In a public meeting punctuated by loud interruptions from the audience, several area residents spoke against what they say is unjust treatment of one of Douglas County’s elected leaders by her two colleagues, pointing to a rift accentuated by personal attacks.
“Today, I was told I was bananas and told I needed to stop standing on my soapbox and stop yelling into the abyss,” Lora Thomas, a Douglas County commissioner, said during the March 14 meeting.
Much of the crowd consisted of people who support Thomas and took issue with the other two commissioners launching investigations against her, removing her from serving on outside leadership boards in the community and opposing her preference for whom to appoint to the county Planning Commission, a body of citizens who give input on property development decisions. About a dozen speakers criticized the commissioners’ conduct, with many taking issue specifically with Commissioners Abe Laydon and George Teal.
A couple of attendees floated the idea of a recall election, where residents would vote on whether to remove an official from office, a suggestion that garnered applause from the crowd.
And while the meeting didn’t see evidence of gender-based comments from Laydon and Teal specifically, several speakers said their actions amounted to mistreating Thomas because she is a woman.
Kay Michelsen, of Highlands Ranch, described the treatment toward Thomas as “misogynistic, caustic cocktails of meanness.”
Laydon told the audience he supports strong leaders, “especially women,” pointing to some county staff.
But he characterized Thomas as causing problems in different government workplaces over the years.
In response to the audience’s complaints, Laydon said: “This woman will get whatever she wants when she starts acting with respect.”
‘Like a colleague’
One man who said he’s a resident of Castle Rock and filed open-records requests stood at the lectern and played audio — apparently from a commissioners’ meeting — of what appears to be Teal saying Thomas doesn’t “have the intellectual capacity to function as a part of” county leadership.
“Treat her like a grownup, like a woman and like a colleague,” said the man, Michael Campbell, in one of the many statements that elicited applause from the crowd.
A man who identified himself as Pete Smith claimed Teal’s wife called Thomas an offensive word, though Smith didn’t provide evidence.
“Come on George, stand up and say you’re sorry for what your wife said,” Smith said.
Teal did not respond or comment on the accusation.
Speakers also decried postcards that were critical of Thomas that were mailed to some number of Douglas County residents over the past few months.
“I’ll just address the elephant in the room because I have heard both of you gentlemen spew the vicious vitriol and venom,” a man named Jay Longmire said. “Either of you two have any idea who sends these out?”
Laydon again said he has no connection to the postcards, and Teal did not comment on the matter during the meeting. (Teal has not returned Colorado Community Media's call for comment regarding the mailings.)
Speakers at the meeting, who addressed the audience during the public comment portion, also criticized Laydon and Teal’s removal of Thomas from outside boards and their moves to block her from serving as chair of the county commissioners.
“By two excluding one from (board positions) and chair, you have singlehandedly decided that our (voices) do not matter,” said one woman, referring to certain voters in the county.
Laydon and Teal recently voted to remove Thomas from leadership on entities including the Northwest Douglas County Chamber and Economic Development Corporation, a group that represents the local business community; the Mile High Flood District, which oversees matters such as flood management, stream mitigation and stormwater around the Denver region; and the 18th Judicial District forfeiture board. (The “forfeiture” process relates to property that is involved in a criminal or legal matter.)
The Douglas County commissioners collectively sit on about 40 boards, according to Laydon.
Laydon offered some supportive comments toward Thomas, noting they have worked together to tackle issues such as transportation and property taxes.
“I actually think Lora Thomas is incredibly organized, incredibly capable. She has a lot of thoughts and power and (ability) to move the needle,” Laydon said. He added: “We are all conservative Republicans passionate about the work of this county, and that’s what we need to be focused on.”
But Laydon did detail what he says are problems with Thomas, saying that for years she’s had conflict with people she’s worked with in other organizations.
Thomas and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office — then under different leadership — experienced a rift years ago, including during Thomas’ tenure as Douglas County coroner, according to CCM reporting from 2011.
Thomas has “lost the trust of her Board and co-workers on multiple occasions,” Laydon wrote in a newsletter sent out shortly before the March 14 meeting.
She “has demonstrably failed to represent the county well in the public space, resorting to constant clumsy attempts to undermine fellow Republicans, including her own Board — which has done irrevocable damage to her own credibility,” Laydon wrote. “This is why she was removed from these board appointments; if we receive more negative feedback regarding her conduct, she will be removed from more boards.”
