By Dennis Anderson
A basic right for any citizen in our country is free speech. At the hyper-local level, we have the three minutes each citizen is afforded at governmental meetings. We have the opportunity to voice our concerns or praises and have them placed on public record. It takes a certain amount of courage to do that.
At the July 16 Delta County Commissioners meeting, the commissioners were presented with a letter signed by several residents of Price Road just outside of Paonia. Paonia Town Administrator Ken Knight, who lives on Price Road, had previously presented to Paonia Town trustees a proposal to annex the road. Some of those who signed the letter also spoke at the commissioners meeting. Apparently, Knight didn't appreciate some of their words.
On Friday, July 19, Christina Patterson, one the letter-signers and speakers at the commissioners meeting, was standing in front of her home when Knight passed. Patterson said hello. Knight, according to Patterson, became verbally aggressive and intimidating. In the exchange, Knight allegedly expressed with an obscenity his desire for Patterson to get into an accident and die. Patterson was encouraged by friends to call the Delta County Sheriff's Office to at least put the incident on record.
The Delta County Independent and Montrose Daily Press obtained videos captured with a DCSO deputy's body cam. In one of the videos, Patterson explained to the deputy the background of the proposed annexation. She explained she regularly attends Paonia board of trustees meetings and asks questions.
"So I think he's upset that there are things going on that I'm questioning," Patterson said in the video.
She went on to say that, in his alleged tirade, he expressed he felt she was damaging his reputation as a public figure.
"He was in my face with his finger in a bizarrely aggressive manner. He was yelling. I was thinking 'please someone come out and see this,'" Patterson said.
Then the deputy visited Knight, who was at a local brew pub. The deputy asked Knight, on the second video, to tell his side of the story. Knight told the deputy in the video, "I told her she was a liar, which she is. I then told her 'I hope you rollover your truck and die.'" He admitted to pointing at her but said there was no physical contact. The deputy asked if the incident stemmed from the submitted letter. Knight responded, "Yeah, she accused me of self-dealing."
"Self-dealing is, there is a subdivision going in, and she accused me of being in a relationship with the subdivision developer, which means I've accepted bribes to do my job and that's an absolute lie," Knight went on to explain.
The Delta County Independent obtained a copy of the letter the Price Road neighbors submitted to the county commissioners. Their main concern with being annexed into the town of Paonia is the town's perceived inability to maintain roads.
Sixteen people put their name on the letter, which went on to explain that Knight introduced the annexation at a May town board meeting when it was not on the agenda.
The only point in the letter that might remotely be seen as questioning his character concerns Knight's working relationship with the subdivision developer and a belief of a conflict of interest. The letter-writers believe it should be investigated but didn't seemingly accuse him of accepting bribes.
When reading the minutes from the commissioners meeting, three residents of Price Road were documented as merely asking that the road not be ceded by the county and that, because Knight lived on Price Road, it was a conflict of interest.
It's difficult to fathom why Knight became so upset with Patterson, other than there is a pattern of such behavior in Knight's past so much so that when the town trustees extended his contract, he was given four general goals he must achieve. One of those goals listed was to work on his communication skills with an emphasis on collaborative public relations, conflict resolution and reducing reactivity.
The communication goals are seemingly a result of complaints about Knight's inability to maintain his composure. At the time of the contract renewal, Knight expressed no issues with the goals.
Knight told the deputy that night -- and the DCI the next day -- that the altercation was a neighborly spat that took place in off-hours and that it had nothing to do with his job as town administrator.
But there aren't off-hours for public officials. You are what you are 24/7, and you should conduct yourself appropriately. This isn't a simple spat between neighbors; it was a spat that resulted from the town administrator's dealings as town administrator. It had everything to do with his job.
Knight's actions were an attempt to intimidate Patterson against speaking about him and an attempt to make her feel uncomfortable about speaking freely at Paonia board meetings. And those are actions the community shouldn't tolerate from its public officials.
At this point, the honorable thing for Knight to do is resign. If he doesn't, the town trustees should have the courage and willingness to remove him from his position. The only thing I'll predict at this point is there will be lawyers.
Dennis Anderson is group publisher for Wick Communications Alaska and Colorado and can be reached at dennisa@montrosepress.