Published June 20, 2013, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Link here.
Sandra Fite knew the Harris Brake Lake swans she’d come to see as pets were in trouble when she saw the cages.
The 70-year-old retiree ran outside her home Wednesday morning to see five Arkansas Game and Fish Commission boats surrounding a male mute swan that Fite and her Perryville neighbors have been feeding for five years. The boaters captured the male swan, along with four 3-month-old cygnet hybrids – the young offspring of the mute swan and a trumpet swan.
Karen Rowe, the commission’s bird preservation program leader, said the cygnets were killed by cervical dislocation, or the snapping of the neck – a quick and painless method of euthanization.
The owner of the male swan has five days to produce paperwork proving that he bought the bird and can keep it in an enclosed space – otherwise, that swan will be euthanized, too. If the owner purchased the swan illegally, he could be subject to a fine or even a felony charge.
Residents are upset about the killing of the young swans, but Game and Fish officials said they made a tough choice to protect the native trumpet swan species and Arkansas’ wetlands from the spread of the mute swan, an invasive, nonnative species.
Mute swans, native to Europe, are characterized by orange bills and S-shaped necks. They generally have more aggressive personalities than America’s black-billed, straight-necked trumpeter swans and have attacked humans and pets, Rowe said.
“We did what was biologically right,” she said. “We look at what we see in front of us and we see the beauty, but we don’t see what’s down the road. Doing what’s right isn’t always easy.”
Wildlife conservation groups have long worked to bolster America’s trumpeter swan population in the Mississippi River Valley. About 10,000 trumpeter swans reside in the area today, and conservationists have released 70 of them in Arkansas in an attempt to teach them to migrate north.
But conservationists worry that the mute swan is a threat to the growth of the trumpeter species. A mute swan consumes an average of 8 pounds of vegetation daily and destroys 20 pounds more with its feeding method of ripping plants from the root, Rowe said.
Game and Fish Regional Wildlife Supervisor Randall Billington said the species’ territorial nature also scares away other animals.
“They’re the pit bull of the waterfowl world,” Billington said. “We don’t need them here in Arkansas.”
Michigan hosts about 15,000 mute swans, and they’re listed as nuisance species in states including Oregon and Washington. Rowe said Michigan Game and Fish workers have resorted to shooting the birds with shotguns to control the population.
But lake-area residents in Perryville said the male swan they’d come to know after five years wasn’t particularly aggressive. While it bristled when other waterfowl approached the cygnets and was territorial of its nesting area, Mallards living in the lake simply moved to the other side, Fite said.
Fite and her husband, as well as at least nine other residents, began feeding the male mute swan when an unknown person released it and several others on the lake. Fite would give the swan the same dry food she fed her dachshund. The swan would often walk around to the front of her home to catch her attention in the window by ruffling its feathers and even slept in her yard.
“He was real affectionatelike. Of course, I never tried to pet him,” she said with a laugh. “He’s a wild animal.”
When a female trumpeter swan found a home in the lake and the two mated, Rowe got calls from area residents who noticed the female’s green collar – a sort of visual tracking device – and let her know about the cygnets.
Fite said she tried to persuade the Game and Fish workers to leave the swans alone, but it was no use.
“Everybody was real attached to them,” she said. “It’s just not right. They weren’t hurting anyone.”
Euthanizing the swans was a tough decision for Rowe, who says she is an animal lover.
“I can promise you they did not suffer,” she said. “But we had to make a decision – [should we] do what’s best for those five swans, or do we want what’s best for the 10,000 swans in the Mississippi River Valley? We chose to protect the other 10,000 swans.”
The cygnets’ carcasses will be sent to a testing facility, Rowe said. As for why the commission killed the hybrid cygnets, John Cornely of the Trumpeter Swan Society said hybrids are legally treated as mute swans and therefore aren’t protected by federal law.
“Interbreeding is usually not a good thing,” he said. “A lot of it is just an unknown. We don’t know what would happen or even whether they’d survive and what kind of impact they’d have.”
Fite said she feels heartbroken over the loss of the swans.
“I just wish we hadn’t fed them in the first place,” she said. “If we’d known it would end like this, we would never have done it.”
Published June 8, 2013, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Link here.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered the Hot Springs Housing Authority on Friday to reimburse its tenants for payments they made toward bedbug treatments.
The housing authority in late 2012 implemented a policy of charging tenants $450 for bedbug treatments – equal to the price of the treatments from Clark Exterminating Co. Inc., said Barbara Baer, the housing authority’s executive director. Tenants could pay the $450 with monthly installments decided at management’s discretion. They agreed to make the payments when they signed a lease addendum upon moving into the low-income housing units.
The housing authority in May had seven units in its Mountainview Towers high-rise units treated for bedbugs – small, parasitic insects that feed on the blood of sleeping humans and animals. The housing authority oversees more than 350 units and checks them for insects quarterly.
On Friday, before the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued its order, Baer and Housing Authority Board Chairman Al Carney said the charges weren’t illegal and held tenants ac-countable for the upkeep of their homes. Further, Baer said the department has no regulation that disallows the payments.
“There simply is not a commitment from HUD on this,” she said. “And I’m in charge of protecting our tax dollars.”
But department spokesman Patricia Campbell said the housing authority violated a Public and Indian Housing Notice issued in February 2012.
“The tenant will not be expected to contribute to the cost of the [bedbug] treatment effort,” the notice read.
It’s unclear how the housing authority will repay the money and how much money will be repaid. Baer didn’t return phone messages Friday after the department informed the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of its order. But on the phone earlier Friday, Baer said she planned to play by the rules as soon as she knew what they were.
“I’ve been going through everything with a fine-tooth comb,” she said. “If we’re doing something wrong, I’ll stop this.”
The lease addendum, in which residents acknowledge that their homes are bedbug-free when they move in and promise to pay for treatments, could also be at risk.
“Any lease addendums that they have have to conform to that public-housing notice,” Campbell said.
Dennis Bosch, former board chairman, said he didn’t know about the lease addendum while he served on the board, but he would have spoken out against it if he had. Bosch served on the board from October 2009 to last month, when he resigned because of issues he had with the housing authority’s administration and with departmental policies in general.
“I think it’s a bad policy,” he said of requiring tenants to pay for bedbug treatments. “Even if [the housing authority] made a mistake, they should pay all the money back.”
But residents haven’t had any qualms with paying up, Baer said, since the agreement was included in their leases. She recalled one woman, the sister of a disabled man who had his unit treated for bedbugs, who spoke out against the policy to a television station but took back her complaint once she knew the full story.
“They completely understand,” Baer said. “We’re completely upfront about this.”
This isn’t the first time the Hot Springs Housing Authority has dealt with bedbugs. Before Baer implemented the policy and addendum in 2012, she said the units had at least twice as many bedbug infestations as they had before the policy.
“It was on the verge of being out of control,” she said. “They were just going from room to room.”
In addition to creating the lease addendum, the housing authority sent maintenance director Allen Dodd to a training course for detecting bedbugs and tasked him with training all new residents to spot them. It began offering educational classes on detection and prevention – particularly to clear up common misconceptions about the insects.
“Cleanliness is not an issue,” said Carney. “They’re after blood. That’s how they survive.”
