Thornton faces litigation as some residents accuse city council majority of being a “bully bloc”

Thornton faces a pair of citizen-initiated lawsuits that have so far cost the city more than $50,000 to fight — a situation that a group of residents blames on what they’ve dubbed the “Bully Bloc of Five” on the City Council.

“The root of the discontent with City Council is their code of conduct and their obnoxious behavior,” said Karin Baker, a nearly 20-year resident who filed suit over the council’s decision in February to oust former Councilwoman Jacque Phillips from her seat. “It’s a clown show.”

The council, by a 5-4 vote, determined that Phillips was no longer a resident of Thornton after she bought a home and took a job in southern Colorado.

The second lawsuit, filed in 2021, claims that Mayor Jan Kulmann is in violation of the state’s term limits statute because she has now served more than the equivalent of two consecutive terms on the council, both as a councilwoman and mayor.

The Colorado Supreme Court last month agreed to take up the case, which could produce a ruling that affects all local governments in the state.

“We’re on a hamster wheel of legal complaints,” said Councilwoman Kathy Henson, who often finds herself on the losing end of most votes. “There is a feeling that coming to speak to council is a waste of time. And that is leading to a feeling that city government is not working for them.”

But Councilwoman Jessica Sandgren, one of the majority, said complaints about city leadership are coming from a “small sliver” of the population and do not represent the concerns of the more than 140,000 residents of Thornton, Colorado’s sixth-largest city.

“Pretty regularly, we get yelled at by the same people,” she said. “A lot of this stuff has become extremely partisan. We have bigger issues to focus on. It’s like being in middle school — I feel like I’m in middle school with this stuff.”

Dissension at the local government level has been occurring in tandem with increasing political turmoil at the national level, with recalls or attempted recalls of elected officials in Brighton, Idaho Springs, Arvada, Elizabeth and Westminster over the last few years.

Gov. Jared Polis has been the target of those seeking to boot him from office twice and the Douglas County School District’s Board of Education has been making headlines for its tense and confrontational meetings and the litigation its decision to fire its superintendent spawned earlier this year.

“They are taking away the vote of the residents and they are upset,” said Councilwoman Karen Bigelow, another member of the minority on Thornton’s council, referring to the ouster of Phillips. “It shows a pattern of behavior, led by the mayor.”

Kulmann didn’t respond to a series of questions put to her by The Denver Post about the situation in Thornton, but did provide a statement about the Phillips matter.

“You have to live in Thornton to serve on Thornton City Council,” the mayor said. “This isn’t complicated. If she moves back to Thornton, she can even run again.”

Kulmann’s time on the Thornton City Council hasn’t been without controversy. In 2020, she was criticized for informing only some of her colleagues that she was going to Washington, D.C., on a taxpayer-funded trip, sparking concerns about transparency and potential violations of the state’s sunshine laws.

Two years earlier, Kulmann was sued in federal court by two anti-fracking activists who claimed she had blocked them from her official Facebook page. She also faced a recall attempt in 2016 over her ties to the oil and gas industry, though that effort fizzled out.

She is currently a Republican candidate for the 8th Congressional District.

Many residents who live in Phillips’ Ward I district are angry that five members on the nine-member council — Kulmann, Sandgren, Tony Unrein, David Acunto and Adam Matkowsky — alone decided the fate of their representative.

“My vote has been disenfranchised,” said Seamus Blaney, who has lived in Thornton’s Ward I for 11 years. “There’s someone in her seat that we didn’t vote for. It’s absolutely horrible behavior by these five.”

Phillips was replaced with Eric Garcia, a selection process that Bigelow and Henson criticized as lacking proper deliberation and input.

Blaney said Phillips was the “most responsive council member” he had ever dealt with.

“I would shoot her a text any time of the day and she would respond,” he said. “She was an advocate for where I live.”

Some Ward I residents feel the reason cited to boot Phillips — that she was no longer a city resident and thus her seat was vacant — was nothing more than a phony pretext to get rid of her.

“She got elected twice and you want to disenfranchise us because you don’t like her?” said Baker, citing personal animosity from the majority on council toward Phillips as the core reason for her ouster. “Jacque Phillips lives here — she lives two buildings down from me.”

On Feb. 9, the majority of the council determined that Phillips did not meet the city’s residency requirements because she had purchased a home in Alamosa and taken a full-time job there. But Phillips told The Post in February that she still has a home and law practice in Thornton and considers the city her home.

Her opponents on the council have it in for her, she said, even though she received nearly 70% of the vote in Ward I during her 2019 re-election.

“When Jan was president of the Stargate School Board, my law office brought multiple discrimination/retaliation complaints against the school which led to findings of violations, settlements and various consequences,” Phillips said.

She said Matkowsky sent an email to staff and council that used a choice adjective to describe Phillips. She said she is “considering my options” as to whether she will take legal action against the city for her dismissal.

“A wrong decision that continues to be wrong must be fixed,” Phillips said. “The wrong that was committed continues to impact citizens today. It’s not yesterday’s news, it’s today’s injury.”

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