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Mired in political rivalries, power struggles, Monument awaits election to move on

Author: Rachel Riley, The Gazette - July 9, 2018 - Updated: July 9, 2018

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A feud that came to a head with an unsatisfactory review of the Monument police chief’s performance has since led to the firing of the town manager, two municipal employees wondering if they still have jobs and a deadlocked Board of Trustees.

Town government in Monument has been in turmoil since ex-Town Manager Chris Lowe cited issues with Police Chief Jacob Shirk’s performance, including IT security lapses noted in an audit of the department by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. In addition, Lowe faulted the chief for mishandling evidence, sex offenders not being registered correctly and what he claimed was insubordination by Shirk.

A day after Lowe’s negative review dated Jan. 31, Shirk fired back, filing a complaint with the Board of Trustees, apparently accusing Lowe of having made sexist comments and disparaging remarks about police officers.

Lowe and Shirk were suspended in early February while the accusations were investigated. By late February, Shirk was back at work, while Lowe remained on administrative leave with pay until he was fired last month “without cause” and given a payout of $115,000.

While the mystery-shrouded investigation dragged on, the town’s leadership changed — Trustee Don Wilson was elected mayor in April, defeating a rival trustee, Jeffrey Bornstein, and leaving his seat on the board vacant. Two new trustees also were elected.

The election exposed a divide in the town that became apparent in May, when three trustees, Bornstein, Greg Coopman and Laurie Clark voted against reappointing the town’s clerk, attorney and treasurer, then boycotted special meetings Wilson called to discuss their objections.

Town Clerk Laura Hogan has since been reappointed, but the other two, town Attorney Alicia Corley and Treasurer Pamela Smith, remain in limbo. Efforts to resolve the 3-3 deadlock have gone nowhere — trustees could not agree on appointing a replacement for Wilson, requiring the town to hold a special election to fill the vacant seat this fall.

Interviews with current and former town officials and documents obtained by The Gazette, including the CBI audit and a more recent review of the police department, depict a small town beset by rivalries and power struggles.

Lowe was placed on administrative leave on Feb. 5, and trustees voted unanimously to fire him on June 4. The results of the alleged misconduct investigation, conducted by the town’s insurer, the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency, have not been publicly released.

But Lowe’s release agreement with the town, approved by the board on June 21, suggests that he wasn’t guilty of wrongdoing.

The $115,000 consists of severance-related payments, as outlined in Lowe’s employment contract, as well as “additional sums,” according to the agreement, provided to The Gazette in response to an open records request.

Lowe’s contract specifies that the town must agree to a payout including six months salary and benefits if the employee is not guilty of misconduct or wrongdoing that would be cause for termination, such as “fraud,” “dishonesty” or “negligence or malfeasance in the performance of job duties.”

“They (trustees) had plenty of opportunity to make a finding of wrongdoing if they thought there was misconduct of any type, and they didn’t do that,” Lowe’s attorney, Denise DeForest, told The Gazette last week.

Before his release agreement was finalized, Lowe said in an interview that he believed the police chief conspired with his friend, Trustee Jeffrey Bornstein, to fabricate the allegations against Lowe in retaliation for the negative performance review.

Shirk has disputed that chain of events, saying he did not see the review until the day after he submitted the complaint.

During an interview last week attended by Shirk’s attorney, Erin Jensen, the police chief said he decided to submit an official complaint to the board after Lowe’s behavior became increasingly “abusive, rude and unprofessional.”

The Gazette sought to obtain Shirk’s complaint through an open records request in February. In denying that request, the town clerk referenced a statute that keeps sexual harassment complaints private. She also cited another statutory exemption, saying “disclosure of the memorandum would substantially harm the public interest by unduly interfering with the privacy rights and liberty interests of the town’s employees and due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.”

In the interview, Shirk cited a number of sexist comments that Lowe allegedly had made. At one staff meeting late last year, Lowe asked staff members about their “guilty pleasures” and said he liked to watch one television show because it featured topless women, according to Shirk. Shirk said that Lowe also made derogatory comments about his officers.

