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Eagle County puts $615K into energy programs run by Walking Mountains Science Center

More Eagle County residents will have access to energy-saving programs, thanks to a county agreement with Walking Mountains Science Center.

The agreement takes $615,500 from the county’s general fund. That money will pay for several initiatives run by Walking Mountains.

By the numbers

$615,500: Eagle County’s 2023 spending on various energy efficiency programs through Walking Mountains Science Center.

$472,500: Portion of the funding dedicated to Energy Smart Colorado programs.

$50,000: Portion of that funding dedicated to sustainable business initiatives.

50%: Maximum rebate through the Energy Smart program for efficiency improvements of $5,000 or less.

Roughly one-third of the funds will go to the Energy Smart program’s home assessments, rebates and outreach.

Those energy efficiency improvements will be aimed at owners of deed-restricted homes, as well as first responders and those in multi-family neighborhoods. Families earning up to 150% of the area median income will also be eligible.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Eagle County Board of Commissioners, Eagle County Environmental Manager John Gitchell said that Energy Smart rebates cover up to 50% of project costs up to $5,000. But, he added, those rebates can be combined with utility company rebates as well as state and federal tax credits.

Walking Mountains Energy Programs Director Nikki Maline said the income qualification point will be good for local families with children.

The efficiency projects focus on electrifying homes and transportation.

Commissioner Matt Scherr said officials with Holy Cross Energy, the county’s primary electricity provider, have told him the local electric grid can handle the increased demand. That demand will be met by a growing portfolio of renewable energy sources.

High-efficiency appliances can dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions. Gitchell said if a 2,000-square-foot home creates 20 metric tons of greenhouse gas emmissions per year, electrification can cut that number in half.

Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney asked if there’s enough trained workforce to do all the work that comes with rapid electrification. Gitchell noted the workforce is growing but remains a problem at the moment.

But, Scherr noted, even rapid electrification in the county won’t get the county to its 2030 goal of cutting greenhouse emissions by half from 2014 levels.    

At this point, there’s a long way to go to meet those goals. Gitchell noted that the county’s climate action goals appear to have stalled.

Gitchell noted that the county’s emissions are “about even” with 2014, “but we need big initiatives” to meet the 2030 goals.

Ground transportation remains the county’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions have grown by roughly 200,000 tons per year since 2014, to just less than 600,000 tons in 2021. After a sharp drop in 2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, transportation emissions rebounded quickly the following year.

Natural gas emissions grew somewhat before 2020, but 2021 emissions were only slightly above the 2014 emissions of just less than 300,000 tons. That slight growth was also seen in emissions from aviation and the county landfill.

The big decline came in electricity. As Holy Cross continues to add more renewable energy to its portfolio, its emissions have dropped from about 550,000 tons in 2014 to just about 300,000 tons in 2021.

Move over, Ravinos: Scores of ski clubs in Vail for National Brotherhood of Skiers’ 50th anniversary summit

The high-flying Ravinos aren’t the only ski club in Vail this week. Look around the slopes and you’re likely to see dozens of different insignias embroidered on the backs of jackets, bearing the names of ski clubs from across the country.

It’s all part of the National Brotherhood of Skiers’ 50th-anniversary summit, which is in Vail to celebrate half a century of solidarity on the slopes. While the brotherhood itself is a large group of thousands of Black skiers and snowboarders, it is comprised of more than 50 smaller clubs from around the country, each with its own unique story.

Some of those clubs, like the Jim Dandy Ski Club of Detroit Michigan, pre-date the National Brotherhood of Skiers itself. The Jim Dandy Ski Club started in 1958, using the 1956 LaVern Baker song to create a memorable moniker. Later, the Jim Dandy Ski Club would become one of the brotherhood’s 13 founding clubs, and a Jim Dandy club member, in 1974, had the idea to title the brotherhood’s annual gathering the “Black Summit.”

Today the Jim Dandy Ski Club has been recognized as the oldest Black ski club in the nation, but contains white members, as well, as part of the club’s goal to be inclusive. In Vail for the Black Summit, Jim Dandy Ski Club member Charles Bantom said the group is having a great time in Vail, where club members are finding better snow conditions than they have this season back in Michigan.

“We do head up to Upper Michigan for some good snow, but it’s nothing like this,” he said.

Anthony Sullivan of the Sunshine Slopers found sunshine on the slopes of Vail Mountain on Tuesday.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

Many of the other ski clubs in Vail this week, however, do not have the luxury of snow where they’re from. Anthony Sullivan of the Sunshine Slopers Ski Club said his group is visiting from Miami.

“I hadn’t seen snow all year until I got here,” he said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by members of the Ski Jammers of Houston, Texas. Ski Jammer Bruce Stewart said he has been attending the Black Summit for years, with the memorabilia to prove it. Stewart’s Ski Jammer jacket bears a patch from the 35th-annual event, which took place in Breckenridge.

Gary Garrett, president of the All Seasons Ski Club in the Oakland-San Fransisco area, with his SnowShark “Spyder” monoski.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

Gary Garrett, president of the All Seasons Ski Club in the Oakland-San Fransisco area, was riding a SnowShark “Spyder” monoski on Tuesday, a commemorative edition monoski made in honor of All Seasons member Thomas “Spyder” Johnson, who died in a ski accident in 2009.

But it’s not just men in the brotherhood — many of the clubs have strong female representation, as well. Show-Me Skiers president Deanna Carroll said she is excited to be in Vail skiing with her friend Jan Walker, also a member of the Show-Me Skiers. Walker said they felt lucky to have caught a sunny day on the slopes on Tuesday.

Show-Me Skiers president Deanna Carroll, left, with club member Jan Walker of St. Louis, Missouri.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

“We’re having a fabulous day here in Vail,” Walker said on Tuesday.

The Show-Me Skiers are like most clubs in their regional draw, using the state of Missouri’s “Show-Me” slogan in creating the name for their St. Louis-based club. But in some of the newer clubs, it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at. The Sugar & Spice Snow and Social Club is an all-female club that doesn’t claim a specific area of origin.

