ERIE — One by one, Erie Town Board members apologized profusely to the political group Republican Women of Weld (WOW) Tuesday night during a town meeting after a handful of members complained about being told a rental agreement to hold a meeting at the town’s community center was canceled based on the content of the meeting.
The women said it was a clear violation of the First Amendment protections of free speech and peaceable assembly.
The group is a local chapter of the Colorado Federation of Republican Women and the National Federation of Republican Women
“On behalf of the town, I am sorry to you guys for the way this played out,” said Erie Mayor Jennifer Carroll after more than an hour of public statements and board dialogue that sometimes turned heated between members and the town’s attorney. “I welcome diversity in all areas of life, especially in speech. I love to debate anyone on any topic.”
During the meeting, Erie’s town attorney, Hilary M. Graham, sparred with two of the board members who were questioning the details about the cancellation; at times she angrily spoke over board members and interrupted them during their questioning.
Graham did not want to allow certain questioning in open meeting, including that of town staff over fear of a lawsuit that was threatened during public comment. However, board members Scott Charles and Dan Woog argued the lack of transparency over the town’s policy is what caused the problem in the first place.
Last week, WOW announced it was forced to cancel a meeting that featured a guest speaker on the topic of the past, present and future of oil and gas in Weld County. The group’s president, DeAndrea Arndt, said she was notified by the Deputy Town Administrator, Farrell Buller, that the topic was “politically sensitive” and the town would not honor the groups reservation.
Arndt said in a previous news release that she offered to change the topic so they group didn’t have to cancel, but her offer was refused, with town personnel saying the topic did not matter because having the group meet at the publicly funded facility “was not acceptable, regardless of the topic or make up of the meeting.”
Buller refused to address the board when requested at the meeting.
After initial backlash for the cancellation, the town changed its response to say the meeting was canceled because members planned to distribute a petition on grounds, a violation of town policy. However, WOW members said they were not planning to “distribute” a petition throughout the building.
Former Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who represents WOW, said the current policy was a violation of the U.S. Constitution and threatened legal action.
“It’s unconstitutional for a couple of reasons,” Gessler said. “First of all, it’s straight up content discrimination. You can’t discriminate based on viewpoint, certainly not in a rented city facility. It allows the Town Board of Trustees to pick winners and losers politically. They can waive those prohibitions based on if they like what is being said. Thirdly, it’s ambiguous. If this town retains that policy, I’m confident an Article 3 Federal Judge will readily strike it down.”
Several speakers pointed out that many oil and gas opposition groups rented the facility last year during the election season.
“The Erie Community Center was built specifically to house community events and allow people within the community to have meetings and discussions there,” said Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer, who represents Erie in her commissioner district, pointing out that the event center was awarded $500,000 through an oil and gas grant. “We know that (from spring to fall in 2018) several different organizations were allowed to rent the facility and allowed to carry petitions.
Gessler said he was satisfied with the new policy so long as town staff did not allow for a “heckler’s veto,” meaning one group intentionally causing issues with the group who rented the facility, resulting in safety problems and a cost to the scheduled group for security.
The town promised not to charge groups a security fee for rentals that may need added security. Town Administrator Malcolm Fleming said he would readdress that if it became a large expense to the town, but he did not suspect that would be the case.
House District 63 Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, who’s district includes Erie, told the board she wanted to help in any way she could to make sure her constituents were being treated fairly.
“Hopefully we don’t have this impasse again where we have a meeting denied based on view point or topic,” Saine said. “Oil and gas is not an esoteric topic. It’s very relevant to us. It’s very relevant to Weld County. I know a lot of my constituents in Erie wanted to have that meeting in Erie so that they can come and be closer to their home. I am here as a friend of the Town of Erie. Anything I can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again, I’m here to serve you.”
Wednesday morning, Saine posted to her Facebook page a thank you to her constituents for making the process work and the Town Board for listening.
“Looks like the first amendment won in Erie last night,” Saine said. “Something happened between late last week and Tuesday. That something was you. Thank you for all the calls and emails sent to the Administration and Town Trustees supporting the right to free speech and the right to peaceably assemble. … By Tuesday night, a new draft of policy appeared, and the town trustees gave direction to staff that the policy cannot impede the 1st amendment. And many apologies were given. We’ll keep tabs on the policy implementation but for now, a win for the Constitution and Colorado citizens everywhere.”