Salida Arkansas River

Arkansas River Walk, downtown Salida.

Salida Mayor P.T. Wood barely maintained decorum in the City Council chambers the night he tried to convince concerned residents that their recently hired city administrator had not abused his wife.

The council was scheduled to talk about a number of mundane municipal issues that October night: a hangar lease, street closures, permit requests. But the people in the audience wanted to talk about the hiring of Drew Nelson.

They had questions: Had the council members who selected Nelson known about his arrest in January 2018 on charges that he’d allegedly threatened his wife with a sledgehammer and drunkenly shot eight rounds from the back porch of his old neighborhood in Winter Park?

And why, considering those facts, had they still hired him eight months later to lead their city?

A room of women had gathered to express their shock at the decision, some survivors of domestic abuse themselves. Megan Kahn was the second woman to walk up to the podium that night. She said hiring Nelson sends a message that violent behavior is acceptable.

“And it’s the wrong message, the wrong time,” she said, starting to cry. “The worst time.”

Ten days prior, the U.S. Senate had confirmed Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice after an investigation into three women’s accounts that he had sexually assaulted them decades ago.

The confirmation process, along with a series of accusations against entertainment celebrities and media figures, prompted national conversations: Should a person accused of wrongdoing still hold public office or a high-profile position in a community? When should collective forgiveness be granted? And who gets to decide?

After Nelson’s hiring, Salida residents started to debate the same questions. But such conversations are different in the 6,000-person river town, which sits about two hours west of Pueblo, than they are in Washington, D.C. In Salida, the debate has ended friendships. People fear speaking out on either side of the issue because they don’t want to lose business or their jobs.

While Kahn stated at that meeting that the hiring came at the wrong time, another woman said it was exactly the right moment.

“This is the perfect time,” Zoë Rayor said at that October council meeting. “This is the first time in history that survivors are being listened to and that we’re actively seeking justice and holding men accountable for their actions.

“In the #MeToo era, we are holding you accountable.”

But in Salida, the national conversation surrounding violence against women and accountability of the powerful has both helped and hindered those trying to speak up.

Eight shots and a sledgehammer

Council members knew about Nelson’s arrest when they agreed to hire him eight months after the incident in Winter Park. Nelson was upfront about the situation when he applied, Wood said.

When contacted by a reporter, Nelson declined to answer emailed questions, instead deferring to comments he already had made publicly. In addressing the City Council in October, Nelson said he never threatened his wife or his children, who were in the home that night, and that the only person in danger that night was himself.

“As we’ve struggled in our marriage, I fell into a pretty deep despair that I couldn’t escape,” he said, a video of the meeting shows. “I reached a point in January where I put myself and only myself in harm’s way.”

On Jan. 22, 2018, Nelson drunkenly shot eight rounds from the back porch of his home on a residential street outside Winter Park, according to a Grand County Sheriff’s Office incident report. A short time later, he cornered his wife in a laundry room while holding a 10-pound sledgehammer, according to the report. She told police that she feared he would hit her with the hammer, but was able to get it away from him, the report states.

When police arrived, Nelson told them that he had been drinking all day and was distraught about issues in his marriage, according to the report. He said he didn’t remember anything about shooting a gun or the sledgehammer. The officer who wrote the report stated that Nelson was unsteady on his feet and verbally abusive toward police at times.

Prosecutors charged Nelson with felony menacing-domestic assault, reckless endangerment and two counts of prohibited use of a weapon, according to Grand County newspaper Sky-Hi News. He resigned from his position as town manager of Winter Park shortly after.

In April, Nelson pleaded guilty to the two misdemeanor weapon charges in exchange for the dismissal of the remaining counts. He was sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation and 120 hours of community service, according to Sky-Hi News. He later had the court records sealed.

Over the summer, Nelson applied for the Salida city administrator position along with about 45 other applicants.

After years of turmoil in the position, the City Council was looking for a low-key manager who would help guide the city toward stability. It hired a third party to conduct a search, do background checks and narrow the candidate pool.

Of the three finalists, Nelson had the support of the mayor and two council members. Two other council members preferred another candidate and one, the only female council member at the time, was out of town caring for her injured daughter.

Those who supported Nelson said they researched the circumstances surrounding his arrest, including speaking with Winter Park officials, and decided that it was a one-time occurrence. He passed a psychological evaluation and had the approval of his therapist. They said he deserved a second chance.

After the decision was made, but before the contract was official, Wood and Nelson approached the local newspapers about Nelson’s arrest. Wood knew the information might cause concern and wanted to be upfront about the arrest.

But the first article about Nelson’s arrest didn’t publish until the day after the council voted to finalize his contract in October. The reaction was immediate, Wood said. And it was far more intense than he and the council expected.