Housing authority maintenance workers found bedbugs in the seven units after residents detected the bedbugs and contacted Dodd, who said he thinks the education efforts are working. Carney said residents need to be informed and accountable because they often bring bedbugs into their homes unknowingly.
“If you go into some Dempster Dumpster looking for a piece of furniture and bring it into your home without inspecting it, you’re liable to be bringing in bedbugs,” he said. “It oftentimes is the person’s fault.”
The treatment, which Carney said Clark Exterminating offers to the housing authority at a discount, takes several hours and involves the sealing of the room, which a machine then heats to as much as 140 degrees.
Baer said she fears that if the residents don’t have to pay for bedbug treatments, they’ll take less care to prevent the spread of the insects, resulting in more cost to the housing authority and more infestations.
“It’s not clean,” she said. “It’s not healthy. They bite.”
Published May 13, 2013, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Link here.
The proposal for Kum & Go store No. 162 was the tipping point for James Downs’ worries about his Little Rock neighborhood.
The potential for rezoning of the southeast corner of Breckenridge Drive and Rodney Parham Road to allow a convenience store and gas station in a lot reserved for residences troubled Downs, vice president of the Breckenridge Neighborhood Association. Residents tied to two other neighborhood associations in the area just east of Interstate 430 in west Little Rock shared those concerns.
“We felt like that was the beginning of worse things to come, and our peaceful, quiet neighborhood wasn’t going to be the same anymore,” Downs said.
But after four months of campaigning, petitioning and negotiating, the members of the Breckenridge Neighborhood Association, Sturbridge Property Owners Association and Colony West Homes Association who banded together to oppose the convenience store and gas station’s rezoning request could take a breather. Kum & Go withdrew its application for rezoning before its hearing scheduled for Thursday afternoon’s Planning Commission meeting.
Kum & Go spokesman Megan Elfers said the company had withdrawn its request for “a mix of reasons,” but she wouldn’t go into further detail.
“We’re continuing to evaluate the site, but we’re putting the project on hold for the time being,” she said.
In January, residents learned about the proposed 16-pump gas station and 5,000-square-foot convenience store in a letter. They met with Kum & Go representatives at a church,but Downs said the meeting didn’t soothe their fears.
The residents worried about the traffic congestion that would result from what would be the fifth gas station operating in a half-mile radius. Downs said city estimates indicated the number of cars entering and exiting the intersection would skyrocket.
The business’s plan for a 24-hour operation seven days a week also concerned residents. A McDonald’s drive through at the same intersection is the only area business now open after midnight. Residents stressed fears that another business with late night hours would contribute to crime and that loitering, vandalism and public intoxication would increase.
And they worried that the business would harm the quality of life in their neighborhoods. The area is already experiencing growing pains as the city’s population moves farther west, said Cary Cox, president of the Sturbridge Property Owners Association.
Rodney Parham Road has become a pass-through for traffic rather than an avenue for business, Cox said. He said the viability of the business district has come and gone.
“Their name suggests the type of traffic we were going to be getting,” he said.
After banding together, neighborhood association members met in churches, restaurants and homes. They exchanged hundreds of e-mails. Soon, they held drop in signings for their petition at a library, wrote letters and made phone calls to members of the Planning Commission. They even printed information packets, signs and car magnets.
They went door-to-door and gathered about 1,000 signatures on a petition to oppose the rezoning, Downs said.
“It was amazing, truly,” said Wiley Greenbaum, president of the Colony West Homes Association. “Young and old, they just did not want it.”
Individuals from Walnut Valley, Treasure Hill and Echo Valley neighborhoods also joined the effort.
On Thursday, signs of protest still peppered the neighborhoods, staked on green lawns among flowers and American flags.
The business can still resubmit its request for rezoning at any time, starting the Planning Commission process anew.
Regardless of what happens next, Downs said the neighborhood associations will continue to join forces.
“Our part of town is aging and changing, and we need to stand up and say we care about what it becomes,” he said. “Otherwise, we can’t complain about it.”
Cox said the next step could be asking the city to create an overlay district in the area, which would keep current zoning designations while adding extra requirements. Such districts usually create a set of common design standards with the aim of protecting a community’s character.
“We’ve fought off this challenge,” Cox said. “Now we feel like our challenge is to build off this momentum and go from fighting it off to having influence over what kind of businesses go in our neighborhood.”
Randy Ripley, a member of the Sturbridge Property Owners Association, said the past several months have reminded him that residents can make their voices heard.
“It takes people waking up and saying, we’re going to control our destiny. It sounds a little audacious, but it’s happened, and it works.”
Published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on July 10, 2013. Link here.
CONWAY – The Conway City Council voted Tuesday to raise the city’s sanitation collection fees from $12.90 per month to $17 per month – the first increase in a decade.
In a 6-0 vote, the City Council amended the original proposal, which would have allowed annual automatic increases of 5 percent between 2014 and 2018. The final rate would have been $21.69 per month for weekly trash, recycling, glass and yard-waste pickup as well as limb removal.
The $17 rate will hold for the indefinite future, and City Council members said they will revisit the issue if an increase seems necessary.
“Things do change from time to time,” said Andy Hawkins, Ward 1 councilman.
The fee increase will take effect in September. It’s the first increase since 2003, when the City Council voted to increase the $12.25 monthly rate, set in 2001, to $12.90. The increase to $17 will be the largest since 1997, when fees increased 50 percent, from $6.50 to $9.75.
The department, which isn’t funded by sales taxes or Conway’s general fund, needs millions of dollars to replace old trucks and equipment, to expand its fleet to 10 residential trucks and to expand its building, according to the increase proposal. The fee increase will generate an additional $1.3 million annually for the department, which serves about 26,000 homes.
One resident questioned the need to replace garbage trucks, which Conway Sanitation Department Director Cheryl Harrington said have a 5-year shelf life.
“A fireman would love to see fire trucks traded in every five years,” said James Quinn of Conway. “That ain’t happening. Why are garbage trucks any different?”
Garbage trucks are different, Harrington said. They operate six days a week, three trips a day, and pick up and dump trash using an “abrasive” process.
“You’re talking about almost continuous wear and tear,” Harrington said.
The new rate will be higher than the monthly rates of communities such as Maumelle and Sherwood, which charge$15.50 and $15.72 respectively. But it will remain lower than Little Rock – $22.02 – and Fort Smith – $17.50.
Some cities pay for sanitation collection through the city general fund, such as North Little Rock. Fayetteville uses a pay-as-you-throw system, in which Conway City Council members expressed interest. But Harrington said that isn’t the right program for Conway.
“People think they can live with [a certain size bin] and then they can’t, so they pile it up and trash ends up in the road,” she said.
Janet Crow, a Conway resident who attends City Council meetings often, rushed to the podium after the final vote to express a closing sentiment.
“I just feel compelled to thank you all” for avoiding automatic increases, she said. “I don’t get to say that very much.”
By Jacy Marmaduke and Natasha Rausch | Photo by Shelby Wolfe
The four FarmHouse Fraternity members arrested on felony charges purchased alcohol for and planned the party that led to freshman Clayton Real’s death, police say.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Department and police records accessed Friday paint a detailed picture of the Sept. 5 “frosh,” or freshman-oriented, party in the Near South neighborhood where Real reportedly consumed enough alcohol to develop a BAC of .378, more than 4.5 times the legal driving limit. He died of acute alcohol poisoning.