“We’re virtual,” said Melanie Washington of Sugar & Spice. “We started about 10 years ago.”

Melanie Washington, left, and Erin Jackson of the all-female Sugar & Spice Snow and Social Club, a virtual club which doesn’t use a regional hook to attract members.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

Washington, who was visiting from Chantilly, Virginia, said she was honored to have one of the club’s top shredders, Erin Jackson, in Vail this week. Jackson said she loves getting together with all their club members at the National Brotherhood of Skiers summit each year.

“We even have members from the U.K. that are here with us this week,” she said.

The National Brotherhood of Skiers’ 50th-anniversary summit continues through Saturday.

Civil trial involving Gypsum contractor over disagreements in Leadville development gets underway

On Monday, what is expected to be a weeklong jury trial got underway at the Eagle County Justice Center in Judge Paul Dunkleman’s district courtroom. A six-person jury will hear the case in a civil disagreement between the prior partners of Affordable Mountain Homes LLC, the developer of the new Leadville affordable housing neighborhood called Railyard. 

Landowner and developer John Lichtenegger is represented by Bloch and Chapleau Associate Attorney Matthew Dolan in his lawsuit against Steven Sandoval, a local contractor based in Gypsum and the president of BW-ANE Inc. Sandoval is being represented by attorney Charles Miller of Miller & Urtz LLC. 

The case being presented before the jury concerns a joint venture and partnership between Lichtenegger and Sandoval to build 10 single-family homes at the Railyard location in Leadville. 

“Each party has claimed that the other has breached the contract between the parties and each party has brought other related claims against the other party,” Dunkleman said.

Dolan said that Lichtenegger was motivated to help alleviate housing pressures for hardworking community members and began looking for land to develop an affordable housing project, leading him to the Railyard in Leadville. 

“Prior to Mr. Lichtenegger’s involvement, the Railyard was, for lack of a better phrase, a waste of space,” Dolan said. “It had been polluted from years of industrial use and few thought he’d be able to rehabilitate the land up to EPA standards to allow for the building of residential homes, but he made it happen.”

After years of work on the land, Dolan said Lichtenegger and his team were ready to commence building efforts come 2020. On July 2 that year, Lichtenegger and Sandoval, with his company BW-ANE Inc., established a partnership called Affordable Mountain Homes LLC. 

On July 17, 2020, the parties entered an offer grading agreement in which Lichtenegger provided land and capital to build the first 10 homes of the Railyard community. At the same time, BW-ANE Inc. and Sandoval would work as a general contractor to build the homes. 

Within the agreement, Sandoval and BW-ANE Inc. were set to receive a 10% contractor fee for materials and labor. Additionally, the agreement also outlined that BW-ANE Inc. and Sandoval were entitled to a third of the profits when the homes sold. Respectively, Lichtenegger would receive two-thirds of the proceeds. 

“Unfortunately, it soon became clear that Mr. Lichtenegger had put his faith in the wrong person,” Dolan said. 

Dolan said the partnership between Lichtenegger and Sandoval terminated on Jan. 1, 2021, due to dissatisfaction with the construction work as well as a lack of communication about making payments to subcontractors and materials suppliers. 

The homes, which were partially completed by Sandoval and BW-ANE Inc. had alleged construction complications. Dolan said that most notably, the foundations of several units were improperly set, causing more complications in finishing the construction of the homes after Sandoval and BW-ANE Inc’s termination. 

“Needless to say, these issues needed to be remedied so that the homes were structurally sound and complied with the architectural plans approved by the county,” Dolan said. 

Dolan said it is critical to the case that Lichtenegger terminated Sandoval and BW-ANE Inc. prior to any of the homes receiving a certificate of occupancy or being sold. 

After his early-year termination, Dolan said Sandoval sent Lichtenegger a letter in July of 2021 showing he withdrew $299,970 of anticipatory profits. 

“Mr. Sandoval claims to (the jury) that he is still entitled to an additional $54,799.97 in compensation,” Dolan said. “To be clear, no party was ever authorized to withdraw anticipatory funds prior to the homes actually being sold.”

The claims brought against Sandoval are for breach of contract, breach of building contractors, breach of implied warranty, unjust enrichment, deceit-based fraud, negligent misrepresentation causing financial loss in a business transaction, civil theft and a breach of fiduciary duty. 

Additionallly, Dolan said the allegations against Lichtenegger were only brought about in response to Lichtenegger’s lawsuit against Sandoval. 

Miller said that the agreement Sandoval was entering with Lichtenegger was unusual, as his typical contractor fee is around 18 to 22%. This fee covers overhead and expenses of a normally operating construction company: from gas to tools, lodging to machinery. However, the promise of a third of sale proceeds influenced Sandoval’s decision to enter the Affordable Mountain Homes LLC partnership under its different-than-usual circumstances.

“This case is about someone trying to back out of a promise,” Miller said.

Lichtenegger contributed $20,000 and Sandoval contributed $10,000 to Affordable Mountain Homes LLC’s creation and Miller said Sandoval and his team began working on the Railyard project almost immediately. 

Miller said that Sandoval and his crew worked at a “furious pace” to obtain building permits and ensure the homes had foundations built before winter freezes came. 

To pay subcontractors, Sandoval used prior experience to estimate costs and complete construction draws “to make sure that he had enough money to keep the project moving at the pace it was moving,” Miller said.

Miller said the evidence of the case will show that Sandoval and his subcontractors did nearly $1.5 million of work between August 2020 and January 2021. All 10 homes were in various stages of construction, he said, with two almost complete. 

“Steve Sandoval has lived for this project over that time,” Miller said. “Although his home is in Gypsum, he rented a house in Leadville and was on site nearly every single day, taking only an occasional Sunday off to spend time with his kids.”

From Sandoval’s point of view, everything was going as planned, Miller said. Then, Sandoval was “blindsided” by Lichtenegger with notice of his and BW-ANE Inc’s termination.

