Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirApril 11, 20185min1117

Former Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland wants to take down one of the judges who released a convicted serial child molester from his 324-year prison sentence in February. Reports the Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, Rowland — who now leads the county’s program advocating for abused and neglected children — is spearheading a campaign to oust Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Craig Welling when he faces a judicial retention election in 2020.

Welling is one of three judges on the panel who overturned Michael McFadden’s 2015 conviction by a Mesa County jury for molesting several young boys and girls. The appellate judges found that delays surrounding questions that McFadden’s lawyers had wanted to submit on the questionnaire for the jurors was a violation of  his right to a speedy trial.

Rowland, long prominent in West Slope Republican politics, may be familiar to Coloradans elsewhere in the state as the unsuccessful Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 2006. That was the year the GOP’s former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez lost the governor’s race to Democrat Bill Ritter. Rowland, who early in her career was a child-protection caseworker for the Mesa County Department of Human Services, is now executive director of CASA/Court Appointed Special Advocates of Mesa County.

Rowland’s campaign to persuade voters statewide to dump Welling is called Justice for All Colorado and is raising funds for the endeavor. Colorado judges are not elected directly to the bench but instead are appointed by the governor from lists of finalists recommended by the state’s judicial nominating commissions. Once appointed, judges — even the seven justices of the Colorado Supreme Court — subsequently face voters in retention elections. Rarely is anyone removed from the bench.

Why just Welling rather than either or both of the other two Court of Appeals judges who sided with him in the McFadden appeal? Rowland told the Daily Sentinel’s Erin McIntyre that one of the other judges has since retired, and the other isn’t up for a retention election until 2024.

McIntyre offers details of Justice for All Colorado’s planned campaign:

The group is in the beginning stages of raising money and registering as a political-action committee to campaign against Welling, and has set up a website at campaign will include videos, social media posts and advertising across media platforms, Rowland indicated. The group’s current goal is to raise $300,000 to $500,000 and the group is looking for campaign leaders in all 64 Colorado counties, since voters across the state can vote to retain Welling.

‘We’re not here to debate the legal aspects of this case,’ she told the group, stating that they were trying the case in the court of public opinion. ‘We’re trying this in the court of common decency.’

The ruling by the Court of Appeals has hit a nerve in Mesa County, and efforts are afoot by law enforcement there to put McFadden back behind bars, McIntyre reports:

Rowland said Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein is working to determine whether charges in an older case could be filed against McFadden.

When McFadden was initially released from prison, it was believed he didn’t have to register as a sex offender. However, a previous conviction of sexual assault on a child in 1990, involving an 8-year-old boy who had been sodomized, was used to require his registration. He had been released from prison on parole in 2005. The crimes on the six children in the more recent case happened not long after that, between 2008 and 2012, and he was arrested in 2013.


Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirFebruary 13, 20182min929

The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction offers an update this week on the West Slope’s high hopes for landing a relocated U.S. Bureau of Land Management headquarters. The upshot? Keep the faith.

Reports the Sentinel’s Gary Harmon:

“More under this administration than any other administration, it’s highly likely,” Mesa County Commissioner Scott McInnis, a (former) six-term congressman, said of relocating the BLM headquarters.

“I think we’ve got a great chance” to land the agency, McInnis said, acknowledging that there will be in-state competition for the headquarters. …

… Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been open to the idea of moving the headquarters, according to federal legislators who have discussed it with him.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, both Colorado Republicans, have introduced companion measures calling for the BLM to be moved to a Western state.

But Harmon also notes:

…Zinke is considering reorganizing the way Interior manages its lands and resources, possibly by establishing offices along major river drainages.

The Colorado and Gunnison rivers meet in Grand Junction before flowing into Utah, making the city a potentially ideal location for such an initiative.

The BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation, all with significant presences already in Grand Junction, are Interior Department agencies that could be affected by a reorganization. The U.S. Forest Service, an Agriculture Department agency, also might be affected.

Either way, maybe, Grand Junction could get more federal FTEs and office space, whether it’s a new Western HQ for BLM or some other reorganization at Interior. As ever, we’ll stay tuned.


Joey BunchJoey BunchOctober 2, 20172min576

A recent ruling from a federal judge that Colorado’s sex offender registry violated the constitutional rights of three sex offenders has prompted swift reactions across the state, but it’s still not clear whether or when it will affect Mesa County cases.

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman intends to appeal the decision.

Montrose County Sheriff Rick Dunlap decided to pull down the registry maintained on his office’s website — although, according to Undersheriff Adam Murdie, the county is still providing registry data to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said it’s notable that attorneys representing the three plaintiffs didn’t challenge the constitutionality of the sex offender registry act as a whole — just as it applied to the three “very sympathetic” defendants.