UNLPD conducted “lots” of interviews to piece together the story of what happened that night, Sgt. Jeff Hohlen said, interviewing most FarmHouse members and others who attended the party.
As a result of the investigation, four University of Nebraska-Lincoln students were arrested on charges of procuring alcohol for a minor resulting in injury or death: junior management major Vance Heyer, freshman accounting major Thomas Trueblood, senior architectural studies and biological sciences major Cory Foland and senior finance major Ross Reynolds. The charge is a Class IIIA felony, which can result in a maximum of 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Trueblood, FarmHouse’s freshman social chairman, found a home in which to host the party and coordinated the purchase of a keg, seven handles of vodka and four handles of whiskey, police say.
Because Trueblood is a minor, he asked three other FarmHouse members to purchase alcohol for him to take to the party, according to police documents.
Reportedly, Trueblood texted each of the three accused asking that he buy alcohol for the party. Heyer, FarmHouse’s vice president, admitted to buying two cases of Barton’s Vodka. Foland, FarmHouse’s new member educator, admitted to buying the whiskey. Reynolds admitted to buying the keg, which he said Trueblood paid for and drove him to the store to purchase.
One additional FarmHouse member, senior animal science major William Miller, was issued a misdemeanor citation for procuring alcohol for a minor. Miller is facing a lesser charge because police found that the alcohol he bought – a handle of Grey Goose vodka and two cases of beer – wasn’t connected with Real’s death. The Grey Goose was reportedly a form of payment to the two young women who hosted the party, and Miller said he gave the hosts one case of beer and kept the other for himself.
About 80 people attended the party in the 2000 block of S. 16th Street, police say, and Alpha Chi Omega sorority members were invited. Minors in attendance told police they drank alcohol while they were there.
Witnesses said they saw Real drinking vodka, whiskey and beer at the party. At an unknown time, he fell over and passed out, witnesses said. Fellow FarmHouse members brought him back to the fraternity house, 3601 Apple St., about 12:30 a.m. and had to carry him to his room.
Alcohol consumption can be risky for those with Type 1 diabetes, which Real had. When the liver is processing alcohol, it does less work to regulate blood sugar, leaving diabetics at risk of hypoglycemia. But Real’s brothers say they checked his blood sugar upon arriving home and didn’t think he was at risk.
So they left him in his room.
“The Farmhouse members didn’t wake him up at all,” Hohlen said. “They checked on him when they brought him back to the house, and then didn’t see him again till they tried to wake him up the next morning and found he wasn’t responding.”
When members couldn’t rouse Real at about 7:30 a.m., they called 911. Emergency responders declared Real dead when they arrived.
Dr. James Guest, director of the University Health Center, said while diabetes can make alcohol consumption more dangerous, it doesn’t generally make an individual more susceptible to alcohol poisoning.
“But I cannot speak specifically to what was happening in his body,” Guest said. “We are all such strange and peculiar creatures. You never know what happens inside.”
Trueblood, Heyer, Reynolds and Foland were arrested Thursday afternoon and were briefly held in the Lancaster County Jail, but they were released Friday. Williams and the two party hosts, junior advertising and public relations major Marin Hartfield and junior accounting major Lauren Williams, received citations, the latter two for maintaining a disorderly house.
FarmHouse remains indefinitely suspended, but non-freshman can keep living in the house. The chapter’s house mother said the organization will distribute a press release Friday.
FarmHouse’s international organization didn’t return calls Friday afternoon regarding the fraternity’s standing.
The university has yet to take any sanctions against the students who were arrested or cited.
Dean of Students Matt Hecker was out of the office Friday and couldn’t respond to questions, but the university code of conduct’s jurisdiction only applies to on-campus activity and off-campus activity sponsored by the university or a campus organization. It’s unclear if that jurisdiction applies to the party. Section 4.5 identifies “unlawful or unauthorized possession, use, distribution, dispensing, delivery, sale or consumption of any alcoholic beverage” as misconduct that can result in disciplinary sanctions ranging from a warning to expulsion.
Daniel Wheaton and Lani Hanson contributed to this report.
ANSLEY — Three adults were killed and eight members of the Broken Bow High School boys basketball team were transported to area hospitals after a crash Friday afternoon involving a Broken Bow Public School van and a pickup truck one mile west of Ansley on Highway 2.
Capt. Jim Parish of Nebraska State Patrol confirmed that the van’s driver, 38-year-old Zane Harvey of Broken Bow, and front seat passenger, 24-year-old Anthony Blum of Broken Bow, were killed in the crash, as was the driver of the pickup, 70-year-old Albert Sherbeck of Ansley.
According to the State Patrol, preliminary investigation indicates the eastbound pickup crossed left of center and struck the westbound 2009 Ford Econoline Van shortly before 4 p.m.
Good Samaritan Hospital in Kearney treated five patients involved in the crash; three were in fair condition and two were in critical condition, according to a Good Samaritan press release issued Friday evening.
One patient was in critical condition at St. Francis Medical Center in Grand Island Friday evening. Sister newspaper The Kearney Hub reports that Jennie Melham Memorial Health Care Center in Broken Bow treated and released two students.
“It was a horrible accident,” Broken Bow Superintendent Virginia Moon said at a press conference Friday evening at Good Samaritan Hospital. “It will impact the community for a long time to come.”
Blum was head coach and Harvey was assistant coach for the Broken Bow High School boys basketball team. Broken Bow school board member Dave Glendy confirmed the students were headed back to Broken Bow from a boys basketball clinic in Kearney.
Harvey received his degree in education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1996 and was also a math teacher, head boys golf coach and assistant football coach at Broken Bow High School. He graduated from high school in Stapleton in 1992.
Blum attended the University of Nebraska at Kearney and was serving his first season as head boys basketball coach. He was previously an assistant basketball coach at Lincoln High School. He graduated from high school in Minden in 2006.
Blum was a first-year teacher and Harvey had been with the district for 14 years.
“Both will be sorely missed,” Moon said.
She said the community was rallying around the victims. Many parents and community members had gathered at Good Samaritan Hospital.
Other members of the community were at the hospitals in Grand Island and Broken Bow where the other victims were taken and counselors were at the schools.
“I think the outpouring of interest and concern and grief have been incredibly large, as you would expect from a small community and with people who are so involved,” Moon said.
Jaden Garey, a basketball player who will be a junior, narrowly avoided involvement in the accident because his father, Brian Garey, who lives in Kearney, met him at Sonic after the camp and drove him home.
Garey had mixed emotions. He said he was thankful Jaden wasn’t hurt.
“Yet, you put yourself in right in the place of those other parents,” he said.
Jaden’s stepbrother, Grayson Minnick, was in the van.
“He was the only one who had a phone and could call,” Garey said.
Grayson was treated for his injuries and released.
The school made calls with its automatic calling system to let parents know about the situation and will provide parents with advice about how to handle grieving.
“When there’s a death in the school community, we’re not always aware of how far and how deep that affects the students and parents because we all grieve in different ways,” Moon said.
In this situation, much of the grief counseling also will be done with staff because two staff members died and the staff themselves will need counseling, she said. She added that the school’s job will be more difficult because students aren’t in classes.
