sprawling five-acre homesites still exist to the west of the freeway, in the older part of town. But those early residences are now outnumbered by newer, denser enclaves to the east. Junior League types are falling over themselves to build $400,000-plus homes in The Preserve, the city's newest development, near Belleview and University. And property values have skyrocketed to the point where Barnard's forty-year-old ranch house, which sits on five acres and cost about $10,000 new, was last appraised at $650,000.

"I think today, from the standpoint of affluence, there's probably as much affluence in some of Greenwood Village as in Cherry Hills," says Barnard.

The wealth and development has proven a double-edged sword. On the up side, money is available to buy up rapidly dwindling open space for use as parks. But the question of how and where to spend the cash has helped create a pro-growth/anti-development schism. The bad feelings are compounded, some believe, by a machine-style political process in which a few influential people pick and choose who will lead the city.

The combative nature of Greenwood Village politics first came to the attention of many metro-area residents in the 1980s, with the onset of what Barnard refers to as "the Freda years." The moniker refers to Poundstone, a former liquor store owner and limited-stakes gambling proponent who has since earned a reputation as the mother of all Colorado lobbyists.

Poundstone, as she is quick to remind others, engineered the state's 1974 "Poundstone Amendment," which limited Denver's ability to grow via annexation. "She takes all the credit for how powerful she was to get it passed," complains Macey, "when actually, it was the right issue at the right time." The issue was forced busing--Denver was under a court order to do it, and suburbanites, who feared their children would be bused if Denver annexed their property, didn't want to go along for the ride.

Poundstone amassed still more clout by helping raise tens of thousands for Republican candidates. She also worked on Ronald Reagan's transition team in 1980, helping propel Colorado's Anne Gorsuch into an ill-fated stint as the director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In 1985 the good people of Greenwood Village paid homage to Poundstone's clout, connections and political savvy by electing her mayor. Her four-year reign was among the most momentous, contentious and scandal-ridden in the city's history.

Most of the problems in the Poundstone years revolved around Greenwood Village's own annexation problems. The 1980s were a time of enormous expansion for the town, along with the other suburbs that line Denver's southern and eastern boundaries. In 1987, at Poundstone's urging, the council began considering the annexation of several residential areas east of Interstate 25, as well as a burgeoning commercial sector along Arapahoe Road.

Poundstone noted--presciently, it would turn out--that the Arapahoe Road property was a potential wellspring of sales taxes. But two councilmembers emerged as vehement opponents of the annexation proposal. Myrna Poticha, an outspoken environmentalist who had served four terms on the state Water Quality Control Commission, and Sonny Wiegand, a local tax attorney, charged that the proposal was actually a thinly disguised sweetheart deal for developers. Under the deal, they noted, developers were given remarkable leeway, getting the city's okay to bypass normal zoning procedures; conceivably, an entire convention center could be put up, even over the objections of a future council.

"We could have made the same annexation without having to give as much money to the developers," says Wiegand. "It could have been done on entirely different terms."
The proposal was particularly galling to Poticha, who found it disturbingly similar to a deal Poundstone had struck a year earlier as mayor to end a lawsuit filed against the city by the Denver Tech Center (DTC). Claiming city officials had unfairly limited its ability to develop its land, the DTC had asked for $850 million in damages. The settlement Poundstone signed off on, says Poticha, gave the Tech Center virtually unlimited control over its own property development.

Poticha and Wiegand had questions about a possible conflict of interest by Poundstone in the DTC deal, and their concerns were renewed when they began to examine the details of the new annexation proposal. Poticha repeatedly raised questions at council meetings, demanding that Poundstone disclose her list of clients. "She refused," says Poticha. "She stormed out of three meetings--gaveled them to a close."

At one point Poticha and the three other anti-annexation councilmembers also stomped out of a meeting in protest. Says Poticha, by way of explanation, "They had done it first."

Angered by her opponents' persistent claims of possible backroom deals and abuses of power, Poundstone fought back by suing Sonny Wiegand for libel. The suit was filed two months before the annexation vote--and Wiegand's first bid for re-election. The suit dragged on for two years before being settled out of court. "Her attorneys agreed to pay me to have the case dismissed," says Wiegand. Although the terms of the settlement don't allow him to say how much money he received, Wiegand says, "It made me happy. It was a significant amount of money." (Poundstone did not return numerous phone calls from Westword seeking comment.)

But though her suit against Wiegand failed, Poundstone prevailed on the annexation question. Her proposed plan was passed by a vote of the people in November 1987. The victory was made even more sweet for the mayor when Poticha lost her own bid for re-election and--at least momentarily--dropped off the town's political radar.

Poticha, however, would be back.

