In La Plata County, a heated effort to oust environmentalist commissioner

To hear La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt tell it, the breaking point was a chance meeting with Sen. John McCain.

Last May, Lachelt traveled from her home in Durango to Washington, D.C. to support the protection of an Obama-era rule aimed at curbing methane emissions. She went as a representative of (and with travel funding from) the Western Leaders Network, an environmental advocacy group which she founded and from which she receives a salary. But she was also representing La Plata’s official position on the methane rule: The year before, at Lachelt’s suggestion, the commission had voted 2-1 to support its preservation.

When Lachelt found herself in an elevator with McCain, she took the opportunity to tell him how La Plata residents were living under the nation’s largest methane hotspot, suffering from the pollution drifting in from New Mexico. Without the federal rule, she told him, she would be unable to protect her county’s residents.

Lachelt doesn’t take credit for swaying the senator’s vote, but the next day, he made a similar point when stating the reasons for his vote. The New York Times even mentioned their chance encounter in a story about the vote the next day. McCain’s vote, which came as a surprise, helped the Senate shoot down the repeal of the methane rule, 51-49. (It was, it turns out, a temporary save: President Trump moved Monday to repeal the rule.) 

That defeat, Lachelt says, ramped up her ongoing battle with the oil and gas industry. “They don’t like to lose, and they’re not used to losing, and they lost the vote on the BLM methane rule,” she said. “The industry has been at my throat ever since.”

Lachelt is now facing a vigorous recall effort by a group of La Plata residents who say she is shirking her responsibilities as county commissioner and prioritizing her own environmental agenda over the county’s interests. Lachelt, meanwhile, says she has been “harassed” by the oil and gas industry for years, and claims that the recall effort is part of the industry’s mission to oust leaders who dare to stand up to it.

Environmental advocacy

Lachelt was first elected county commissioner in 2012. As an elected official in a county with more than 3,300 active wells — the fourth-highest in the state — she is upfront about her long history of environmental advocacy. Prior to being elected, she founded the San Juan Citizens Alliance and Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a national effort which seeks to protect landowners and to “reform government policies at the federal, state and local levels.” In office, she advocated for stricter environmental protections, but was not anti-industry. According to The Durango Herald, Lachelt has never voted against an oil and gas project in the county.

In 2016, she was reelected after beating Republican challenger Lyle McKnight, who ran on a platform of reducing regulations that he said are “crippling” the oil and gas industry. “I ran on a platform of adopting a new comprehensive plan, a new land use code, and taking a strong stand against methane emissions,” Lachelt said. “I’ve never had a secret agenda. I’ve always been very clear about what my goals as an elected official would be.”

Lachelt’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by residents who support the oil and gas industry.

Last summer, a few residents filed an ethics complaint with the state’s Independent Ethics Commission against her for her work with the Western Leaders Network, which she founded while in office. The complaint alleged that Lachelt’s dual roles as both commissioner and paid employee of the group presented a conflict of interest.

An independent review conducted by nearby Eagle County officials in October found no wrongdoing by either Lachelt or her co-commissioner, Brad Blake, who had accepted money from a different nonprofit for a separate trip to D.C. The reviewers did, however, urge Lachelt to fully disclose her employment with Western Leaders going forward, citing best practices, a recommendation she supported. Resident Dave Peters, a retired oil and gas engineer, then filed his own ethics complaint against Lachelt over her acceptance of travel funding from Western Leaders. The county attorney dismissed that complaint.

Lachelt alleges that industry group Western Energy Alliance has been “teaming up” with residents like Peters in charging her with conflicts of interest, saying the group’s publication, Western Wire, used open records requests filed by Peters and Christi Zeller, founder of the local oil and gas trade association, in its articles against her. Matt Dempsey, the opinion editor of Western Wire, said in response, “Let’s be clear, Commissioner Lachelt hasn’t challenged our reporting or asked for any corrections.” Records show that Western Wire filed a records request of its own last July. Peters told The Colorado Independent, “You can look all you want to look, but I’m not associated with any oil and gas industry.” Zeller did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A land use squabble

Late last year, the La Plata County Planning Commission released a long-awaited first draft revision to its land-use code, which hasn’t been updated since the late 1980s. County officials hoped that updating the code would make the development process cheaper and more efficient, and allow landowners to more easily predict what they can and cannot do with their land.