Shirk added that during the most recent holiday season Lowe didn’t give police officers an “appreciation” gift that is typically given to all town employees.

Lowe told The Gazette on Friday that his settlement agreement with the town prevents him from commenting on the specific allegations against him, but said that many of the accusations were “either falsehoods or completely out of context.”

Shirk downplayed the issues with his department that Lowe had highlighted, saying that many of the deficiencies cited in the performance review were not supported by documentation. He added that the Police Department previously had little control over the town’s IT staff, so it was hard to meet all the CBI’s requirements. A newly formed agreement will ensure that his department is involved with IT decisions, he said.

However, after Lowe was suspended, problems continued at the Police Department, according to documents obtained by The Gazette.

In a two-page “management review” emailed to the Board of Trustees on May 8, Acting Town Manager Pamela Smith outlined lapses in record-keeping, data sorting and collection and tracking of intergovernmental agreements with other agencies. She wrote in the review, based she said on interviews with Police Department employees, that the department “lacks proper leadership and accountability” and that the chief presides over an environment that “is highly political and inefficient in decision-making.”

The Gazette was anonymously provided with Smith’s “management review,” as well as the email to which she attached it, and a letter dated Feb. 16 from the CBI detailing the results of the audit. Smith and Wilson confirmed the authenticity of the documents.

Smith wrote that past town managers have wanted to fire the chief, but, “There has also not been a manager willing to put their own job on the line, to ‘take this on,’ until Chris (Lowe) got here, because of the strong political and community backing the chief has.”

“The police kind of run their own show over there, and they always have,” Smith, who was appointed acting town manager after Lowe was placed on leave, said in a recent interview.

“He (Lowe) just didn’t have the support behind him to take any kind of action.”

She suggested in her May 8 email to trustees that the town ask the police chief to “retire” with a severance package and that the town part ways with Lowe “so that the town can start fresh with new management in these key positions.”

When asked about the “management review,” Shirk said his department plans to ask trustees for additional funds to purchase a software that will help sort and share information between the department’s record management and dispatch systems.

He also said that public support for the department is a reflection of its quality leadership. Smith, he added, should have shared her concerns with him before sending the memo to trustees.

“That memo clearly demonstrates to me that she did not have an interest in discussing her perception of any problems that were there,” Shirk said.

Wilson told The Gazette on Sunday that trustees were not considering asking or forcing the chief to step down.

Smith, who has worked for the town for more than a decade, is likely to lose her job as treasurer because trustees voted 3-3 against reappointing her. Town attorney Alicia Corley also is likely to get the ax.

Smith, who sent the “management review” the day after the board voted against reappointing her, has said she suspects her view of the problems of the police department might have put her job in jeopardy.

Former Mayor Jeffrey Kaiser said in an interview with The Gazette that the board members who voted against her reappointment sided with the police chief.

“This is a clear witch hunt, and it’s a total vendetta,” Kaiser said. “They (the trustees who voted against the appointment) are just using their political might to get rid of outstanding people — and to probably do it in a self-serving manner.”

The dissenting trustees have said they are acting in the best interests of the town.

In an email to The Gazette on Friday, Clark said that she found “alarming and chronic mismanagement of the town’s tax revenues” when she reviewed the budget and past audits of the town’s finances.

She added that “the condition of all departments appear to be extremely chaotic, noncompliant to statutory law and insufficiently directed to operate the town effectively.”

“This is the result of very poor town management decisions and misdirection/mismanagement of tax revenues — as well as misuse of authority,” Clark said. “I am not sure that the acting town manager/current treasurer can lay the blame at any member of the staff’s feet when it is very clear that the decisions made came from those appointees from their positions of authority.”

Coopman said in an email to The Gazette that Smiths’ “unsolicited memo” about problems in the Police Department shows “a clear personal bias and continues a dangerous narrative of the environment at town hall.”

“I believe this memo highlights a Police Department that is under attack which I would imagine creates significant liability concerns,” he said.

Bornstein did not respond to a call requesting comment.

Rachel Riley, The Gazette

Rachel Riley, The Gazette