“This can never happen at a good time, but when students are out of school … it’s harder to get them together, and it’s harder to know which one needs a counselor,” Moon said. “It’s important that parents watch for changes in behavior. Those are the most important things.”
The Nebraska State Patrol, the Custer County Sheriff’s Department and rescue personnel from Ansley, Broken Bow, Mason City and Merna were involved at the scene. AirCare and a Good Samaritan ambulance were dispatched to the scene.
Staff reporter Harold Reutter and editor Terri Hahn contributed to this report, which also contains material from the World-Herald News Service.
Mary Lou Brown has resigned as Grand Island city administrator at the request of Mayor Jay Vavricek.
Brown’s resignation will take effect Sept. 30. Vavricek announced her resignation at the Grand Island City Council meeting Tuesday evening beside her empty seat.
“We cannot go on as we have,” he said. “I believe with these initial steps we can and must go forward positively, all pulling together on the same rope.”
Vavricek called Brown “dedicated, hard-working and diligent,” but he said she is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city and its success. Faces on the council showed surprise at Vavricek’s announcement. Council President Peg Gilbert said she was the only member of the body who knew of Brown’s resignation before the meeting began. Gilbert declined to comment on the exact reasoning behind Brown’s departure, but she called it “a new beginning.”
“We want a clean slate for our citizens, and this is something we need to do to achieve that,” Gilbert said.
Vavricek will consult Gilbert and the council in seeking an interim city administrator and said he will form a mayor’s advisory group seeking suggestions for “the long-term interest of our people.”
The Public Information Division will release further information on Brown’s resignation Wednesday.
Brown’s contract mandated that she maintain her position until the end of the mayor’s current term, which concludes in December 2014.
She has held the city administrator position since December 2010, when Vavricek appointed her. She took on the job after an 18-month stint as the city finance director — her first municipal job afters years spent working in private finance.
Brown has dealt with a number of administration and governance issues since beginning her term.
The city has been without a fire chief for seven months, since former Fire Chief Troy Hughes resigned. Fire Division Chief Tim Hiemer served as interim chief for the maximum term of four months, after which Brown was the over-seer of the department. No search began for a new chief. Fire Division Chief Fred Hotz filed a grievance with Brown in late April saying the department needed permanent or interim leadership, but she rejected it. He then approached Human Resources Director Brenda Sutherland and Vavricek and scheduled a hearing with the mayor, but the hearing was later canceled and Hotz was suspended for insubordination.
Brown refused to comment on the issue on the grounds that it was a personnel matter.
In addition to Hughes, four other city department directors — former Public Works Director Steve Riehle, City Attorney Dale Shotkoski, Utilities Director Gary Mader and Parks and Recreation Director Steve Paustian — have left their positions since Brown began her term as city administrator.
Hughes said he received his first-ever insubordination charges from Vavricek and Brown in the 11 months he worked under them. The charges came after Hughes released the Fire Department’s annual report before receiving clearance from Brown and Vavricek and discussed potential department cuts with his staff before receiving clearance from administration. In an article published in The Independent June 17, Hughes said the work environment under Brown was not “open and honest.”
According to Brown’s bio on the city website, the city administrator is “responsible to the Mayor and the City Council for the administrative functions of City government” and “provides long-range planning leadership, provides leadership to the city staff and professional consultants and administers programs of the Mayor and City Council.” Brown has dealt with a tough budget session, the extension of sewer services along Highway 281 to Interstate 80 and city annexation.
“She has made a difference in the lives of our people and made all those around her a better person,” Vavricek said after the council meeting.
In other business, the council approved an ordinance to grant the council the power of approval over police and fire chief appointments.
That move reverses a 2005 amendment to Chapters 2 and 12 of city code that took the council’s approval power away. Since 2005, the council has only had the power to ratify five of the mayor’s public department official appointments: city administrator, city attorney, city clerk, public works and finance.
Gilbert said she included only the fire and police chief positions in the ordinance because their departments account for more than 60 percent of the general fund budget.
“It’s critical that the council has some say in the leadership of those two departments,” she said.
But Councilman Larry Carney said he saw no reason to exclude other department officials from council approval as well. He made a motion to include all public department officials in the amendment, but he withdrew the motion when City Attorney Bob Sivick said approving such a change to city code would require more advance notice to the public.
Councilman Chuck Haase made a motion to remove from the agenda a private executive session. Haase said he placed the session on the agenda to discuss the way the council members and the mayor represent citizens. To hold the executive session would have been a violation of Nebraska’s Open Meeting Law because the closed session exception for the prevention of needless injury to reputation is for the protection of individual employees only, not for the protection of governmental officers on the public body.
The council also referred the blight and substandard studies for proposed redevelopment of two locations — Area 10 south of Bismark Road and east of S. Locust Street and Area 11 on the Veterans Affairs Medical Center property south of Capital Avenue and east of Broadwell Avenue — to the Regional Planning Commission. The council advanced the Area 11 referral despite concerns from council members that the location may not meet blight and substandard requirements.
Story by Jacy Marmaduke and Marlena Chertock, photos by Emilie Eaton and Sydney Stavinoha
Aug. 16, 2014 — News21
Sheriff Mike Lewis considers himself the last man standing for the people of Wicomico County, Maryland.
“State police and highway patrol get their orders from the governor,” the sheriff said. “I get my orders from the citizens in this county.”
With more states passing stronger gun control laws, rural sheriffs across the country are taking their role as defenders of the Constitution to a new level by protesting such restrictions and, in some cases, refusing to enforce the laws.
Lewis and other like-minded sheriffs have been joined by groups like Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, both of which encourage law enforcement officers to take a stand against gun control laws.
The role of a sheriff
While the position of sheriff is not found in the U.S. Constitution, it is listed in state constitutions. Nearly all of America’s 3,080 sheriffs are elected to their positions, whereas state and city police officials are appointed.
Lewis and other sheriffs, and their supporters, say that puts them in the best position to stand up to gun laws they consider unconstitutional under the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms.
“The role of a sheriff is to be the interposer between the law and the citizen,” said Maryland Delegate Don Dwyer, an Anne Arundel County Republican. “He should stand between the government and citizen in every issue pertaining to the law.”
When Lewis was president of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, he testified with other sheriffs against the state’s Firearms Safety Act (FSA) before it was enacted in 2013. One of the strictest gun laws in the nation, the act requires gun applicants to supply fingerprints and complete training to obtain a handgun license online. It bans 45 types of firearms, limits magazines to 10 rounds and outlaws gun ownership for people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.
After Lewis opposed the bill, he said he was inundated with emails, handwritten letters, phone calls and visits from people thanking him for standing up for gun rights.
“I knew this was a local issue, but I also knew it had serious ramifications on the U.S. Constitution, specifically for our Second Amendment right,” said Lewis, one of 24 sheriffs in the state. “It ignited fire among sheriffs throughout the state. Those in the rural areas all felt the way I did.”
In New York, the state sheriff’s association has publicly decried portions of the SAFE Act, state legislation that broadened the definition of a banned assault weapon, outlawed magazines holding more than 10 rounds and created harsher punishments for anyone who kills a first-responder in the line of duty.
A handful of the state’s 62 sheriffs have vowed not to enforce the high-capacity magazine and assault-weapon bans. One of the most vocal is Sheriff Tony Desmond of Schoharie County, population 32,000. He believes his refusal to enforce the SAFE Act won him re-election in 2013.
