Editor’s note: This story was originally published by The Aspen Times and was shared via AP StoryShare.
The Pitkin County commissioners are seeking reforms of alleged good old boy behavior at a powerful lobbying association for Colorado county governments.
Pitkin County sent a letter to Denver-based Colorado Counties Inc. on April 27 complaining about alleged incidents of misogynistic conduct of some members of the group and backroom politics of the organization as a whole.
“Our concerns are cause for us to reevaluate our ongoing membership in CCI,” said the letter signed by all five county commissioners. “We would like to give you an opportunity to respond to our concerns and provide assurances that these patterns of conduct and behaviors will not be tolerated at CCI in the future.”
Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury raised concerns about several incidents “beyond the pale” at recent CCI meetings she attended. She voiced her concerns to the Pitkin County commissioners at a meeting last week. She is one of three representatives to CCI steering committees, along with Steve Child and Francie Jacober.
Pitkin County pays $30,000 annually for membership in CCI, which works on policy beneficial to Colorado counties, lobbies on their behalf on legislative issues and provides resources on a multitude of issues.
CCI Executive Director John Swartout acknowledged this week some incidents occurred at CCI meetings that run counter to the organization’s code of ethics. He credited McNicholas Kury for pointing them out.
“The board of directors took their letter seriously,” he said.
Swartout said CCI would respond in writing to Pitkin County’s concerns and the eight-member board of directors would contact county officials for personal discussions. It’s important for the association to make sure all members are comfortable at CCI meetings and that all members have a voice, he said.
He summarized CCI’s position as, “Let’s have a conversation. (Pitkin County’s) valuable here.”
CCI brings together representatives of 61 of the 64 Colorado counties. Only Denver, Broomfield and Boulder counties are not in the group. Meetings are a political jambalaya that brings together conservatives and liberals, rural and urban dwellers. Swartout said its typical to have 75 or more commissioners and support staff attending a steering committee meeting in person and online.
Pitkin County’s letter claimed there were “several instances of misogynistic conduct” at CCI steering committee meetings on April 7-8.
“First, during a break in committee discussion, there was a joke about sexual assault, which was received with laughter by some fellow commissioners, followed by a second joke about sexual assault, which was also received with laughter by some fellow commissioners,” the letter said. “What was not received was public admonishment by either steering committee leadership, board of director leadership, or CCI staff to result in a resetting of decorum in the boardroom. Such admonishment would have been appropriate for all to hear at the time, or in a follow-up communication to the membership.”
The letter continues that on the second day of steering committee meetings, a male commissioner could be heard via Zoom referring to a female commissioner as “doll” in an “insulting and pejorative way.”
“These demonstrations of misogynistic and disrespectful conduct created an overall effect of intimidation and contributed to an environment that was disrespectful and had a chilling effort on dialogue,” the county letter said.
Swartout said he was not present when the jokes were told or when a female commissioner was referred to as a doll. A different commissioner, not McNicholas Kury, brought the “doll” reference to his attention. He contacted the commissioner who used the term. That commissioner apologized to person who complained and also to the female commissioner, according to Swartout, but the woman didn’t feel an apology was necessary.
Swartout said CCI has talked to the member who shared the jokes and pointed out that conduct of that type was “unacceptable.” In the discussion, he said he noted, “Look, man, you can’t do that in our meeting.”
Pitkin County’s other grievances were over Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters receiving “airtime” at a CCI event and the association’s alleged “partisan” approach to lobbying on a state Legislature bill over collective bargaining.
The county pointed out that Peters is under indictment for suspicion of seven felonies and three misdemeanors for alleged tampering with election security.
Swartout said Peters popped into a meeting between CCI and the Colorado clerks’ association. She wasn’t invited. “She bombed our call,” he said.
When he learned from staff members via text that Peters was speaking to the CCI group, he directed his staff to cut off Peters.
“My staff member shot the call down,” Swartout said. “We did what we needed to do. We didn’t give her a platform.”
As far as CCI’s stance on collective bargaining legislation, Swartout said it led to “a bit of consternation” within the organization. Some counties were steadfastly opposed while others were more moderate. When it came time to vote, 75% of members opposed the proposed legislation.
He was bound to honor that direction, but he also tried to get CCI a seat at the table in negotiations because it was clear the bill would pass in the Democrat-controlled state government.
“We did what we do best, which is to make a bill better,” he said.
Pitkin County felt CCI’s position fed into partisan rancor and the organization could have been more effective without a hardline stance. McNicholas Kury also felt that minority voices, such as Pitkin County’s, are often ignored in CCI actions.
Swartout said it is rarely easy representing the positions of 61 counties. Official positions must be supported by a supermajority of members. He said CCI’s core mission, representing the interest of its county members, is best achieved when they put aside differences, political and otherwise, and work together.
“When we work together, we move mountains,” he said.
When McNicholas Kury raised her concerns last week, she was prepared to bail immediately from CCI. She was particularly angered by the misogynistic comments.
“I don’t want any part of it,” she said of CCI membership. “I don’t see how Pitkin County would want to be any part of it.”
Commissioner Greg Poschman said was “sickened” from what he heard and supported considering dropping out of CCI.
“Maybe the money is better spent elsewhere,” he said.
Jacober, Child and commissioner Patti Clapper supported taking concerns to CCI and weighing the organization’s response.
McNicholas Kury said Tuesday she is eager to see how CCI responds to Pitkin County’s concerns but noted there have been longtime “tensions” between the organization and the county.
“Pitkin County is viewed as an outlier in that group,” she said.
She said she is uncertain the misogynistic behavior on the part of some members of CCI is something that can be eliminated. That has her thinking she might not personally participate in the organization’s meeting.
“As a younger woman elected official, it has felt a little like a good old boys’ club,” she said.