“We’ve been a community that is really inclusive,” the mayor said. “I probably missed some of the signs and some of the national stuff that was going on.”

A divide

Since Nelson’s hiring, Megan Lombardo has spoken at four council meetings, penned four letters to the editor to the local papers, attended two community forums, had one-on-one conversations with three council members and countless conversations with other residents about the decision.

She’s part of an unofficial group of women working publicly to convince the City Council to remove Nelson. The group — which includes a former city attorney, yoga teachers, county government staff and former leaders at the local domestic violence service provider — believes that Nelson should have been disqualified from the position in the first place.

Although the domestic violence-related charge was dismissed as part of the plea deal — and Nelson’s wife later spoke at a council meeting and stated her husband was not abusive — many women in the group felt that the 2018 incident was too much of a red flag to ignore, that it was too recent. Firing a gun in a residential area, which Nelson pleaded guilty to, is inherently dangerous, they said. They said the council is endorsing violence by hiring him.

“(City Council members) are perpetuating this social issue and how ingrained it is in this society,” said Andrea Schulz-Ward, former executive director of The Alliance, the local domestic violence resource center. “To see it play out at a level within the city government was shocking to me.”

The #MeToo movement and national conversation regarding women’s rights has helped the groups’ members find their voice, Lombardo said. But at the same time, it has been used to discredit their work as a purely emotional response to a national issue.

“People say, ‘These people are taking out their anger at this national climate on Drew Nelson,’ ” she said. “‘He’s just a symbol.’ ”

The council itself remained divided on whether Nelson is the correct choice. Two members and the mayor have supported him from the beginning. Two members — one of whom is a longtime deputy with the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office — have opposed his hiring. And one, the only woman on the council at the time of the hiring, did not support Nelson at first but has since changed her mind.

Wood and all the council members have met with numerous residents to hear their concerns or support for Nelson’s hiring. Many of the people opposing the appointment were the same people who voted them into office.

“I felt bad that people had been triggered and this was bringing them back to this place of deep hurt,” said Councilman Dan Shore, who has supported Nelson’s hiring. “I was just really at the time trying to process it all and try to talk to as many people as I possibly could and keep an open mind.”

But the conversations didn’t change Shore’s mind. The uproar prompted the council to vote in December on whether to continue with Nelson’s contract. The council voted 3-to-2 to keep his contract.

Nelson has simply done a great job helping the city get organized after a long period of turmoil, the council members who voted for him said. They listened and empathized with those who were concerned. Nelson should at least get to finish out his six-month probationary period, which ends in April, they said.

“I kept going back to what is my task,” Councilman Harald Kasper said. “And I came back to, ‘I am representing Salida citizens — all of them — not just the 200, 300 people who were emotionally really highly charged.’ I need to look at what happens fiscally with Salida if I do this or that.”

Both sides said they have the silent majority of residents on their side, those who have an opinion but are afraid to speak up because of the potential consequences in a town where everyone is so closely connected.

Small-town ramifications

Cheryl Brown-Kovacic thinks about the controversy every day, she said. She knows she had a special role as the only woman on the City Council during the decision to hire Nelson. He wasn’t her first choice, but she was out of state caring for her daughter during the decision-making process.

She voted in December to maintain his contract and has been publicly criticized for it.

“It has changed my life here,” she said. “I’m not a particularly thick-skinned person. I’ve been very sensitive. It’s certainly caused me lots of sleepless nights.”

In a town of 6,000 people, there is no sense of anonymity, Lombardo said. In Denver, she could speak up at a council meeting without the entire community taking notice, she said. Not so in Salida. For those enmeshed in the conflict, the tension can feel constant, she said.

Lombardo stopped drinking at the town’s only distillery because it’s owned by the mayor. Councilman Kasper, who lives around the corner from Lombardo, said he’s lost friends over his support for Nelson. Wood, the city’s mayor, said he’s lost sleep. Kahn, who addressed the council in October and has opposed the hiring since, said she was flipped off by a man while at dinner at a local restaurant for her criticism.

“One of the best things about Salida is that we all cross paths all the time,” Lombardo said. “And one of the worst things about living in Salida is that we all cross paths all the time.”

Those protesting said they had no plans to stop speaking up. And those who voted for Nelson’s hiring and retention said they made the right choice. It seems impossible to even reach the point of agreeing to disagree, Councilman Shore said.

“How do we help change a society that does need changing as to how women are treated?” Brown-Kovacic said. “But at the same time how do we be fair to individuals in specific circumstances? I think that’s the question happening here and on a national scale as well.”

In Salida, at least for now, there’s no clear answer.

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