“If you have an (assault) weapon, which under the SAFE Act is considered illegal, I don’t look at it as being illegal just because someone said it was,” he said.
Colorado made national headlines when 55 of its 62 sheriffs attempted to sign on as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of several 2013 gun control bills in the state. The most-controversial measures banned magazines of more than 15 rounds and established background checks for private gun sales.
A federal judge said the sheriffs couldn’t sue as elected officials, so Weld County Sheriff John Cooke and eight other sheriffs sued as private citizens. Cooke was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, which a federal district judge threw out in June. He and other plaintiffs are preparing an appeal.
“It’s not (the judge’s) job to tell me what I can and can’t enforce,” Cooke said. “I’m still the one that has to say where do I put my priorities and resources? And it’s not going to be there.”
Lewis, who is running for re-election in Maryland this year, said sheriffs have a responsibility to push against what he sees as the federal government’s continual encroachment on citizens’ lives and rights.
“I made a vow and a commitment that as long as I’m the sheriff of this county I will not allow the federal government to come in here and strip my law-abiding citizens of the right to bear arms,” he said. “If they attempt to do that it will be an all-out civil war. Because I will stand toe-to-toe with my people.”
But Maryland Sen. Brian Frosh, a sponsor of the Firearms Safety Act and a gun-control advocate from suburban Montgomery County, said Lewis’ understanding of a sheriff’s role is flawed.
“If you are a sheriff in Maryland you must take an oath to uphold the law and the Constitution,” said Frosh, now the Democratic nominee for Maryland attorney general. “… It’s not up to a sheriff to decide what’s constitutional and what isn’t. That’s what our courts are for.”
Frosh also noted that sheriffs are generally not lawyers or judges, which means they often are following their convictions instead of the Constitution.
“We had lots of people come in (to testify against the bill) and without any basis say, ‘This violates the Second Amendment,’” Frosh said. “They can cite the Second Amendment, but they couldn’t explain why this violates it. And the simple fact is it does not. There is a provision of our Constitution that gives people rights with respect to firearms, but it’s not as expansive as many of these people think.”
Sheriffs do have the power to nullify, or ignore, a law if it is unconstitutional, Maryland Delegate Dwyer said. He said James Madison referred to nullification as the rightful remedy for the Constitution.
“The sheriffs coming to testify on the bill understood the issue enough and were brave enough to come to Annapolis and make the bold stand that on their watch, in their county, they would not enforce these laws even if they passed,” said Dwyer. “That is the true role and responsibility of what the sheriff is.”
Oath Keepers and CSPOA
If former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack had it his way, there wouldn’t be a single gun control law in the U.S.
“I studied what the Founding Fathers meant about the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms, and the conclusion is inescapable,” said Mack, the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA). “There’s no way around it. Gun control in America is against the law.”
Mack’s conviction is central to the ideology of CSPOA, which he founded in 2011 to “unite all public servants and sheriffs, to keep their word to uphold, defend, protect, preserve and obey” the Constitution, according to the association’s website.
CSPOA grabbed media attention in February with a growing list of sheriffs — 484 as of late July — professing opposition to federal gun control.
Mack and CSPOA also have ties to Oath Keepers, an organization founded in 2009 with a similar goal to unite veterans, law enforcement officers and first-responders who pledge to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
The website of the Oath Keepers, which has active chapters in 48 states and the District of Columbia, and an estimated membership of 40,000, features a declaration of “orders we will not obey,” including those to disarm Americans, impose martial law on a state and blockade cities.
Some sheriffs perceive Oath Keepers and CSPOA as too radical to associate with. Desmond, of Schoharie County, New York, is known around his state for openly not enforcing provisions of the SAFE Act that he considers unconstitutional. Still, he’s not a member of either organization.
“I don’t want to get involved with somebody that may be a bit more proactive when it comes to the SAFE Act,” Desmond said. “I want to have the image that I protect gun owners, but I’m not fanatical about it.”
Mack is familiar with that sentiment. He suspects it’s hindered the growth of CSPOA.
“This is such a new idea for so many sheriffs that it’s hard for them to swallow it,” Mack said. “They’ve fallen into the brainwashing and the mainstream ideas that you just have to go after the drug dealers and the DUIs and serve court papers — and that the federal government is the supreme law of the land.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights nonprofit that classifies and combats hate and extremist groups, included both CSPOA and Oath Keepers on its list of 1,096 anti-government “patriot” groups active in 2013. Both groups have faced criticism for their alleged connections to accused criminals, including individuals charged with possessing a live napalm bomb and a suspect in the shooting and killing of two Las Vegas police officers and a bystander in June.
Representatives from the law center did not return phone calls and emails requesting comment.
Franklin Shook, an Oath Keepers board member who goes by the pseudonym “Elias Alias,” said the organization doesn’t promote violence, but rather a message of peaceful noncompliance.
“What Oath Keepers is saying is … when you get an order to go to somebody’s house and collect one of these guns, just stand down,” Shook said. “Say peacefully, ‘I refuse to carry out an unlawful order,’ and we, the organization, will do everything in our power to keep public pressure on your side to keep you from getting in trouble for standing down. That makes Oath Keepers extremely dangerous to the system.”
Self-proclaimed constitutional sheriffs hope that courts will overturn gun control measures in their states — but they recognize that may not happen. Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of gun control legislation in Maryland, New York and Colorado have been, for the most part, unsuccessful.
“My hope is that the governor will look at it now that it’s been a year plus and say, ‘We’ve had some provisions that have failed. Let’s sit down and look at this and have a meaningful conversation,’” said Otsego County, New York, Sheriff Richard Devlin, who enforces the SAFE Act but doesn’t make it a priority. “I personally don’t see that happening, but I’d like to see that happen.”
Story by Jacy Marmaduke and Robby Korth, photos by Morgan Spiehs
At dusk on a June day, Columbine High School is empty. Sprinkler jets stream rainbows across the fading sunlight and bright green lawn. “Safety first” signs are taped on all the doors.
Fifteen years ago, English teacher Paula Reed thought something different might come from the deaths of 12 students and one teacher at the hands of two teenagers, that heightened awareness of gun violence would yield answers to the question of gun safety.
History has proven her wrong.
“It simply created a huge chasm, at least in terms of what we’re talking about as a nation,” she said. “What I see us talking about in the media and on social media is this hardline, ‘Guns are evil, we need to get rid of all of them and the NRA’s evil,’ and, ‘You can pry my gun out of my cold, dead hand; don’t come after my guns.’
“I think most of us are in the middle, but that’s not where the discussion is occurring. And because of that, we can’t have a sane discussion that results in sane solutions.”
English teacher Paula Reed stands outside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on June 6, 2014. Reed fled the building with students during the shooting at the school 15 years prior. Having lost students she was close to, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.
After the Aurora and Sandy Hook shootings, Colorado’s legislature ushered in unprecedented gun control laws, including universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines. But gun rights activists fueled two historic senator recalls and a resignation. A group of sheriffs and gun industry stakeholders sued Gov. John Hickenlooper, who in June took a public step back from the laws he favored a year ago.