“The evidence will show that they had not had prior meetings discussing complaints that Mr. Lichtenegger might have had over Steve Sandoval’s work or anything else,” Miller said. “Mr. Sandoval was not prepared. Mr. Lichtenegger, a trained attorney in Missouri had written up some documents and brought them with him in his car. He set those documents down on Mr. Sandoval’s lap and he demanded that Mr. Sandoval signed those documents.”

By signing the papers, Miller said Sandoval gave Lichtenegger back Sandoval’s third of Affordable mountain homes. In doing so, Miller said the documents also required Lichtenegger to reimburse Sandoval the $10,000 he originally contributed to the company. 

Miller said Lichtenegger hadn’t ever paid Sandoval the $10,000 back. Sandoval claims he is owed the $10,000 as well as the one-third share of the profits for the sale of the homes. 

“Lichtenegger saw the potential profit and tried to back out of the deal,” Miller said. “The evidence will show BW-ANE Inc. was wrongfully terminated from the project and is entitled to its one-third share of the profits.”

Various witnesses are testifying in the trial, including subcontractors, materials suppliers, bank managers and others close to the Railyard project. 

After being presented the evidence, Dunkleman will instruct the jury on the applicable law. The jury alone will be responsible for determining the facts of the case. 

Eagle County commissioners say ‘Accelerate’ is the theme for 2023’s policy initiatives

The big meeting room at the Eagle County Administration Building rarely fills. When it does, there’s often something controversial brewing. But Tuesday’s crowd came to celebrate.

The Eagle County Board of Commissioners, joined by scores of employees, elected officials and community partners, took time Tuesday to celebrate the state of the county, and to lay out some agenda items for the current year.

Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry told the crowd that “Accelerate” is the county’s theme for this year. That work captures the spirit of being quick and nimble in action, Chandler-Henry said.

But the county’s top administrator acknowledged that “accelerate” was a little frightening.

County Manager Jeff Shroll noted that the COVID-19 pandemic wore on county officials and employees. But, he noted, the team “all put their foot on the gas” coming out of the pandemic.

“In some ways, they’ve been making the administration work to keep up,” Shroll noted.

Chandler-Henry said many of the big issues going into 2023 are a continuation of the work done in 2022. Businesses are struggling with staffing and the county’s housing shortage may be as bad as it’s ever been.

But, Chandler-Henry noted, the county is rolling out “meaningful solutions” — particularly when it comes to housing.

How to use $50 million

Those efforts have been driven in large part by the $50 million sale of the Lake Creek Village apartments. That sale closed in early 2022.

The money from that sale is being put to use. The county late last year agreed to help subsidize a joint housing project between Habitat for Humanity and the Eagle County School District. That project will build 16 deed-restricted homes on Eagle’s Third Street.

The county also agreed to put $26 million in up-front money to buy and deed-restrict 43 homes in the first phase of Eagle’s Haymeadow development. The county will recoup roughly $19 million once those homes are sold.

Progress is also being made on the Eagle Valley Trail. When finished — perhaps as soon as the end of 2024 — users will be able to cycle or hike from Breckenridge to Aspen. This year’s work will include building portions in EagleVail, Dowd Junction and a connection to Minturn, and fundraising has started to pay for the last portions of the trail.

Commissioner Matt Scherr talked about working in “networks, not silos,” and noted continued progress in electrifying the county.

While the county moves more of its fleet to electric or hybrid vehicles — 21 of 29 vehicles now on order have some sort of battery power — and more residents go to electric vehicles, Scherr said there’s more to be done.

The cleanest trip

The biggest share of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from ground transportation.

“The cleanest car trip is the one not taken,” Scherr said, adding that the improved transit system, approved last fall by voters, will make those cleaner trips possible.

Scherr touted other initiatives including expanding local e-bike sharing programs and recycling and other efforts. The Eagle County Fair and Rodeo in 2022 kept 87% of all the trash generated out of the local landfill.

Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney talked a bit about action to mitigate risk from wildfire. In all crews in 2022 completed 1,700 acres of wildfire mitigation, and 300 homeowners received help with creating defensible space on their property.

Shroll noted that partners will be needed to accomplish many of the county’s 2023 goals. “We couldn’t do what we do without partnerships,” he said.

Plans now in process for the Eagle County Fairgrounds and Eagle County Regional Airport will put even more decisive action within reach, Chandler-Henry said.

“You can move fast when you plan well,” she said.

Former Steamboat police chief would have been fired if she had not resigned, documents show

Former Steamboat Springs Police Chief Sherry Burlingame resigned Jan. 27 after an internal investigation found she violated the city’s code of ethics and police policy.

According to documents obtained by Steamboat Pilot & Today through an open records request, had Burlingame not tendered her resignation on Jan. 27, Steamboat Springs City Manager Gary Suiter had decided to fire her from the role at 5 p.m. that day.

The investigation also involved former Support Services Division Manager Christina Stewart, who was put on administrative leave Dec. 12, the same day the city opened an informal investigation into complaints received by the human resources department, according to the documents.

Based on the investigative findings that found three police and city policy violations, Suiter had also decided to fire Stewart, though she resigned on Jan. 23, before her termination became effective.

In separate phone interviews with Pilot & Today on Saturday, Feb. 4, both Burlingame and Stewart said they believe the investigation was flawed, failed to objectively assess the evidence and made assumptions that cannot be supported.

Each also spoke of deeper-rooted issues within the Steamboat Springs Police Department, particularly with how women are treated — comments that echo complaints levied by a former police commander that resigned from the department in April 2021.

“We have an environment that has been pervasive in the police department with how employees treat each other and I think this ultimately stems from that,” Burlingame said.

“There’s some work to be done with the treatment of women in the department,” Burlingame continued. “Part of the issue with (Stewart) was that people did not support her and undermined her efforts to be successful in that position. I know that there’s people that don’t support me in that organization because I am a woman and because of my sexual orientation.”

Documents show Suiter communicated his initial decision to terminate Burlingame as police chief on Jan. 12. At that time, Burlingame was placed on administrative leave and given the opportunity to respond to the investigation’s findings.

