Ten stories we talked about in 2021

A look back at the headlines and controversies from the year

Staff Report
Posted 1/10/22

We’re not done with COVID Colorado entered the New Year with different varieties of COVID vaccines making the rounds. It ended the year with different varieties of COVID itself making the rounds. …

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Ten stories we talked about in 2021

A look back at the headlines and controversies from the year

Posted

We’re not done with COVID

Colorado entered the New Year with different varieties of COVID vaccines making the rounds. It ended the year with different varieties of COVID itself making the rounds.

After a year when COVID defined everything, from work to school to shopping to dining, Colorado was ready for a break from masks and social distancing. And overall, we got it, thanks to a few rounds of vaccines. Stores and customers welcomed customers back, shedding masks mandates until some nasty variations on the original COVID-19 virus began to show up and spread, spiking a new surge.

While proving mostly effective, the vaccines were rationed early in the year. First up were health care workers and first responders who had been dealing with COVID patients. Next were seniors and those with compromised immune systems and finally, by spring, most adults were eligible, with vaccines for children approved in November. By the end of November, the state estimated that 73.7 percent of the state’s eligible population had received at least one dose, and 65.5 percent were fully vaccinated.

But COVID wasn’t done, however, and slight mutations in the virus began coalescing into new variants that targeted the unvaccinated. The Delta variant began spreading nationally in the Spring of 2021, with the latest variant, Omicron being found in Colorado on Dec. 2.

Meanwhile, COVID continues to surge across the country and in Colorado - the state department of health estimated 4,737 new cases as of Dec. 28.

Tri-County can’t shake COVID, either

Before COVID landed in Colorado, Tri-County Health had a rather simple mission. The entity, which has served Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties since 1966, provided restaurant inspections, nutrition counseling, health services for new mothers and children and disease control for most Denver’s eastern Front Range.

But as questions about COVID 19 and the proper response to the quickly-spreading disease cropped up in 2020, the health agency found itself the target of criticism.

The agency’s response to COVID was cautious from the beginning, urging everyone to wear masks, stay socially distant from each other and get tested. Once vaccines became available, Tri-County and its agents began promoting them.

But cracks began to form before the vaccines were available. Responding to the health agency’s call for a stay-at-home order in March of 2020, Douglas County voted to leave the agency by 2021, forming their own health agency. While their separation was delayed until 2022, Douglas County is still firm in its decision to leave the agency.

Adams County followed suit in October, voting to stay with the agency until Dec. 2022, giving them a year to create their own agency. Likewise, Arapahoe County voted in December to separate from the agency at the end of 2022.

As it stands, the member counties will continue relying on the health agency for the remainder of the year, and Executive Director John Douglas predicted in November that the agency would continue to exist and have some role, suggesting that the three counties might form their own boards of health to handle policy and political concerns but continuing to rely on Tri-County Health - or whatever it becomes - to take care of day-to-day public health services.

Colorado gains a seat in Congress

One thing the 2020 census showed was how much Colorado has grown during the last decade - enough that the state earned a new eighth seat in Congress. But what portion of the state that new seat would represent was the big question of 2021.

It was the first test of the state’s new redistricting commission, which was approved by voters in 2018 as a way to take politics out of the every-decade need to redraw political maps based on new census numbers. The commission began meeting early, releasing its first draft in June based on census estimates from 2019. Final census numbers wouldn’t be released until August.

Every district shifted somewhat to make room for the newcomer, with Jefferson County’s 7th district shifting south to include Castle Rock, as did the 6th District.

The plan the commission ultimately adopted - and the state Supreme Court ratified - makes Northglenn, Thornton, Commerce City, Brighton and most of Westminster and Fort Lupton in Weld County part of the new 8th Congressional District.

The plan would leave virtually all of Douglas and Elbert counties where they are now, in the 4th Congressional District. The populated western sections of Arapahoe County, including Littleton, Englewood and Centennial, would be in the 6th District along with adjacent areas of Jefferson County, like Ken Caryl and Columbine.

Voters will go to the polls based on the districts this year.

Uplands moves ahead

It may be years until the first new residents move into what was an open farm lot in the Shaw Heights area of Westminster, but the impacts of the debate surrounding the project can be felt today.

Developers Oread Capital first began talking publicly about developing the 235 acres surrounding the Pillar of Fire Church in 2019. The plan ultimately called for developing the large open space surrounding the church to create Uplands, a massive mixed-use development, with housing options ranging from single-family homes to apartments and townhomes as well as parks and commercial areas. The project would ultimately have room for 2,350 dwelling units in a mix of housing types.

Neighbors of the project objected almost immediately, dubbing their group Save the Farm. They argued that the city should find a way to preserve the area - one of the few remaining undeveloped parts of the city - as open space or as a community agricultural project. They feared the development would ruin the character of their neighborhood, driving up real estate prices while clogging the area with cars.

Westminster’s Planning Commission and the City Council both ultimately agreed that the project met city zoning standards called out in the Comprehensive Plan and granted approval. Next, with the broad plan approved, specific portions of the project will begin moving through the city approval process.

Foes of the project said they won’t be going away, promising to continue fighting against the project and targeting City Councilors that voted in favor.

Drama on the dais in Westminster

Westminster’s Water rates brought the conflict between Westminster City Councilors to the forefront in 2021, leading voters to oust four members of the council at the polls in November. Ultimately, that change paid off for those who think Westminster residents pay too much for water as councilors made changes in December to lower the rates.