This is a state divided by two high-profile mass shootings that resulted in 27 deaths; between gun-rights supporters and gun-control advocates; by a set of laws that continues to inspire dissent among residents and lawmakers. As elections approach, conservative lobbyists and lawmakers plan to grab hold of public opposition toward gun control, find a path toward redder terrain and win back their firearms rights no matter how long it takes.
It’s unknown whether Hickenlooper will be safe in the state that gave President Barack Obama a 5 percent margin of victory in 2012. A Quinnipiac University poll released in July put him neck-and-neck with Republican challenger Bob Beauprez. And several legislative seats in traditionally more conservative districts will be up for grabs.
“We used to be a very Republican state, and then all of a sudden, I don’t know what happened, it changed,” said John Cooke, a sheriff in Weld County, Colorado, who was the lead plaintiff in the suit against the 2013 gun laws. “We need to do a better job of electing people to the Senate, the House and electing a better governor. And once that happens, I think a lot of these gun laws are going to be repealed.”
Eleven years ago, Colorado’s Republican-dominated legislature likely couldn’t have passed the gun control legislation that defines today’s debate.
Following the Columbine shooting in 1999, a bill in 2000 closed the loophole that allowed the two teenagers who committed the attacks to legally obtain their guns from a friend who bought them at a gun show. Between 2000 and 2013, Colorado only saw five gun-related bills pass, the most consequential of which barred felons and those convicted of domestic violence from possessing firearms.
“The gun issue … just wasn’t on my radar screen,” said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University who has observed the Legislature for more than 40 years. “I remember more contentious blockbuster issues having to do with mandating motorcycle helmets than having to do with guns until rather recently.”
In 2004, Democrats gained control of the entire Legislature, which they’ve held but for a brief stint in 2011 and 2012. And that Democrat-dominant culture, as well as a shift in the national narrative, was the impetus for major changes, Straayer said.
“State after state after state is trying to do something about (gun violence),” Straayer said. “What’s happening nationwide is happening in Colorado. The salience of the whole gun issue has stimulated the introduction of this kind of gun legislation.”
In early 2013, Colorado’s Legislature introduced Aurora- and Sandy Hook-inspired gun control measures that got the state talking about firearms. House Bill 1224 banned the sale and transfer of high-capacity ammunition magazines. Senate Bill 195 required concealed-carry permit applicants to take in-person training. House Bill 1229 required background checks for private gun sales and transfers, already standard for public sales, and mental health reporting to a federal database.
As the snow was melting to feed Colorado’s mountain streams, Hickenlooper signed the bills into law and Colorado made some of the most dramatic gun policy changes in the country. It came as the state also made same-sex civil unions legal, granted in-state tuition to Colorado high school graduates who immigrated to the U.S. illegally and improved voter access by supplying mail-in ballots for all active state voters.
“We did more than we have in the last 20 years in moving Colorado forward,” said former Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo, who was ousted in one of the recalls.
Democrats have been able to increase funding, get better candidates to run and benefited from a shifting demographic. But Straayer said Republicans have contributed far more to Colorado’s leftward shift since the 1970s.
“The Republican Party, over a three-decade period of time, pretty much eliminated the moderates in the party and moved further and further to the right and made themselves less and less attractive to the moderate voter, to the swing voter, to the unaffiliated voter,” Straayer said.
Patrick Neville was 15 when he witnessed Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walk toward his high school and open fire on classmates. Now, the Iraq War veteran is a self-described principled conservative running as the Republican nominee for the Colorado House in District 45, about 40 miles south of Denver.
On guns, the man who used them as a tool in Iraq feels Coloradans should harness rather than fear their power. He also wants to reject Obamacare and decrease the size of government, and on his website he calls himself “pro-life with no exceptions.”
“I was a college student and I was unable to conceal carry, at the time they banned it on campuses. I felt unsafe,” Neville said at a picnic table in downtown Castle Rock, Colorado. “I didn’t feel unsafe in Iraq, even in the most dangerous areas, because I knew we took the steps to prepare ourselves and I had the opportunity to defend myself.“
Neville is one of 11 Colorado Legislature candidates with an endorsement from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a significant player in gun politics for the state. To secure an endorsement, candidates must weather an intense vetting process and a questionnaire that ensures they won’t waiver on protecting and regaining gun rights, Neville said.
Republican Patrick Neville, who is running for a state house seat, supports gun rights and the repeal of an open carry ban in Castle Rock, Colo. Neville’s brother is a lobbyist for Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, and his father is a former state senator. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.
The endorsement is significant for Republicans. Ten of the group’s 11 candidates won their Republican primaries. The races are especially significant in five Senate districts because Republicans are one seat shy of the majority.
Endorsements from the group could also prove a benefit to some of the candidates’ Democratic opponents by alienating moderate voters who might vote Republican, particularly in districts 19 and 22, according to Straayer.
In those districts, the more conservative Senate candidates Tony Sanchez and Laura Woods won the nomination over more moderate Republican opponents, some of whom were endorsed by other gun groups.
“It’s not just the gun issue,” Straayer said. “They’re also more conservative, really pretty far out there on the right, more so than the candidates that lost. That could have an impact.”
News21 reached out to Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and its executive director, Dudley Brown, but messages went unreturned.
Guns and energy will be the two “high-profile issues” facing voters, Straayer said.
“You’ve got a good number of folks for whom the gun issue matters, but it goes in different directions depending which chunk of the voting public you’re talking about,” Straayer said. “I think the intensity is on the side of the gun lobby, the numbers are on the side of the people who are more comfortable with gun control. I’m not sure how you assess the consequences of that.”
The number of Coloradans applying for concealed-carry permits has more than doubled, with more than 100,000 applications in the two years following the Aurora theater shooting.
Standing in her office in Colorado Springs, Colo., on June 4, 2014, Christy Le Lait, the executive director of the El Paso County Democrats, points to signatures found to be fraudulent on a petition to recall Colorado Senate President John Morse. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.
Coloradans’ reviews of the 2013 legislation have been mixed.
A February Qunnipiac University poll found that 52 percent of respondents opposed the laws, but taken piecemeal, their views changed: 86 percent supported universal background checks and 50 percent supported the magazine limit. When Qunnipiac asked the same three questions in November, 55 percent of Coloradans polled opposed the laws but 85 percent supported background checks and 49 percent supported the magazine limit.
In the July poll that showed Hickenlooper tied with Republican challenger Beauprez, 9 percent of respondents listed guns as the most important issue in this year’s gubernatorial race.
Luke Wagner is certainly in that 9 percent.
Wagner, an information technology guy, had never done anything more political than voting before he decided to get involved with what he likes to call the “second shift for liberty.” After Democrats passed their major pieces of legislation in 2013, he and other like-minded Coloradans formed the Basic Freedom Defense Fund to organize the recall elections of Giron and fellow Democratic Sen. John Morse.
Gun rights groups didn’t just target Morse and Giron, but recall movements for the two senators gained steam because they were both been elected by small margins and had been instrumental in passage of the 2013 gun laws. Morse was Senate president and Giron chaired the Senate committee that approved universal background checks.
Now, Wagner and his supporters have shifted their focus toward a new organization: the Colorado Second Amendment Association.
“The way we got here was a slow process,” Wagner said. “Our rights were chipped away at, chipped away at, chipped away at, until there was an opportunity to go for the gusto. And the only way to get our rights back is to chip our way back, chip our way back, chip our way back.”