While the response from Burlingame’s attorney asserts the investigation “lacked evidence and is full of speculation and bias,” Suiter stuck with his initial decision to dismiss the chief.

“Taken together, the two violations indicate poor judgment and have undermined Chief Burlingame’s trust and credibility with her staff and her ability to lead effectively,” Suiter wrote on Jan. 26 to Burlingame’s attorney.

In that message, Suiter offered Burlingame until noon Jan. 27 to submit her resignation. Burlingame did, and just before 7 p.m. that night, the city sent out a news release announcing the chief’s departure, which came just over a year after she was hired as the department’s first female chief. That release also named Commander Mark Beckett as interim police chief.

In an interview with Pilot & Today on Jan. 31, Beckett said he was ready to assume leadership of the department.

“Change under unfortunate circumstances can always be a challenge, but I’ll tell you that nothing that’s happened in the last six months reflects on the officers and sergeants of this department,” Beckett said. “Anything that has happened here has been completely an internal process and it’s had nothing to do with our outward face or our product to the community.”

“As a department, I think the goal is simply to move forward,” he said.

Investigation at a glance

Christina Stewart was promoted to Support Services Manager in September 2022. She oversaw community service and animal control operations at the Steamboat Springs Police Department, among many other duties.
City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy photo

The investigative report indicates a member of the police department contacted city Human Resources Director Wendy Ecklund in late November regarding a potential personnel issue.

Documents show an informal investigation into that complaint started Dec. 12, with Ecklund eventually elevating the probe into a formal investigation into policy violations soon after. Burlingame and Stewart were made aware of the investigation on Dec. 19.

The investigative report is authored by Ecklund and Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Bock and concludes both Burlingame and Stewart violated police and city policy.

“If you read through that report, you can see that it’s incredibly subjective, very opinionated,” Burlingame said.

The report is based on two interviews with each Burlingame and Stewart, interviews with seven other unnamed witnesses and body camera footage from a Dec. 10 traffic stop.

One alleged violation against Burlingame was that she did not properly disclose her personal relationship with Stewart while considering Stewart for a promotion, which the report says ran afoul of the city’s code of ethics. Another alleged violation was that Burlingame failed in her supervisory role in relation to the Dec. 10 traffic stop. Investigators did not sustain three other potential violations against Burlingame. 

The investigation also found three alleged violations of police and employee handbook policy against Stewart. Those violations allegedly included using profane or derogatory language, using her status with the department to gain influence during the Dec. 10 traffic stop and displaying conduct off-duty that is unbecoming of a member of the department. Another potential violation was not sustained.

The investigative document depicts a “general unprofessional environment” in the department that “does not seem to be addressed by Chief Burlingame.” This unprofessional environment included profanity, disrespectful treatment of city employees, inappropriate joking and a lack of focus on job duties, the investigation report shows.

“These are instances of poor judgment and leadership displayed by individuals at the highest level of command, who should be expected to set a higher standard of integrity and judgment in their on- and off-duty conduct,” the report says.

“These lapses in judgment have created a deleterious effect on the effective and orderly operation of the department and have undermined confidence in department leadership,” the report concludes.

Typically, an internal police investigation would be handled by supervisors of the subjects being investigated, but as this case involved the highest levels of police leadership, Suiter assumed those responsibilities.

After the investigative report was finalized on Jan. 6, it was referred to Suiter for discipline.

‘A complete lack of evidence’

Sherry Burlingame talks with City Council member Gail Garey on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, at Steamboat Springs City Hall. She was hired shortly after and was sworn in as the first female chief in Steamboat in January 2022. She resigned almost exactly one year later.
Alison Berg/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Burlingame and Stewart disputed the findings of the investigation in responses sent to the city and in interviews with Pilot & Today. Burlingame noted the report indicates some witnesses interviewed had conflicting stories.

“Yet, with a complete lack of evidence, they’ve decided to weigh in and say that there was some wrongdoing,” Burlingame said. “I adamantly deny that the allegations that they’re saying against me are true — far from it. Everything that I’ve always done has been for the best of that organization and for the best for our community. Hopefully, time will bear that out.”

Stewart also criticized the investigation, adding that she feels it was “completely subjective” and “lacking evidence.”

“They made a whole lot of assumptions about my motives and my thought process, not knowing the facts of what I was thinking, feeling or what was actually happening,” Stewart said.  

Burlingame said she absolutely disagrees with the report’s characterization that she was not addressing culture in the department. She said she brought in a consultant that trained the entire department in workplace culture, bias and how employees treat each other.

“I created a culture team so that our employees could start addressing what kind of culture they wanted,” Burlingame said. “I followed that up with identifying an officer who was going to champion advancing our culture forward, and the intent was to bring the consultant back sometime this year to do follow-up work on that.”

“To say that I’m not addressing those things is wholly inaccurate,” she continued.

Stewart’s promotion, Burlingame’s ethics

From left, officers Lonny Shaw, Gene Lee, Ellie Crouch and Brenden Andrews are sworn in by Police Chief Sherry Burlingame during a pinning ceremony on Aug. 15, 2022, at Centennial Hall. In her resignation letter, Burlingame said she was proud of how sworn staffing had improved during her year leading the force.
Spencer Powell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The report shows Burlingame’s ethics violation related to Burlingame promoting Stewart to a new command position at the department — support services division manager — and the chief’s failure to disclose their personal relationship.

Previously, this role had been filled by a sworn officer that could take over the department in the absence of the chief or operations commander. Stewart is not a sworn officer.

In an Oct. 11 news release, Burlingame said Stewart would be a “key executive team member.” While the announcement came in October, Stewart had been working in the role for about a month. 

That release did not disclose the department had tried and failed to find a sworn officer to fill this role. Documents show when the position was declined by the one sworn applicant to whom it was offered, Burlingame restructured the role so a civilian could fill the job.

That restructuring, combined with Burlingame and Stewart’s personal relationship and comments made by Stewart prior to being promoted, created a perception in the department that the position had been adjusted to allow Stewart’s hiring, documents show.