La Plata farmers and ranchers balked at the revisions. They claimed the new code was riddled with problematic changes, and was little more than an attempt to take away their property rights. By January, concerned residents were organized, packing meetings with the county commissioners and even holding their own.

Then, at the end of January, three La Plata residents, including Peters, filed an official petition with the county clerk and recorder’s office to recall and replace Commissioner Lachelt. Petitioners have until March 30 to collect 7,505 signatures in support of the recall, in which case a special election will be called. In its stated grounds for recall, the petition claims that Lachelt “repeatedly leveraged [the] public office for her private gain” by appearing before Congress to advocate for environmental causes, and that her actions required the county to investigate ethics complaints against her.

The recall petition did not mention the land-use code, which makes sense — all three commissioners, not just Lachelt, supported revisions to the code. But Lachelt says she believes the petitioners took advantage of the fury over those revisions, combined it with fermenting anger at her environmental views, and used it to propel enthusiasm for the recall. “It’s like they finally found their issue that galvanized enough people that they can initiate a recall against me,” she said. “It is the perfect storm.”

Peters admits that anger over the land-use update hasn’t helped Lachelt. But he believes the county’s frustration with her goes much deeper. “For a long time, there’s been concerns about her and having conflicts of interest,” he said. “You add all of that and this land-use code, people were just flat out mad.” 

The recall effort has prompted a heated reaction from La Plata residents. The Durango Herald has published more than a dozen letters to the editor, most supporting Lachelt. “Lachelt was duly elected, so deal with it,” reads one headline. “Don’t support the Lachelt witch hunt,” reads another.

Meanwhile, many residents on Facebook, in a group called LaPlata Liberty Coalition, feel that they are facing an uphill battle in both their land-use struggle and the recall effort. Some members claim that the Herald is biased against them. Some also allege that the commissioner, a publicly elected official, censored their comments on both her personal and public Facebook pages and even blocked them. Lachelt admits that she did so at first, saying that she was distraught at the onslaught of negativity and did not want her two sons to read the comments. She says she now allows all posts to remain.

Big-money interests?

Lachelt’s website now has a “Decline to Sign” message, which claims that the locals who launched the petition against her “have the support of Americans For Prosperity, a Koch Brothers-funded group that recently started a local chapter here in La Plata County.”

Indeed, the well-known conservative political advocacy group, also known as AFP, opened a field office in Durango less than a month ago. AFP deputy state director Tamra Farah says that the group paid for a digital advertising campaign against the proposed land-use code changes, and encouraged residents to sign a petition to that effect. But Farah is adamant that AFP has no involvement with the recall effort, saying, “We have not been, and we will not be.”

Amid the controversy over the land-use code, the commissioners have agreed to extend the timeline for the updates and and provide more opportunities for public comment. That extension, Farah says, prompted AFP to end its campaign.

“The county commissioners delayed the vote on the property rights issue, so we feel like so far, our mission is being accomplished, she told The Colorado Independent. “We may or may not choose to take further action.” Farah said that “quite a number of people” reached out to AFP directly to discuss the land-use code, though she couldn’t name names.

It remains unclear how much money the recall effort has raised, or from where. Peters registered a small-scale issue committee called La Plata County Recall with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, which is required for groups raising between $200 and $5,000. Such committees are not required to file any financial disclosures until they raise or spend more than $5,000. None have yet been filed. 

Many LaPlata Liberty Coalition members bristle at the idea that AFP is involved with their cause at all, and worry that the group’s work undermines their own attempts to be a citizen-led, grassroots organization. Jon Fossel, the group’s de facto communications liaison, said, “We’re just a bunch of concerned citizens. We’re just people.” Fossel also says that LaPlata Liberty Coalition was formed to focus on the land-use issue, and that officially, the recall effort has “nothing to do with” it.

Then he added a comment with which even Lachelt would likely agree: “The recall, that’s got a life of its own.”


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