Thomas has called her removal from outside boards “personal political retribution.”
Allegations of sexism comprised a main complaint among the speakers.
“I don’t know what it means to be a female, but I know what a jerk is, and we don’t need that in Douglas County,” Laydon said, referring to Thomas.
Security a focus
That comment came after Laydon accused Thomas of “putting kids at risk” by releasing school security information, which he said is a “patent violation of the agreement” that the commissioners had with the Douglas County school board.
One person in the audience shouted out that the information is “on the internet” and public.
Recently, Laydon accused Thomas of leaking classified materials regarding the commissioners’ 2-1 vote to spend nearly $1 million for advanced metal detector technology at STEM School Highlands Ranch. Thomas voted against the measure, saying the technology is not proven and she had concerns.
Thomas had posted links to stories written by CCM reporters in her weekly newsletter, which prompted Laydon to claim the articles are irresponsible, put students at risk and quoted “classified” materials.
(The reporters wrote stories based on the public meeting where the vote was taken to spend the funds and through interviews and research. One story quotes the technology company’s website, STEM School officials, and other information available publicly through online searches, YouTube and documentation from the meeting.)
Laydon said in a February interview that he’s aware details of the technology are public but that officials don’t want people to know about it for security reasons.
“I know (that) the technology, you can find it on the internet,” Laydon said, adding that STEM School has shared information about it with parents. “But to widely share information … (is) in my mind a violation of our agreement and completely inappropriate.”
Investigations on mind
Another topic raised during the March meeting: probes including an investigation Teal and Laydon initiated after accusing Thomas of circulating an anonymous letter that criticized specific employees in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, allegedly creating a hostile work environment. They also accused her of emailing county legal representation with a request not authorized by the full board.
The $17,000 investigation into Thomas by outside legal counsel found that while Thomas had distributed the letter, doing so did not create a hostile work environment. It also found she did direct legal representation to provide her with information the board had determined to keep secret.
Thomas appeared in a CBS Colorado news story in July discussing the confidential report that showed the results of the investigation, prompting the Douglas County government’s attorney to find that Thomas could have broken the law by doing so. Thomas had asserted multiple times in meetings and in her newsletter to constituents that she believes the privileged nature of the document had already been broken by Laydon discussing parts of it publicly.
A second investigation ordered by Laydon and Teal — this time conducted by the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office — did not find probable cause to believe that Thomas committed the crime of first-degree official misconduct.
“The Colorado criminal code does not specifically prohibit a waiver of privileged and confidential information by a privilege holder. In this case, as a member of the Board of County Commissioners, Lora Thomas is a privilege holder,” Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Bruce Peterson wrote in a memorandum.
Laydon has argued Arapahoe County “got it wrong” in evaluating Thomas’ actions, saying “the privileged holder of a confidential document is the board” and not just one member of the board. He based his point on the understanding of the law of Chris Pratt, interim Douglas County attorney.
Thomas in a Jan. 31 meeting signaled she might take action to have her legal bills paid back if the county doesn’t decide to pay the cost.
“We demand that the legal bills she was forced to incur as a result of the (investigations) be paid by Teal and Laydon,” Michelsen said at the March meeting.
‘Two to tango’
The meeting became tense at times, with Campbell interrupting Laydon from the audience and Laydon saying he needs to be removed from the room. A sheriff’s deputy walked up to Campbell but ultimately allowed him to stay. Shortly after, Campbell spoke against Laydon again and chose to walk out.
Most of the speakers criticized Laydon and Teal, but one woman from Castle Rock said she wanted to give “a shoutout” to Teal, adding she supports all three commissioners. She felt Thomas was not prevented from being chair unfairly.
“I don’t feel it’s a bully thing; I don’t feel it’s a sexist thing,” she said.
A couple other speakers were more neutral, lamenting the conflict among the commissioners in general.
“I also think it takes two to tango … We’re not privy to that,” a woman from Castle Rock said. “The point is this has gone on for months and months and months.”
Another speaker said: “I think we need statesmanship rather than partisanship. I think this needs to be for the common good rather than personal.”
“I really hope that we the people, the voters, don’t have to fire one or all of you,” he said.