The report details an incident prior to the promotion where Stewart walked into the office of an unnamed department official and made comments about how she would decorate that office, which was set to be assigned to the support services manager. Stewart eventually moved into that office.

“Information provided during this investigation indicates the existence of some relationship between the Chief and Ms. Stewart beyond that of simple supervisor/subordinate work,” the report says.

“The chief’s failure to disclose (her relationship with Stewart) at worst constitutes concealing pertinent information in an attempt to benefit Ms. Stewart and at best constitutes poor decision making owing to a foreseeable perception within the (department) that the hiring was unfair,” the report continues.

While city policy does not forbid friendship among coworkers, the report notes that when a personal relationship is within the same line of command, it needs to be considered ethically. In this case, Burlingame should have disclosed that relationship, the report says.

Burlingame’s response to the investigation asserts that she was not required to disclose her friendship with Stewart, as they are not “immediate family, spouses, domestic partners (or) persons in a civil union.”

Burlingame’s response states that there is not evidence to assert their relationship was anything more than “friendship” and says that rumors, which had been spread around the department that Burlingame and Stewart were having an affair or living together, are “completely false.”

On Saturday, Burlingame said she is close friends with Stewart but noted she has close friendships with many of the people she works with. Burlingame doesn’t think their relationship was unprofessional, and she said she has always has had an open and casual relationship with employees in her career.

As for not disclosing their friendship, Burlingame said she never considered it a potential conflict. She noted in her response to the investigation that Stewart was the top candidate for the job and the hiring process involved numerous other people, including some from outside of the department.

“I have a friendship with (now interim chief) Mark Beckett and I didn’t disclose that either,” Burlingame said. “To say that (Stewart) didn’t earn that promotion would be an absolute lie.”

The traffic stop

Burlingame and Stewart were passengers in a vehicle driven by a third male party that was pulled over for allegedly running a stop sign on Walton Creek Road on Dec. 10. A Routt County Sheriff’s Office deputy, who was working within the city amid low staffing at the police department, performed the stop.

“What are you doing pulling (audio inaudible) traffic in my jurisdiction,” Burlingame told the deputy from the back seat of the vehicle, according to body camera footage obtained by Pilot & Today.

“I’m working in your jurisdiction today,” the deputy responded, after which Burlingame can be heard laughing.

“Can you cut (redacted) a break?” Stewart then asked the deputy. “We were totally just talking to (the driver).”

“Can I see your license and insurance please?” the deputy responded, not acknowledging Stewart’s request.

The traffic stop continued over the next several minutes, ending when the deputy let the driver off with a warning. In the video, the driver’s face is blurred, and all references to his identity were redacted from documents.

In reviewing this incident, the city’s investigation concluded that while Burlingame did not directly identify herself as police chief or ask for favorable action, she did allude to her status by referencing her jurisdiction.

In investigative interviews, Burlingame said she was “merely joking” as jurisdictional issues have come up between the department and sheriff’s office.

“Nonetheless, the chief did not intervene or correct Ms. Stewart when Ms. Stewart asked for a break for (redacted) and in a manner implicating the chief and following up on the chief’s presence,” the report says.

Former Steamboat Springs Police Chief Sherry Burlingame and former Support Services Division Manager Christina Stewart are seen in body cam footage from a Routt County Sheriff’s Office deputy on Dec. 10, 2022, obtained by the Pilot & Today through an open records request. Their behavior in the footage was evaluated in a personnel investigation at the Steamboat Springs Police Department.
Routt County Sheriff’s Office/Body camera footage

Chris Dillmann | cdillmann@vaildaily.com

Burlingame told investigators that she intended to have a conversation about the incident with Stewart, but that never happened, as Stewart was placed on administrative leave Dec. 12. The investigation found Burlingame failed to fulfill police policy regarding her supervisor responsibilities.

“The chief’s failure in this instance showed poor leadership and a lack of professionalism,” the report says. “The incident was serious enough in nature that it should have been addressed immediately — if not during the traffic stop, then in the hours or days afterward.”

The report suggested that Stewart also violated a policy forbidding any member of the department from using their status “in any way that could be reasonably perceived as an attempt to gain influence or authority for non-department business or activity.”

The report concluded that “this lends itself to being reasonably perceived as an attempt to gain influence.”

Burlingame’s response to the investigation contends that she had no authority over the sheriff’s deputy and that if he felt uncomfortable, “he could have issued a ticket after the fact.”

It also states that Stewart’s demeanor during the traffic stop was “not demanding, angry, authoritative or directive.” Instead, Stewart was “very respectful at all times towards the deputy.” It also notes the chief intended to discuss the incident with Stewart.

“Chief Burlingame making the decision to speak with Ms. Stewart about the incident at work and not in front of (redacted) does not amount to a lack of leadership or poor decision-making,” the response says. “In fact, it shows good judgment and social awareness.”

In Stewart’s response, she noted that she never introduced herself or mentioned her position with the department during the short exchange with the deputy.

“I was talking to (redacted) while he was driving and likely distracted him from coming to a complete stop and thus asked the deputy to give him a break,” Stewart wrote. “This was no way an implication that I was trying to bring Chief Burlingame into it and this conclusion is subjective and highly inaccurate without factual basis.”

Allegations of inappropriate language

John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The investigation reviewed incidents in which Burlingame and Stewart were accused of using inappropriate language, though not all allegations were substantiated by investigators.

Documents show the first incident stemmed from a June birthday party at the Combined Law Enforcement Facility, where both the police department and sheriff’s office are housed.

The investigation did not substantiate that Burlingame used language that violated department policy, though an unnamed witness said: “unprofessional comments were made that made her feel uncomfortable.”

“(Redacted) removed herself from the situation and indicated to both Chief Burlingame and Ms. Stewart that their behavior was borderline inappropriate,” the report reads.

The report says Stewart admitted to investigators to making a comment about a sheriff’s office employee not wearing underwear at this June party. In her response, Stewart denied making the comment and denied admitting to investigators.

The investigation reviewed other incidents in which Stewart allegedly used language that was disparaging to her colleagues.