If Poundstone was relieved that Poticha was no longer on the council to make her life miserable, her joy was short-lived. Two other councilmembers quickly rose up to join Wiegand in the fray.

Neil Macey, who came on board as Poticha was leaving, was on Poundstone's side during his initial months on council. But after that, he says, "I saw what she was doing, and jumped to the other side and stayed there for the rest of my two years.

"Getting rid of Freda became my goal," he admits now. "I figured if we could get her out of there, it would solve a lot of problems."
But thanks to a brewing scandal over at the police station that stands next to the town hall, the mayor and council soon had a whole new set of problems to wrestle with. Greenwood Village has a relatively small police force. But like the town's governing body at the time, it seemed to have an oversized capacity for mischief. By 1988 the town's police officers were becoming more vocal in their complaints about chief Daryl Gates and the way he managed the department. It was a prickly issue, primarily because Gates and Poundstone were allies.

"Sonny and Myrna had been hearing for a long time about all the problems with the police," says Macey. "Then, after several meetings, officers started to call me and tell me stories of sexual harassment and mismanagement. Finally, I came to the conclusion that if 5 percent of these things were true, it had to be a mismanaged department."
The council invited the disgruntled officers to share their concerns at a meeting. About twenty officers--roughly half the department--attended that meeting, many of them testifying about such things as inadequate training and alleged sexist slurs and racist jokes made by the chief. The turnout itself made an impression on the council, says Wiegand, since police officers are generally apolitical and don't like to be caught publicly criticizing their superiors.

By the summer of 1989 things had reached a crisis point with both the chief and the mayor. In July an Arapahoe County grand jury began a five-month probe of the city's political power structure. The grand jury's first charge was to look into Poundstone's alleged mismanagement and conflicts of interest. The second was to look into possible mismanagement of the police department by Gates. And the third issue, originally nothing more than an offshoot of the second, was to look into the way Gates handled a 1984 investigation into the death of Greenwood Village stockbroker Larry Ocrant.

The grand jury investigation was prompted, Denver DA's investigator Jim Clement would testify, by information provided by "a city councilman and a former city councilwoman." Those sources are commonly believed to be Poundstone's old enemies, Wiegand and Poticha. But, says Poticha, "I'm not going to confirm it." Wiegand's reply: a terse "no comment."

The allegations against Poundstone included claims that she and her son had used a city credit card to make unauthorized charges. She also was accused of receiving free personal services from a computer company that she later hired to perform a wage survey of city employees, Clement told the grand jury.

But concerns about Poundstone's work as a paid lobbyist were central to the investigation. There were at least three specific instances, Clement testified, where Freda Poundstone was representing developers and construction companies that had dealings with the city--in direct conflict with her position as mayor. Among other things, Clement told the grand jury, Poundstone represented the Happy Church, which hoped to build a huge edifice on residential land not zoned for that purpose. (The church later built in a commercial sector of the city.)

Clement also looked into the police officers' complaints about Gates, and the allegations that the chief had interfered in the investigation into Larry Ocrant's death.

Ocrant was found dead in his bed in April 1984 with a bullet in his head and a gun in his hand. The police investigation was irregular, to be sure. Gates initially barred a medical examiner from the scene. He destroyed the weapon, bullet and bloody sheets at the urging of Ocrant's widow, Sueann. According to grand jury testimony from police officers, Larry Ocrant was abusive, and Sueann had considered divorce. The coroner ruled, however, that the death was a suicide.

Sueann Ocrant was a close friend of Poundstone's who the mayor had urged to run for council back in 1985. Ocrant won the election, and after being sworn into office was perceived as one of the mayor's staunchest supporters--even, claims Macey, basing her votes on hand signals delivered by the mayor at council meetings.

But the grand jury investigation four years later took its toll on Poundstone and her allies. A month into the investigation, Chief Gates resigned under pressure from the council. Poundstone declined to run again that fall. Sueann Ocrant also chose not to seek re-election.

A month after the general election, the grand jury concluded its investigation without issuing any indictments. Six months later, however, at the insistence of two of Larry Ocrant's three grown children, one tantalizing sentence of the grand jury report was released. Ocrant's death, the jurors had concluded, was a homicide, not a suicide. In late 1991 all the testimony referring to the Ocrant portion of the investigation (and some about Poundstone) was released to the public.

The mess is still slopping its way through the courts. Two of the Ocrant children have filed suit against their stepmother and Greenwood Village officials, alleging a conspiracy to cover up the circumstances of Larry Ocrant's death. Former councilwoman Sueann Ocrant has filed suit against those stepchildren and the Rocky Mountain News, alleging they placed her in a false light as a murderess.

end of part 1

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Karen Bowers