A longstanding rift between a current and former elected town official came to a boil at the July 10 meeting of the Paonia Board of Trustees when Mayor Charles Stewart asked law enforcement to escort former trustee Suzanne Watson out of Town Hall.
The ousting came during consideration by the board to submit scoping comments to the Bureau of Land Management regarding recently revived oil and gas leases in the North Fork Valley.
Earlier in the meeting trustees voted to approve a $360,000 bid for sandblasting and re-lining of the Clock water tank. The item was not on the agenda.
Stewart argued that the issue of the water tank had been discussed at length during previous meetings, and noted that in June, the awarding of a previous contract was nullified when the winning bidder announced it would not accept the contract. Awarding the bid is considered by the town to be a priority in one of the driest years on record and trustees expressed concern at putting the bid off, further delaying storage of a million gallons of water.
In light of the absence of the town attorney, and in the name of transparency, Watson and Paonia resident Dave Knutson urged the board to consider scheduling a special meeting to award the bid.
During consideration of the letter to the BLM -- noticed on the agenda as "Citizens for a Healthy Community -- BLM 4th Quarter Oil & Gas Lease Sale," under "New Business" -- Stewart said the board would need to hold a special meeting to approve comments, "which it could elect to do. That's the only way this board can act. It can only act if in fact there is notice to the public."
"Really?" asked Watson from the audience.
"That is correct, Miss Watson," said Stewart. "You want to comment again. You can leave."
Stewart then granted Watson the podium to discuss one specific issue after Scott Shishim, who was last to speak at the podium, asked, "Charles, can she talk. I mean, I was up there. I don't see why she couldn't talk."
Watson walked toward the podium, and Stewart again warned her. "Miss Watson, I'm gonna be really clear about this. You have an outburst like that again, you'll be asked to leave. And I have that authority."
Watson began expressing her opinion on what she saw as a "double standard" in the way the two agenda items were being handled. "Miss Watson, right now we're dealing with the extension," said Stewart.
"That's what I'm talking about," said Watson. "And you just made a comment and I find it a bit of a double standard, because you voted on something that was not on the agenda and not..."
"Miss Watson, you're gone," said Stewart, snapping his fingers.
Watson attempted to address the issue again, at which point Stewart asked Police Chief Neil Ferguson to remove her from the building.
Trustee Chelsea Bookout called for a point of order to ask under which rule she was being removed.
Stewart replied that while only the board has the authority to remove a board member, "In terms of removing a member of the public, that can be done by the mayor.
"The reason why she is being removed, she has repeatedly made outbursts from the room," said Stewart. "Those comments have been very inappropriate. They have been derogatory. They clearly have been meant to demean members of this board. She was asked to remain quiet; she didn't. She was asked to refrain from commenting on anything other than the extension and she elected to proceed beyond that."
After the meeting Watson told the DCI that she has attended three meetings since her four-year term on the board ended last April. She called Stewart's actions "bullying" and criticized him for considering her actions while serving as a trustee in his comments.
Knutson, who serves on the town Planning and Zoning Commission and has provided consulting services to the town in the past, had also said "Really" after Stewart's comments on the letter. He said he wanted to point out the difference in the way the letter and the bid were handled. In solidarity, he walked out of the meeting with Watson.