One unnamed witness said they recalled Stewart asking if they knew human resources was talking to people within the department. In this interaction, Stewart allegedly referred to her department colleagues as “those f—ers,” and stated that they were out to get her. Stewart denied making that comment.

“Although not all of the allegations regarding Ms. Stewart’s language have been substantiated, at least two of these incidents have been confirmed,” the investigative report says.

Stewart denied making inappropriate comments in her response to the investigation. Furthermore, Stewart said she and other members of the department had become frustrated with profane language in the department and that she shared seven pages of notes outlining incidents where she was undermined and excluded, and where her staff was ostracized.

“The culture around women in the department has been for years one of a demeaning nature,” Stewart wrote. “Since my promotion to Division Manager, I have felt like I have not been supported by me peers or subordinates; quite the opposite — they have tried to undermine me and my authority.”

Incident at Stagecoach

Steamboat Springs Police Chief Sherry Burlingame in an industrial lot where a series of incidents following a crime spree culminated on Oct. 27, flanked by members of the Combined Emergency Response Team, Steamboat Police officers and deputies from the Routt County Sheriff’s Office. Both agencies are housed in the Combined Law Enforcement Facility and ultimately spend a lot of time together, including at events in which Burlingame and Stewart were accused of behaving inappropriately.
City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy photo

In late July or August, members of both the police department and sheriff’s office went on a “social outing” at Stagecoach Reservoir in which alcohol was consumed, the report says.

The report notes disagreement among witnesses as to how intoxicated everyone was and what may have been said or done by Burlingame and Stewart.

But the investigation also turned up a photo from that day where Stewart is seen making an “arguably obscene” gesture in which she adjusted her board shorts to expose her swimsuit, the report says.

“The gesture is arguably obscene in nature and certainly in poor taste and judgment when socializing with fellow SSPD employees and (sheriff’s office) employees,” the report says. “Ms. Stewart and Chief Burlingame do not recall this occurring, but the photograph provided substantial evidence.”

Burlingame was not found to have violated policy during this incident, but Stewart was, the report says.

In her response, Stewart said that she has not been shown the photograph, which she asserts violates her “due process”

“For this report to state my clothing issue was obscene and in poor taste is again subjective, inaccurate, and an unsubstantiated attack on my reputation,” Stewart wrote. 

A checkered history

Former Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen was hired in 2015 to change the culture of the department, which had recently been the subject of an external investigation.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Burlingame and Stewart’s departure from the department is the third time in the last two years that a female in a key leadership role left saying the department needed to do better in regard to how women are treated.

In April 2021, former police commander Annette Dopplick resigned her position. A month later, she struck a settlement with the city in which she received nearly $109,000 in compensation.

In that agreement, the city committed to investigate complaints Dopplick made relating to her working conditions, as well as the working conditions of other female officers, according to previous Pilot & Today reporting.

But issues in the Steamboat Springs Police Department go back further.

When former Police Chief Cory Christensen was hired in 2015, he was brought in following an external investigation that found evidence the department’s previous leadership had presided over a hostile work environment. That investigation characterized the department as having a “paramilitary culture.”

Specifically, that investigation revealed incidences of hazing, bullying and gender-based harassment that had likely occurred for more than a decade.

Stewart, who first started with the department in 2017, said she has seen gender-bias throughout her career.

“The culture has always been a challenge in the department,” Stewart said. “I think the culture still supports just a lack of respect and gender bias and for me personally, I didn’t really feel entirely supported by a number of the men in the department.”

Documents outstanding

The newspaper’s request was filed on Wednesday, Feb. 1. Statute outlines that the city has three days to respond with documents or to ask for an extension. The first round of documents was sent to the newspaper within two days of the request.

Suiter indicated the city was still working to put together any responsive documents to the newspaper’s request, and that if any exist, they would be disclosed next week.

On Tuesday, Feb. 7, Steamboat Springs City Council will meet for the first time since the chief’s departure, though there isn’t an agenda item about the staffing change. The change is also not mentioned in Suiter’s city manager report.

In a phone conversation Friday, Feb. 3, after the city turned over documents to Pilot & Today, Suiter said everything the newspaper received had first been sent to City Council and officials at the police department.

Steamboat Pilot & Today Assistant Editor Shelby Reardon contributed to this report.

FBI works with Summit County Sheriff’s Office in wake of threat alluding to bomb, AR-15 rifle made to high school Monday

Law enforcement discovered no danger to students or staff at Summit County schools after a threatening call led to a district-wide lockdown Monday morning, Feb. 6, according to the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.

Around 9:20 a.m., a caller reported they were outside the high school and armed with a bomb and AR-15 rifle, Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. But law enforcement were quickly able to determine nobody was there.

“The school resource officer was there and obviously knew no one was standing there,” FitzSimons said.

Still, a thorough search of the interior and exterior of the high school had to be completed, and the building remained on lockdown until around 1 p.m., when law enforcement personnel completed the search, according to the sheriff.

Other schools in the district also entered lockdown as a precautionary measure, FitzSimons said. Law enforcement officers set up a perimeter around the high school to ensure that students were safe and no one entered or exited the building during the search, he said.

No one was injured in the incident.

With the help of the FBI, law enforcement officers are investigating who made the threat. It is the second threat in less than two weeks that has prompted a security response at Summit County schools.

In a separate incident late last month, police arrested a Glenwood Springs man after he allegedly posted threats to Summit Daily’s Instagram page. That man remains in the Summit County jail on a $100,000 bond.

‘Everybody is safer’

When the Sheriff’s Office and the school district first notified the public of the threats at Summit High School, they told parents not to come to the school to pick up their children. FitzSimons said that instruction was for everyone’s safety.

“Always follow the directions of law enforcement,” he said. “Because you’ve got to know we know more — we may not be able to tell you the details of what is going on — but we give specific directions because we feel it is the safest path.”

Law enforcement responses such as these can require a lot of resources, FitzSimons said, and when people congregate at the scene of an emergency, it can create “an incident within an incident.”