A group of residents began passing petitions in 2020 to unseat Mayor Herb Atchison and councilors Anita Seitz, Kathryn Skulley and Jon Voelz. While 2020 ended with the recall effort unfinished, the group did manage to gather enough signatures to challenge two members - Mayor Atchison and Councilor Voelz.

Atchison promptly resigned, and the council elevated Seitz to serve as mayor for the remainder of the term. Voelz, whose term was set to end in November, was able to win the recall vote in July. But the council was unable to fill the seat Seitz left vacant, leaving a three-three split on all controversial votes going forward. Seitz, Voelz and Skulley tended to vote as a block while councilors Rich Seymour, Lindsey Smith and David DeMott voted against them.

That split ended with November’s vote. Seitz, Skulley, and Voelz all lost their seats while voters returned DeMott to office. The three were replaced by returning Mayor Nancy McNally and councilors Sarah Nurmella, Bruce Baker and Obi Ezeadi.

Thornton council remains divided

The Thornton City Council voted to oust their City Attorney in January 2021, but it wasn’t a simple decision.

Mayor Jan Kulmann said she had received information from nine city employees alleging some sort of harassment from City Attorney Luis Corchado, prompting a Jan. 19 vote to end his contract with the city. The council agreed by a 5-4 margin, with councilors Jessica Sandgren, David Acunto, Adam Matkowski and Angie Bedolla joining Kulmann to fire Corchado and Jacque Phillips, Julia Marvin, Sherry Goodman and Sam Nizam voting against him.

The four on the losing side said they were never given the same information the other five had.

Council members continued sparring later in the year, with Mayor Kulmann criticizing Councilor Phillips for taking a position at a school district in Southern Colorado and questioning if Phillips was still representing Thornton voters. Phillips defended herself by saying she continues to live and work in Thornton but, as a consulting lawyer, works with clients around the country. Her work has no impact on her council position. Phillips claimed Kulmann’s criticism was retaliation for Phillips 2020 criticism of an unannounced trip Kulmann took to attend an event at the White House hosted by then-First Lady Melania Trump.

Northglenn municipal complex moves ahead

The first piece of a revamped and refurbished Northglenn municipal complex came online this fall.

The city opened its new Recreation Center in October, complete with bigger pools and workout space, a new and expanded Parsons Theatre and a new senior center. Work on the $54 million, 87,887 square-foot project began in Oct. 2019, and it was the first phase in the project that could see the city replacing the old recreation center with a new city hall and replacing the current City Hall with housing and retail space.

In the meantime, however, councilors agreed to use the now vacant old recreation center to house up to 25 homeless individuals. Working with the Denver Rescue Mission, the building will offer shelter for working homeless or people with a connection to Northglenn — meaning they could have family in the city, work in the area or attend school there. The shelter is scheduled to be open through March.

Westminster leadership shift

City Manager Don Tripp said in October he had been contemplating stepping down for some time, but he waited until a report on the city’s police department was completed. Once it was, and Police Chief Tim Carlson had announced his retirement, Tripp stepped down.

“While there is never a perfect time to let go of the reins, I am thankful to have a strong executive team, and I am confident the city will have a smooth transition,” Tripp said in a written statement.

According to the report from security firm U.S. ISS Chief Carlson did not effectively manage the department’s culture. The report also detailed instances where a senior officer “routinely demeaned and was disrespectful to employees in the use of profanity, rude, and offensive language, disparaging comments, and personal insults.”

Carlson took a leave of absence in July while the report was being written and formally announced his retirement when it was made public on Oct. 6. Tripp announced his retirement the next day.

Councilors confirmed former Deputy Manager Jody Andrews as Tripp’s interim replacement while the Council looks for a permanent replacement.

A theft that wasn’t

Westminster resident Armando Valdez Gonzalez, 50, started his day on June 5 like he did most summer Saturdays, his bank bag in hand while he searched local garage sales looking for bargains. He ended the day under arrest with his name and face spread across the internet as a thief.

The District Attorney’s office cleared him of charges, saying he was not guilty of any crimes. He still spent the night in jail with $11,000 of debt he didn’t have before.

It stemmed from an incident at Westminster garage sale, with Valdez speaking with a woman at the sale. She noticed the bank bag he carried and mistook it for her purse, which would later turn up in the house. As he tried to leave, the woman, her husband and a neighbor tried to stop him. The woman fell as she hung on to his truck, hitting her head on the pavement.

Both parties contacted Westminster Police, but Gonzalez was unable to meet with them until the next day. In the meantime, Westminster Police had sent out a press release, which was carried by most metro Denver news outlets.

When he did meet with Police the next day, they promptly arrested him and transported him to the Adams County Detention Facility, issuing a new press release with his name, photograph and the charges he faced. That, too, was carried by most metro Denver news outlets.

Meanwhile, Police continued to investigate, collecting Gonzalez’s bank bag from his home and later discovering that the woman’s purse had been her house the whole time.

Gonzalez posted a $4,000 bond on June 7, incurring nearly $7,000 in Attorney fees.

Police reforms

Northglenn formed a citizens group to oversee police operations in 2020 and one of the first things that the group proposed in 2021 was creating a team of behavioral health professionals to help de-escalate tensions during police emergencies.

The group of co-responders would be managed by the Northglenn City Managers office and would work with both Police and Code Enforcement officers. Similar programs in other local cities are under the jurisdiction of the Police Department. The program would cost the city about $300,000 for the first year. It’s supported by Police Chief Jim May, the city’s municipal judge and Code Enforcement department.

Meanwhile, Thornton was looking to form its own Policy and Community Team to review and offer input on Police department policies, training and long-term strategies.

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