The Crestone Eagle • November, 2021

County emergency resolution rescinded because of protests

by Sandia Belgrade

(Note: the observations here are mine; not those of The Crestone Eagle. I have purposely not used anyone’s name.)

The fallout from residents’ angry response to the County’s emergency and disaster resolution has turned ugly. People are shocked that the protest has resulted in death threats being made to County employees. Many are wondering how a website, well known for floating falsehoods, can rile up good people. How did this all come about?

A crowd of county residents, mostly from Crestone, filled the County Courthouse, and over 30 more people were present on Zoom during the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting on October 5. They came to protest the “Civil Emergency, Emergency, or Local Disaster Regulations” Resolution #2021-07 approved in September. Its purpose in summary:

 “Civil Emergency, Emergency, or Local Disaster Regulations” Resolution #2021-07 defines the duties and powers of the Chair of the BOCC, spending authorities, spending limits, the succession of authority, government continuity of operations, and alternative meeting locations for the BOCC during a County Declared Disaster.” 

These regulations are modelled after FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency), guidelines before, during and after disasters for all levels of government, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to work together to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to and recover from incidents. The County resolution follows these guidelines and is very similar to resolutions in the other counties in the valley, and all over Colorado. Bobby Woelz, Director of the Saguache County Office of Emergency Management, helped draw up the resolution. Woelz was named the 2019 Regional All-Hazards Comprehensive Emergency Manager of the Year Award recipient. 

Commissioner Tim Lovato opened up the meeting to hear the public. He set a limit of 2 minutes per person to allow as many to speak as possible. The mood of the crowd was intense, but people adhered to the limit. Most of the attendees had no quarrel with the sections covering County resources and funding during a disaster. It was the section delegating powers that aroused anger and suspicion. A sample of comments demonstrates the angry mood. Conspiracy theories ran high. Some called the resolution draconian. A travesty. You’re throwing us into a communist system. It’s a plan to kill us. Demonic. You could round people up and take away their civil liberties. This is the beginning of The New World Order, (a secretly emerging totalitarian world government). It’s democide (the murder of persons by their government). It’s an act of treason. You are assuming dictatorial powers. Many cited the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and said the County is taking away our rights. 

 An internet site may have triggered the outrage

One person said that residents learned about the resolution through a nationally published article on The Gateway Pundit. She read from a signed petition saying in essence “We the people of Saguache County demand the proclamation be dissolved immediately.” She said residents were never notified of this resolution. “We are outraged by your decisions to adopt this, and for us to discover it on national news.”  The Gateway Pundit (TGP), an American far-right fake news website. TGP is well known for publishing falsehoods and conspiracy theories, according to Wikipedia, the free on-line encyclopedia, and several other internet sites. How extreme? Jim Hoft, the founder and editor-in-chief of the TGP site was permanently suspended from Twitter in February after he violated the social media platform’s civic integrity policy. He was too extreme even for conservatives and was removed from the Conservative Political Action Conference panel after he tried to discredit the courageous efforts of the survivors of  the horrific Parkland High School shooting in Florida.

Moderate voices 

Others offered a more moderate voice, critiquing the resolution, but acknowledging it is needed in a disaster.  Several said it was vague. Overreach was a very common description, echoed even by Sheriff Dan Warwick. Many acknowledged it was poorly written, and some County employees agreed that it will need editing and clarification. One person responded to the negative comments that trashed the Commissioners, saying that we need to work together. There was a divide between those who believed that the BOCC was trying to do what is best for the people of the county, and those who outrightly felt the BOCC was being tyrannical and untrustworthy. 

The view from the county   

I spoke with the Sheriff. He said the intent of the order is only for emergencies. While he thought the whole financial part was good, he felt that things like closing roads was not their authority. It was an overreach, Warwick said. “The intent of the order is only for emergencies. I know it sounds like it is saying that we can come in your home and take your things, but that was not the intent. The intent was to make it so I can pay for and request what I need for and during emergencies.” He believes the board is going to make this right.  He also feels we need to have the community involved. Commissioner Tim Lovato acknowledged that he heard from constituents concerned about the resolution’s “provocative” language. “I spoke to a constituent and that person told me their concerns that this was an overreach, and that it has provocative language in it,” Lovato said. “There are improvements that need to be made in it.” Commissioner Lynne Thompson’s view on the resolution was that she liked that it established a chain of command and how to fund emergency plans. She said we need to reword it, as it may be seen as overreaching. But, she said emphatically, “We need a plan.” Bobby Woelz noted that if he had presented this during the spring fire there might not have been this outcry. That given the proximity of the national forest and the need for rapid emergency preparedness in the event of fire, the resolution might be seen in a different light. Attorney Brad Crowell commented on the delicate balance of protecting people’s rights while protecting people from harm. 

Commissioner Tom McCracken reported that there was a meeting attended by a lot of folks at the Cloud Station in Crestone the night before. He made a motion to rescind the resolution, saying we’ve heard from our constituents. All the Commissioners agreed, expressing a willingness to  work in the future to keep the lines of communication open. McCracken said he has received a number of non-specific threats.  

The whole community approach

A word to the Commissioners:  FEMA recognizes that a government-centric approach to disaster management will not be enough to meet the challenges posed by a catastrophic incident. That is why we must fully engage our entire societal capacity.” To that end, FEMA initiated a national dialogue on a whole community approach to emergency management— a dialogue to include a broad range of emergency management partners, including representatives from the private and non-profit sectors, academia, local residents, and government leaders. In this instance it was the county residents that initiated dialog. It was not always pleasant, but people are asking to be heard and seen. 

Communication 

The Commissioners did not do enough to communicate to residents. In the absence of direct communication, the online presence of Gateway Pundit stepped in to fill the vacuum and lay claim to authority. The Commissioners do not have a strong internet presence. The BOCC will need to take an active role in posting on social media. Even if that is not their personal choice, they can have someone on board who can put up information on the internet. Other avenues of information besides the County website will need to be addressed as well. The Commissioners used to have office hours; personal contact with constituents would be helpful and will go a long way to assure people and give them personal access. The County has posted information on their website, but in this era when people do not trust government and have fears (which may or may not be justified), the BOCC needs a better way to communicate online. The BOCC and OEM are willing to edit the resolution and will have a public comment period after they rework the resolution. That’s good. Truth and open communication are needed in this political climate. We can have disagreements without vilifying the other. 

Residents and officials alike need to ask why it is that people are quick to question the motives of the BOCC or their neighbors, but not question an internet site cited for spewing hate. Things are not the way they were before 2016. A mere five years later, people are going through a pandemic, often in isolation, with only the internet as a source of information. They read claims that the election was rigged. They read contradictory information on COVID. 

Fear of government taken to extremes

Fear has increased, and it often comes out as anger. Clearly someone was taking advantage of this. One clerk got a message that said the fallout would be brutal. She told me the office staff at the County Courthouse had received death threats. Death threats! To clerks. Sitting at their desks. Just doing their job. It is an extreme and sad turn of events. In a real disaster we’ll need more than a resolution. We’ll need to trust and depend on each other.