Having parents arrive at the school while officers are still conducting a search and assessing the situation can add to the chaos of the situation and draw resources away from addressing the emergency, he said. At one point Monday morning, more than 15 law enforcement units from the Sheriff’s Office had been deployed to the high school.

“It just diverts resources that we don’t have,” FitzSimons said. “It makes their children less safe.”

Still, FitzSimons — who raised two children through the Summit School District — said he knows what it is like to be a parent concerned about the safety of their children. 

“As a parent you feel you are the only one who can protect your child,” FitzSimons said. “So I completely empathize with the parents. We’re just asking for the trust that we’re doing everything to keep the children safe.”

FitzSimons said he also understands parents’ frustrations when it comes to communication from school officials and law enforcement about what is happening. But he noted that officials often have their hands full while dealing with emergency situations.

“It is important for parents to realize, communication is never timely, and it’s never the right amount of words or the right words,” he said. “But everybody is doing the best they can in the moment, balancing response and communication.”

When the public remains calm and follows instructions from law enforcement, “everyone is safer,” FitzSimons said.

‘Not Helpful’

As law enforcement responded to the threatening call Monday morning, a misleading image began circulating online, adding to the already tense situation at the schools.

The image showed a man in dark clothing carrying a gun outside the school. But, according to FitzSimons, the photo was of a law enforcement officer — not an active shooter.

“That stuff is so hard to control, and once it gets started, you talk about creating more stress for parents,” FitzSimons said. “It’s tough. I don’t know how to prevent it. Other than parents talking to their kids about it.”

The sheriff suggested that anyone who encounters an unverified image online — such as the one circulated Monday — not continue to share it.

“It is not helpful in these situations,” FitzSimons said. “Especially when you’re in the middle of investigating an active threat.”

Rather than continue to circulate a misleading or unverified post, he suggested sending it to law enforcement or tagging the Sheriff’s Office.

‘We all work really well together’

As the situation unfolded Monday morning, FitzSimons coordinated the law enforcement response from the same room as school officials. For several hours, Sheriff’s Office personnel and Summit School District leaders huddled around a table at the Summit County Emergency Operations Center in Frisco, coordinating the law enforcement response, security protocols and communications with parents.

“We were there with school officials working at a table in one room, which was really beneficial,” FitzSimons said.

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, center, and Summit School District officials at the county’s Emergency Operations Center in Frisco, Feb. 6, 2023.
Ryan Spencer/Summit Daily News

While in the past, school officials and law enforcement have set up separate command posts, this setup allowed for increased communication and coordination, the sheriff said. He added that the response by the Sheriff’s Office on Monday shows the importance of school resource officers.

When the threat was first reported, the school resource officer stationed at the school initially coordinated the response, FitzSimons said, and was already on scene if there had been an active shooter or other emergency.

“You can’t deny the value of that,” he said.

Moreover, behind the scenes, the Sheriff’s Office has done a significant amount of work with the school district officials to prepare for situations like this, FitzSimons said. And other public safety agencies in Summit County are also prepared to respond, he said.

“In today’s world, these active threats are becoming more and more frequent,” FitzSimons said. “All the law enforcement and fire districts here in Summit County, we all work really well together and are responsive to each others’ need.”

Colorado officials draft bill regulating stream restoration

Colorado officials have drafted a bill aimed at addressing a rift between stream restoration projects and water rights holders. 

The draft clarifies that restoration projects do not fall under the definitions of a diversion, storage or a dam and do not need to go through the lengthy and expensive water court process to secure a water right. 

But before a project begins, proponents would have to file an information form with the state Division of Water Resources showing the project will stay within the historical footprint of the floodplain before it was degraded and doesn’t create new wetlands, the draft bill proposes. These forms would be publicly available, and anyone could then challenge whether the project meets the requirements by filing a complaint, which would be taken up by DWR staff. 

If stream restoration projects were required to secure a water right and spend money on an expensive augmentation plan, in which water is released to replace depletions it causes, it could discourage these types of projects, something the state Department of Natural Resources wants to avoid.

“We are trying to make it clear that stream restoration projects do not fall under the definition of diversion,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, the state’s assistant director for water policy. “However, we put limits on what a restoration project is or isn’t, and the restoration project has to fall within the historical footprint of the stream system.” 

A beaver dam on Maroon Creek near Aspen. The state of Colorado has a draft bill to resolve tension between stream restoration projects that mimic beaver activity and downstream water rights holders.
Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Slowing the flow

Restoration projects on small headwaters tributaries often mimic beaver activity, with what are called beaver dam analogues. These temporary wood structures usually consist of posts driven into the streambed with willows and other soft materials woven across the channel between the posts. The idea is that by creating appealing habitats in areas that historically had beavers, the animals will recolonize and continue maintaining the health of the stream.

The goal of process-based restoration projects like these is to return conditions in the headwaters to what they were before waterways were harmed by mining, cattle grazing, road building and other human activities that may have confined the river to a narrow channel and disconnected it from its floodplain.

In these now-simplified stream systems, water, sediment and debris all move downstream more quickly, said Ellen Wohl, a fluvial geomorphologist at Colorado State University. 

“Natural rivers have all these sources of variability,” Wohl said. “They have pools and riffles, meanderings, obstructions like wood and beaver dams. All those things can help slow the flow, which leads to less bed and bank erosion. It allows sediment to be deposited gradually along the channel, and you increase biological processing and recharge of groundwater and soil moisture.”

This beaver dam analogue, with posts across the creek and soft, woody material woven across, was built by environmental restoration group EcoMetrics and keeps water on the landscape by mimicking beaver activity. Some water rights holders worry that these types of projects could negatively impact them.
Jackie Corday/Aspen Journalism

Although these projects benefit the environment, improve water quality and create resiliency against wildfires and climate change, keeping water on the landscape for longer could potentially have impacts to downstream water users. Under Colorado’s system of prior appropriation, the oldest water rights — which nearly always belong to agriculture — have the first use of the water. 