Wagner and some of the other organizers of the recall movement created an organization that wouldn’t lobby, but would instead educate people about guns and create a “network in Colorado of people who are willing to stand up for their rights,” he said.
The organization supports repealing the laws passed in 2013 and it keeps gun rights advocates updated with frequent blog posts and a monthly newsletter.
Wagner estimates he’s put about 1,500 miles and hours into his organizations and has no idea the amount of money he’s spent.
Despite Wagner’s concerted and successful campaign to throw two senators out of office, Giron and Morse still say they did the right thing.
“Sacrificing my political career … to do this was just an amazingly small price to pay compared to the price that the families of these gun-violence victims pay every minute of every day,” said Morse, a former police officer. “So I haven’t looked back and felt badly about this at all.”
Giron doesn’t have any regrets either.
“I feel so proud that I did this,” she said. “I wasn’t even a sponsor of any of the bills, but I wouldn’t change a vote. When I was voting on them, I had no concept that I’d be recalled or that I could have had any kind of impact that I had. Now that I do know that, if I went back to do that, would I change my vote?
Despite being recalled, Giron said she and Morse and former Sen. Evie Hudak, who resigned under the pressure of a recall, ultimately won the battle over guns because the laws are on the books.
“(The legislation) is going to help keep our citizens here in Colorado safe,” Giron said. “And that’s what we wanted. So we both really feel good about the work that we did and we wouldn’t change a thing.”
John Cooke holds the reins of his brown horse in his left hand. His right bursts through the clear, Rocky Mountain sky, waving at the crowd gathered in Parish Park.
It’s only the start of parade season, and Cooke still has plenty of appearances to make as he runs for a state Senate seat, where his competition will be a Democrat in a heavily Republican district.
Cooke, armed with a Smith and Wesson .45-caliber pistol, keeps a smile on his face and his eye on the prize. If elected, Cooke will try to repeal the guns laws passed in 2013, although he said that won’t necessarily be his first move because so many Democrats occupy the General Assembly.
Cooke leads a group of 55 Colorado sheriffs who backed a lawsuit to overturn the laws restricting magazine size and requiring universal background checks. U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger ruled that the sheriffs couldn’t sue as elected officials, so Cooke and eight others signed on as private citizens.
In late June, Krieger threw out the suit, ruling that the magazine limit and background-check law aren’t an unreasonable burden on gun owners and sellers and therefore don’t infringe on Second Amendment rights. Plaintiffs filed a court notice July 28 that they plan to appeal Krieger’s decision.
In the meantime, Cooke refuses to enforce the laws: He argues they’re unenforceable as well as unconstitutional.
The ban on magazines that hold more than 15 rounds presents an issue for Cooke because law enforcement officers can’t look at a magazine and tell if it was purchased before last June, when the law went into effect. And Cooke said he violates the background-check law every time he hands a gun over to a new deputy without administering a background check.
“It’s not her job to tell me what I can and can’t enforce,” Cooke said of Krieger’s ruling. “I’m still the one that has to say, ‘Where do I put my priorities and resources?’ and it’s not going to be there. I’d rather capture the burglars, the child rapists, the drug dealers, that type of thing. That’s where my priorities are at, not trying to arrest law-abiding citizens.”
When Cooke took his oath of office, he swore to uphold the Colorado and United States constitutions, among other duties. But he never swore to enforce all state laws.
“Let’s face it,” he said. “Does anyone really believe that a criminal, or drug dealer or burglar, they want to go buy a gun and go to a gun store and get the background check, and once they get denied they stop? No, they’re going to go to their criminal friend and get one, or go break into a house and steal one.”
About 90 miles south of the Weld County Sheriff’s Office, Castle Rock Mayor Paul Donahue fights a different battle. Castle Rock, population 53,000, has more than doubled in size since 2000. The bedroom community is home to new housing developments, strip malls and shopping centers bustling with chain restaurants and a single gun store.
The Colorado Constitution protects the right to bear arms, but a revised statute clarifies that local governments can ban open carry in certain areas.
In Castle Rock, citizens can openly carry guns everywhere in town but municipal buildings, 19 public parks and 51 miles of trails. But few choose to exercise the right.
Donahue, mayor since 2008, wants to repeal Castle Rock’s 11-year ban on open-carry in the public spaces. He’s backed by the majority of the town’s seven-member council.
Mayor Paul Donahue poses for a portrait in his Edward Jones office in Castle Rock, Colo., on June 5, 2014. Voters will decide this fall whether to repeal the ban on the open carrying of firearms in town-owned buildings and parks; Donahue supports the repeal. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.
Citizens will vote on the matter via mail-in ballot on Aug. 19.
“This isn’t a big deal,” Donahue said. “I mean, we’re talking about repealing a law that not many people paid attention to anyway. It’s more of an ideological thought process — if there’s no reason to take away this constitutional right, then why do it?”
But what seems simple, even perfunctory, to Donahue has inspired opposition from some Castle Rock leaders and citizens.
The town council had initially planned to repeal the open-carry ban on its own, until Ziggy Guentensberger and Jacob Vargish gathered 2,700 signatures from people who disagreed with the move, enough to bring the issue back to the council members, who then chose to arrange a vote.
Guentensberger, a father of two who works at a construction management firm, grew up hunting and used to own guns. He said he’s got nothing against firearms but is concerned about safety.
Siegfried Guentensberger, at his home in Castle Rock, Colo., on June 4, 2014, helped gather signatures to force a referendum on whether to repeal Castle Rock’s ban on open carry of firearms in parks and town-owned buildings. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.
“You look at when Castle Rock was only 5,000 people, the majority of those people grew up on farms with guns,” he said. “They were very familiar with guns and it wasn’t a big deal. Now you have 55 (thousand), 50,000 people, majority of them haven’t grown up around guns. They don’t know how to use them; they’re not responsible.”
But Donahue isn’t worried.
“There’s got to be a little bit of risk,” he said. “There’s got to be some accountability for freedom. The government cannot control our every waking moment. … If it makes people uncomfortable if they see someone with a holstered firearm, or it makes them feel intimidated, then that’s their problem.”
As the debate roars on from Castle Rock to Columbine, Paula Reed, like many Coloradans, feels stuck in the middle.
The Columbine English teacher considers herself largely recovered. But that doesn’t mean she’s lost her stake in the fight.
“Sometimes you need a voice that says, ‘Yes, I went through a shooting,’” Reed said. “But no, I don’t think guns are evil, nor do I think that they are the answer to the problem. There’s an answer in the middle there somewhere.”
While millions of Americans were picking up their newspapers and opening their Web browsers to learn that the Boy Scouts of America had decided to allow openly gay members, Bill Price was putting on his uniform, just as he has five days a week for the past 37 years – lacing his hiking boots and straightening the collar of his beige shirt with the American flag patch on the right shoulder.
It was Friday, May 24. The day before, 757 voting members at the Boy Scouts of America’s national meeting – 61 percent of the 1,232 voting delegates – had cast their ballots in favor of a change in the organization’s membership policy that will allow openly homosexual Scouts. Speculation ensued about why the organization decided to change its policy, which allowed neither gay Scouts nor gay troop leaders.
But Price, program director for the Boy Scouts of America’s Quapaw Area Council, put on his uniform and went to work just the same. He’s one of many in the scouting community who have pledged their loyalty to the organization regardless of the policy change, which takes effect Jan. 1.
