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In a narrow two-three vote, in front of a packed council chamber on Dec. 4, the Salida City Council voted to retain City Administrator Drew Nelson on a motion held over from it’s Nov. 20 meeting. Council Members Mike Bowers and Justin Critelli voted to terminate his contract, while Council Members Cheryl Brown-Kovacic, Harald Kasper, and Dan Shore voted not to terminate.

“I believe he deserves a second chance. He knows how much he has to prove to this community, that there is a zero tolerance policy,” said Shore. “In just the two months he has been here, what we are getting done, especially the audit and helping us to address the issues we face … I’m not discounting anything.”

The issue became a public bone of contention in Salida, another in a series of public brouhahas, when it became known that Nelson had been charged with felony menacing – domestic violence, a single charge, for firing a gun in his back yard in Winter Park. While he resigned as Winter Park town administrator, Shore said he spoke with Winter Park Mayor Jimmy Lahrman, who said town’s leaders tried to get him to stay in Winter Park.

“They passed it along to the District Attorney, who could do one of three things: they could dismiss, schedule a court case, or do a plea agreement – he plead guilty to the discharge of a fire arm … there will be some who say it was because he got off, but the DA is an elected official who represents three counties. I find it hard to believe that the case was dismissed on a anything other than the evidence.”

Salida City Administrator Drew Nelson (photo by Joe Stone).

The council chamber was standing-room-only, with several members of the public in the hall. While the audience include those for and against termination, also notable was the high number of staff who came for the vote, and who stayed for Nelson’s adept presentation of the draft 2019 budget, which followed the termination agenda item. Many of the public comments were followed by applause, and at one point during council discussion over their position on the vote to be taken, Mayor P.T. Wood had to call for order saying, “ I will have anybody else who disrupts this meeting removed.”

The disruptions occurred during Brown-Kovacic’s comments, where she explained her examination of the situation, and reminded people that Nelson is still in his six month probationary period. “I have checked with female staff in city hall working with him on a daily basis and in the building and talked with them individually …they have given me positive comments about him; that he is respectful, creative in his work, he has negotiated a way forward with our bank loans and our creditors, supported our staff, come up with a way to deal with our budget situation that won’t impact the city’s future grants and loans. I have seen him put his best foot forward. Staff knew about his incident – remember our staff can Google and they talk with each other. I talked to the mayor of Winter Park and he confirmed they tried to convince Mr. Nelson to stay … Last week I spoke to Stephanie Nelson; we had a lengthy conversation. After that I was convinced that there was no pattern of domestic abuse.”

Brown-Kovacic added “People don’t want to be defined by their worst moments in their lives. Life is difficult and lots of times we are faced with challenging issues, sometimes we rise to the occasion and sometimes we don’t.”

Bowers, who had made the motion, said that he wanted to vote on this earlier. “ There were council people who decided this was their best choice. I’ve got 45 years in law enforcement, and I’ve handled some that were homicides in Tenderfoot. I’m concerned – the question comes to me that if Drew was forgiven and he was doing such a good job, why didn’t Winter Park take him back?”

Public comment was led by Drew Nelson’s wife Stephanie Nelson, who said to the council and the residents of Salida “I see all he has been through – all we have been through. Don’t try my family twice for a mistake made in the past.”

“I am the wife of Drew Nelson and mom to Issac and Abigail. Drew and I are sorry our personal issues have become a source of division in this community,” said Nelson. “We have a relationship over 35 years and hit a low point… Sometimes we end up in a place we don’t expect. These are not the words of a victim. Most important, Drew is not abusive – as you may know, my parents have lived here more than 20 years and our relocation here is time with their grandparents.”

Other public comments were both for and against. “After my husband found the EEOC* complaint in our mail box with the details of how he treats women in the workplace, that he has continued to create a hostile work environment – his hiring has done the exact opposite of what this town needs,” said Sarah Gartsman. “If any member of council votes for him to stay I would like to ask you to resign from your position. As a female chef and a victim of abuse – this is unhealthy.”

“We cannot continue this way or the city will imploded,” said long-time property owner Merle Bergen. “Citizens dial your anger down – let council lay out achievable goals …As someone said last night, we must get the boring business of the city done first and get our financial house in order.”

Former council member Eileen Rogers laid out an impassioned plea for citizens to demonstrate kindness, reminding people that during her eight years as a council member she probably made mistakes, but that when a vote was made, by Colorado Municipal League ethics, all council members are called to support that decision.

“Every day that passes is like pouring salt on the wounds of domestic abuse victims,”said Megan Kahn. “We can fix this here now tonight ….represent the city’s position on domestic violence and gun violence.”

During this season of kindness and hope – act as models of peace, hope and integrity – when I speak of peace – act on what you know is morally and ethically right, what the employees of the city deserve,” said Andrea Schultz-Ward. “Respect – listen to the information shared with you from domestic violence and gun violence victims.”

“I don’t agree that everybody the entire community thinks our administrator should be fired.,” said Louise Fish. “I get tired of those letters to the editor that say there was domestic violence involved.

That was part of the original police report, but after further investigation they found out that domestic violence was not involved. He shot a gun – terrible idea – but domestic violence was not involved and I get tired of hearing it.”

“He lost his job because he endangered his wife and his kids,” said Megan Lombardo. “ The other side said elevate domestic violence abusers. Your legacy, if you keep him, is you will be known as the council that encouraged violence and silences victims. You’ll have delivered a violent criminal to lead our city instead – whatever you choose lies under your pillow tonight.”

“I watched a mayor and his quorum run a talented city administrator and a finance director out. Anybody worth their salt is going to research this beautiful place and they can see what has gone on in these council chambers is horrible,” said Sean Gillis. “Why would anybody want a job here — look at the history of six administrators in the past couple years. I was in the room when Eileen Rodgers was picked on by fellow city council members and the (then) city attorney and she is my hero. Wow if this group was this carrying and concerned when it happened to her .. in my business I’ve given people second, and third and fourth chances.”

*A document dated Nov. 26, by former Salida Finance Director Jodi McClurkin, who was recently fired from her position was circulated around town this week. It alleges the filing of an equal Employment Opportunity claim against the city of Salida, but Wood says the city has received nothing. It showed up at the door of Ark Valley Voice and will be addressed in a separate article.