Some are concerned that if the projects create numerous ponds in the headwaters, it could slow the rate of peak spring runoff or create more surface area for evaporation, meaning irrigators may not get their full amount of water. 

John McClow is an attorney for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and is chair of a Colorado Water Congress sub-committee studying the bill, which will make suggestions to the bill’s sponsors. He said there have been wet meadow restoration projects in the headwaters of the Gunnison River that have harmed water rights holders.

“We had some examples of well-intentioned but poorly designed projects,” he said. “In each case, we worked with water rights holders and removed the obstruction so their water rights were not impaired.” 

McClow said he would like to see the bill set a standard to avoid problems at the outset of projects. 

State Sen. Dylan Roberts, who represents District 8 and is chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, is one of the bill’s sponsors. He said part of the bill’s urgency is so that Colorado can take advantage of unprecedented federal funding for stream restoration from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.

“If we can demonstrate to the federal government that we have a streamlined process for stream restoration projects, then we will make Colorado significantly more eligible for those federal funds,” Roberts said. “We are trying our best to position our state to receive the resources that we deserve.”

Roberts, a Democrat whose Western Slope district includes Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit counties, expects the bill to be introduced later this month.

Romero-Heaney said the state’s system of water law works well because it is adaptable to the evolving needs of Coloradans. The stream restoration legislation aims to reduce barriers to projects while still protecting water rights.

“We are at that moment where we need to make a decision: Do we want to have a future with healthy streams that are providing all those environmental services, or do we want to make that future pretty difficult to achieve?” she said. “It’s a soul-searching conversation for the water community.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Vail Daily. For more information, go to AspenJournalism.org.

Many Eagle County natural gas bills set to decline

Black Hills Energy, which provides service to most of the Eagle River Valley and a large part of the state,  has announced the cost of natural gas went down as of Feb. 1.

In announcing the new pricing, a Black Hills release stated,  “We understand the current economic pressures facing the communities we serve and want to focus on providing our customers with the lowest bills possible. So, when the price of natural gas drops — as it has recently — we move as quickly as possible to pass those savings on.”

Depending on location, gas bills are set to go down between about 3% and 12% per month, beginning on Feb. 1.

According to a chart provided with the release, the average residential bill will decline by between 3.93% and 4.79%. An average bill will drop from $138.94 to $133.48.

The price of natural gas is known as a “pass-through cost,” meaning Black Hills makes no money on it. Customers pay market rates and no more.

For more information, as well as tips on saving money on energy bills and possible payment assistance, go to blackhillsenergy.com.

Two Mind Springs workers arrested in Mesa County on extortion charges

A senior director at Mind Springs Health and a former worker at its Circle Program were arrested and jailed late Thursday on criminal charges, local and state documents show.

Megan Navarro, senior clinical director, and Gary Swenson, a former peer counselor at Mind Springs’ residential treatment program in Grand Junction, were arrested and placed in the Mesa County Jail, each charged with criminal extortion and attempting to influence a public servant.

Both are listed as class 4 felonies, punishable by up to 6 years in prison on each charge.

According to their arrest affidavit, the charges have nothing to do with their positions at the Clifton Circle Program, which is a residential treatment program for men ages 18 and over who have substance abuse and mental health disorders.

The affidavit says it stems from separate criminal arrests of Swenson last October for third-degree assault, harassment, second-degree criminal tampering and domestic violence.

The new charges relate to Navarro, who appears to have a romantic relationship with Swenson, purposely working with Swenson to deceive a worker with the Mesa County Pre-Trial Services, specifically lying about how long Swenson worked at the Circle Program, the affidavit says.

The deception involved how long Swenson had worked at the Circle Program in order for him to get a lower bond and not be kept in the jail, according to the affidavit.

“Navarro directing Swenson to deceive Pre-Trial Services Officer (Barry Gordon) and then Swenson telling public servants — pre-trial service officers — that he has been employed locally for 1½ years is vastly different from reality where Swenson had only been working at Mind Springs for three months or so,” James Cannon, an investigator in the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office, wrote in the affidavit.

“Swenson’s and Navarro’s conversations regarding trying to effect the actions and decisions of those involved in his bail bond was clearly to deceive people for Swenson’s benefit of a lower, less restrictive bond,” Cannon added.

Numerous telephone calls had been recorded between the two because Swenson had used the jail’s “Inmate Calling Solutions” phone system, which is monitored and recorded by jail personnel, who reported the conversations.

Both Swenson and Navarro have extensive arrest records.

Swenson, 46, has been arrested and convicted numerous times for decades on such charges as vehicle theft, fraud, criminal impersonation, drug possession, burglary, weapon offenses, receipt of stolen property, hit and run, reckless and careless driving, vehicular eluding, reckless endangerment and assault, according to a 17-page criminal history report obtained through the Colorado Bureau of Investigations.

Navarro, 39, has had numerous arrests on drug-related offenses and failure-to-appear charges, a seven-page CBI report shows.

Ironically, Swenson was featured in a Colorado Sun story last October, the same month he was arrested by Grand Junction police. In that story, Swenson talked about the difficulties in helping people in the Circle program in their efforts to rebuild their lives.

“Your employer has to be real understanding, which they’re usually not,” he said in the story, adding that he had learned from his mistakes

Swenson had been dismissed from that job in November, according to the affidavit.

John Sheehan, president and chief executive officer at Mind Springs Health, said it’s common practice for mental and behavioral health employers to hire people like Swenson and Navarro, because they know what their clients are going through.

That employment, however, is contingent on those workers staying out of trouble with the law themselves.

“Our business believes in redemption, so people that have gone through tough times or have turned their lives around often seek positions in our industry,” Sheehan said.

“Megan is an example of that. She’s gone through very difficult times and has gotten herself to a level where she is in an executive position at Mind Springs, but this kind of behavior, if it’s true, is not something we can tolerate in an executive,” he added. “They have to keep themselves clean and they have to keep themselves out of contact with law enforcement, particularly in Megan’s situation where she’s worked her way up. Unfortunately, this may be a situation where she’s going to face the consequences for that.”