In the fall, a special subcommittee of the national organization will present its plans on how local troops should implement and explain the policy change. And although the dust of the fallout has started to settle, it remains unclear how the change will affect an organization that has seen significant declines in membership. Boy Scout youth membership totals about 2.7 million, according to the Scouts’ website, millions below what it was in previous decades.
Of about 385 chartering organizations in the Quapaw Area Council – which supports troops and packs in 39 Arkansas counties – 39 have or will cut ties with troops they have sponsored, according to Scout Executive John Carman. Unlike some other councils – the organizations that oversee local groups- the Quapaw Area Council continues to grow. It has 11,500 members.
About 15 parents in the Quapaw council have removed their children from Boy Scouts after the policy change, Carman said. And about 50 of the 4,000 adult volunteers have left scouting because of the new policy.
ANNOUNCING THE CHANGE
The Boy Scouts Executive Committee proposed the change in April, about eight months after it publicly reaffirmed its original policy. In an April 29 meeting streamed online to voting members, the committee shared the results of months of surveys on the potential changes. The committee members said they don’t want Scouts to leave the program because of their sexual orientation.
“It was never the intent of our policy for the BSA to keep young people from being part of this organization,” Vice President for Marketing Nathan Rosenberg said in the video, which had 500 online viewers. “We concluded that kids are our priority, period. And we all know kids are much better off when they stay in scouting.”
Rosenberg said the move wasn’t a response to outside pressures.
“Our boys are not going to be political pawns,” he said.
The committee members shared their personal opinions with one another before tackling the resolution, said Rosenberg, who assured viewers that every opinion had representation in the committee.
“I support this resolution, although I’ve been told it doesn’t go far enough or goes too far,” Lyle Knight, vice president for human resources, said in the video. “For today – just today – I think it’s the right move because we lack consensus on any of the issues except the youth issue. It’s the only one we could line up behind.”
The policy change emphasizes that sexual activity remains prohibited among Scouts, and its supporters say it recognizes that there’s a difference between children and adults when sexuality is involved.
“Kids that age don’t know if they’re homosexual – they don’t know if they’re heterosexual,” said Carman. “They’re still trying to make up their minds, and dealing with those issues is part of growing up.”
REACTIONS AND REASONING
The news that the national executive committee was considering a change in the membership policy came as a shock to Carman and the rest of the Quapaw council earlier this year.
“Both on a professional and a volunteer level, we were surprised,” Carman said. “The BSA came out in July of last year and … stood their ground on [the old] policy, so to come out seven months later and say, ‘We’re revisiting this, and we’re proposing a resolution to change it’ – that certainly caught us off guard.”
Boy Scouts spokesmen would not grant interviews with the members of the executive committee, and they would not explain why the organization suddenly changed its policy.
But there are plenty of theories about the change, said authors Alvin Townley and Jay Mechling, who have written books on the Boy Scouts’ long-carved niche in the American cultural landscape.
Townley said the Boy Scouts’ reaffirmation of its previous membership policy last year – just a week before the organization’s centennial anniversary – “very unnecessarily” stirred up a hornets’ nest that it could no longer ignore. Companies like Caterpillar, United Way and Intel withdrew sponsorship funding in reaction to the organization’s stance on homosexuality.
“The board realized it had to do something,” Townley said. “Throughout history, excluding has never been a positive. As American society has become more inclusive, scouting’s former exclusionary policy has ostracized people.”
Mechling said the former policy included a key contradiction.
“You’re forcing people to be untruthful about a very fundamental part of themselves in an organization that values honor and trustworthiness,” he said.
The policy change wasn’t just a move to make the organization “more progressive,” Mechling said; it was a business decision. Members of the National Executive Board include powerful business leaders like Ernst & Young Chief Executive Officer James Turley and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, he said. AT&T, which is listed on the Boy Scouts website as an organization sponsor, and Ernst & Young both have anti-discrimination policies related to sexual orientation. Before the recent change, the two men had said they would try to change the Boy Scouts membership policy.
Millions of dollars of financial backing were on the line, Mechling said. He expects the change will repair some financial damage, although no former sponsors have returned. And some former sponsors have refused to restore funding until the Boy Scouts allow openly gay adults as well as children.
Mechling said he’s unsure whether the change will reverse a “conservative, religious trajectory” the Scouts have been on in recent years.
“The long range was they were going to lose more and more members,” Mechling said. “They were going to become the youth program of several large churches. They were no longer going to be the American youth program we once knew.”
In June, the national Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution expressing disagreement with the Scouts’ policy change. Southern Baptists and other religious groups have vowed to find other options for youth leadership programs that they say are more in line with their religious beliefs.
Scouting members in the state are ambivalent about the change. Scouting professionals and troop leaders denied the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interviews with Scouts. They said they didn’t want the children to discuss sexual matters with reporters.
Don Cole, scoutmaster for Troop 30, which is chartered by St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Little Rock, said his troop hasn’t had any organized discussion about the policy change.
“I don’t think it’ll affect our day-to-day operations,” he said. “Our scouting troop is about the camping, the programs and the education.”
All four area council executives in Arkansas said they couldn’t recall a Scout being removed from the program because of his sexuality, although it’s happened in other states.
Carman, the Quapaw Area Council Scout executive, said the effects of the policy change, made nationally, will dissipate as it spreads toward the local branches.
“You go to camp, and you can’t tell that this resolution was ever an issue,” Carman said. “And to the kids, it’s not. That’s just the way society is going. To the boys, they’re just out having a good time.”
Carman said the loss of volunteers is significant, because each is “a crucial part of the organization.”
“But when you’re talking about 4,000 volunteers and 11,500 youth members, that 50 is not a significant impact overall,” he said. “We’ll continue to serve approximately that many kids and hopefully more.”
Carman said he expects the majority of volunteers, Scouts and chartering organizations that would leave the Boy Scouts because of the policy change have already left. He said most will stay although the change disappointed them because they believe in the organization’s mission.
“If you leave the program, you can’t affect the lives of young people,” said Price, the Quapaw program director. “Some people say, ‘Bill stayed, so [he] must condone this.’ It’s not a matter of that. It’s a matter of – show me a better program for boys. There’s nothing better.”
Mechling said the Scouts will have to adjust the policy to allow gay leaders in the future. The tension of the compromise will eventually be “too much to bear,” he said.
Townley said he’s happy to see the Boy Scouts adopt what he sees as a more progressive, modern stance. But as disagreement on the policy continues, he said it’s hard not to worry about the future of the organization he joined as a child and has made a focus of his professional career.
“Scouting is one place where diverse people have always come together, and if America’s so polarized that we can’t come together inside the [organization], then I’m really worried about our country’s future,” he said.
Others are more optimistic that the change is sufficient and that local groups will accept it.
Tom Buffenbarger, assistant treasurer of the National Executive Committee and a life-long scouting participant who spoke in the April Internet broadcast, said he learned from his scoutmaster as a child that life is a series of changes.
“We can resist change,” he said. “We can fear it, flee from it, deny it. Or we can recognize it when it is upon us, and – in the end – make it work for us. Mastering change requires us … to be brave and go forward the best we’re able. That’s where we’re at at this point in time in the life of the Boy Scouts of America.”