“We were glad that there was no question that it is not unconstitutional on its face,” Rubinstein said. “Essentially what Judge Matsch was saying in this is, the three individuals who challenged this had such a mitigated situation that there was really no ability for them to come forward and say they’ve been fully rehabilitated.”

Read the rest of the story here.


Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirSeptember 19, 20172min535

As news folks and political gadflies — but probably few others — know, city councils regularly schedule “work” or “study” sessions in which they are briefed on local issues but take no action on them. The sessions are open to the public but not necessarily structured to take public comment, which can leave citizens miffed when they show up to air their views. The Grand Junction City Council has decided to address the concern head-on in the interest of clearing the air.

As the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s Amy Hamilton reports:

In an effort to work on a solution, future workshop meeting agendas will be labeled as a forum for elected officials to converse, not necessarily open to public comment. If councilors notice a large crowd has gathered for an item, they’ll also pipe up at the meeting’s start to tell people comments won’t be accepted. However, more time will be allowed at twice-monthly meetings of the City Council for residents to comment on issues.

Mayor Rick Taggart introduced the issue Monday night after hearing feedback from residents who believed they would have more of a say at some recent workshop meetings.

Says Taggart, “I think sometimes we confuse our audience … Do we want input from the audience … sometimes we don’t.”


Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirAugust 18, 20177min455

Is the Facebook face-off between state Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, and a few of his political detractors getting out of hand and maybe just a little bit silly?

Meanwhile, are we witnessing the development of the newest M.O. for ambushing political foes — social media-spawned legal actions? More on that below, but first, the latest in the Scott saga:

Three Grand Junction-area critics of the veteran lawmaker who recently accused him of nudging them out of his Facebook and Twitter accounts by hiding their comments and blocking them now have called on Senate President Kevin Grantham to launch a formal ethics investigation. A bit far-fetched, you say? The complainants seem pretty serious. Reports the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s Charles Ashby:

The three complainants say that because Scott is a duly elected official, his Twitter and Facebook accounts constitute a public forum that should be open to all.

“Senator Scott maintains his Facebook page and Twitter accounts under the aegis of his position as a state elected official for the purpose of interacting with members of the public,” the three said in their complaint. “He uses his Facebook page to share policy-related information with constituents. Senator Scott primarily uses his social media accounts as tools of governance, keeping constituents abreast of his official activities as a state senator.”

Scott told the Sentinel he only blocks inappropriate or off-topic comments. He also said:

“I look at (social media) as something that I do personally because I scour news stories, and if I think it’s something of interest to constituents who might be friending me because they don’t get The Daily Sentinel, for example, I post the story … The state doesn’t pay for this. There’s no state staffer that posts for me.”

As noted here the other day, the critics — who include a local, left-of-center blogger and a self-described “progressive” activist — cite a recent federal court ruling in Virginia that a public official had violated a local constituent’s right to free speech by taking down negative comments he had posted to the official’s Facebook page. The court found the official had acted “under color of law” in maintaining the page largely as a forum for public office, as well as in removing unwanted comments.

Yet, only days after that ruling, the same plaintiff also lost a very similar case he had brought against another local government. Same U.S District Court but a different judge.

A higher court may have to sort it all out in the end.

It’s the ruling in favor of that plaintiff, of course, that is inspiring some political activists — and not just in Colorado — to take action. In fact, it appears to have become the tactic of choice in a number of lawsuits around the country by those looking to get even with politicians they oppose. Here’s commentator Robert Knight in the Washington Times:

Several Republican governors have joined President Trump in an exclusive but growing club: They are being sued by left-wing organizations for removing persistent critics from their Facebook or Twitter pages.

In many cases, we’re talking about trolls, the people who post inflammatory, irrelevant or offensive comments. The latest to face the trolls’ wrath is Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued last Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Maine on behalf of two clients who say they were unconstitutionally blocked from Mr. LePage’s Facebook page.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin are among the targets, as well. Knight also notes:

On July 11, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed a federal suit against President Trump and two aides (former press secretary Sean Spicer and social media director Dan Scavino) in the Southern District of New York for blocking users critical of him from his private Twitter account.

Is Scott infringing on the rights of those who post comments on his own social media accounts? Perhaps the courts will resolve that one.

While they’re at it, the courts also might be asked to consider if officeholders like Scott are the targets of orchestrated trolling tactics that taunt them into reprisal and then haul them to court. More or less the digital equivalent of hounding politicians into “town hall” meetings — and then shouting them down if and when they show up.


Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirAugust 16, 20176min541

Remember the face-off over “fake news,” pitting a Colorado state senator against the daily newspaper in Grand Junction? The grudge match between the two has resurfaced; only, this time, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel is quibbling with the way Republican state Sen. Ray Scott manages his Facebook account. Notably, he is accused of deleting some derogatory comments — which the newspaper, pointing to a recent court ruling back east, says might be unconstitutional for a public official.

In the previous dustup, Daily Sentinel Publisher Jay Seaton had threatened legal action against Scott for calling the paper’s content “fake news.” Seaton backed down a couple of months later. This time, the newspaper settled for publishing a news report on the accusations against Scott, followed by an editorial chiding the senator:

Scott has to understand that if he’s going to use social media as a vehicle to express his political views or advocate for specific government action, he’s turned his Facebook and twitter accounts into public forums where certain types of speech enjoy constitutional protection. If he wants to avoid legal hot water, he either has to shut down those accounts or tolerate what his constituents have to say, whether he likes it or not.

The specter of “legal hot water” arises from a recent federal court ruling in Virginia that held that a public official had violated a local constituent’s right to free speech by taking down negative comments he had posted to the official’s Facebook page. The court found the official had acted “under color of law” in maintaining the page largely as a forum for public office, as well as in removing unwanted comments. The ruling is of course turning heads among elected officials because social media, like a private Facebook or Twitter account, had been thought personal and inviolable even if owned by a public official.

The broader implications of the case have yet to be sorted out. It’s probably worth noting one distinction between the Virginia case and the accusations against Scott: The Virginia official’s page was partially run, and posted to, by an aide who was a paid county staffer. The court referenced the aide as a factor in its ruling.

More telling, just days later, the same plaintiff — he’s a well-known local gadfly — lost a very similar case he had brought against another local government; same court but a different judge, who wrote:

“…it cannot be said that such a First Amendment right was a ‘clearly established’ right, ‘of which a reasonable person would gave known … These Individual Defendants are therefore entitled to qualified immunity for the actions they took against Plaintiff with respect to their Facebook pages.”

A local newspaper report surmised “The ruling by Judge Anthony J. Trenga seems to contradict a ruling last week by Judge James C. Cacheris in the same federal circuit…” The report also quoted the county attorney, who concluded: “An appellate court will need to clarify how and when social media constitute public forums.”

The Sentinel’s news report last week included interviews with some locals who said their comments were taken down from Scott’s Facebook account; Scott told the newspaper he’d withhold comment until getting legal input on the Virginia case’s implications, if any, for a circumstance such as his.

Whatever the lawyers, and probably the appellate courts, eventually conclude about this novel court ruling, it could have a chilling effect on public officials’ use of their private social media accounts for public purposes. Meanwhile, it definitely has had a chilling effect on relations between Scott and his hometown paper.


Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirAugust 10, 20173min346

“For the past two summers,” reports the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, “Orchard Mesa (Middle School) Principal Cheri Vana has changed the school’s marquee, located on Unaweep Avenue, to say ‘Your kids deserve a new school.'”

The ritual came to an abrupt end last week after the administration at the Grand Junction area’s Mesa County Valley School District 51 sent out an e-memo to district faculty and staff  reminding them of state election law and its restrictions on using public school resources or man-hours on political campaigns. The school board had voted June 20 to put a bond issue and a mill-levy override — total value: $120 million — on the fall ballot. What was previously an open-ended appeal on Orchard Mesa’s marquee now became a campaign pitch.

The school’s principal assured the Sentinel’s Katie Langford:

“We put that up at the beginning of the summer and probably should have taken it down as soon as it was official,” Vana said. “We won’t put that up again.”

Langford summed up the situation in the story’s opener:

The nearly 3,000 people employed by School District 51 must walk a fine line this fall between sharing their passion for education and advocating for two ballot measures that could have a substantial impact on their future.

It’s an old issue: How far can public school employees — or any public employees — go in advocating for more public funding through the ballot box? It plays out every election in school districts across the state (and country).

But here’s another issue: Even absent a looming election or upcoming ballot proposal, what do taxpayers think of a principal using a school marquee — usually reserved for announcing sporting events or parent-teacher nights — to lobby the public for a new school?

Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirFebruary 27, 20172min306

It isn’t often a newspaper threatens to sue a reader for allegedly smearing its good name. Probably even rarer: when the reader in question is an elected official. Much already has been reported about the potentially precedent-setting joust between the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and Grand Junction-area state Sen. Ray Scott; we won’t rehash it here. Just passing along what seems like a particularly enlightening interview with Scott — by public radio’s Bente Birkeland for the Capitol Coverage project — in which the veteran Republican lawmaker goes into detail with his side of the story.

Since the initial dust-up, the feud has pretty much idled, with each side saying bring it on and Sentinel Publisher Jay Seaton, who is also an attorney, promising to explore specific options for the litigation. As of this week’s interview with Birkeland, that’s still the status:

Birkeland: What do you hope comes of this issue – if it goes to court? Or do you hope it goes away on its own?

Scott: Well, I think maybe it’s time to define what real, good journalism is, and why [it] is free speech on one side, or freedom of the press if you will, and not free speech for somebody to rebut that.

Read the full interview here.