What is the measure of harassment in the number of emails from one resident to the city of Durango in a year’s time?
For City Attorney Mark Morgan, 3,261 is clearly it – the number of emails the city documented as received from Durango resident John Simpson in 12 months. There are also the 86 allegations about city officials and practices, “all of which have been investigated and found to be meritless and/or false,” he wrote in a cease and desist letter to Simpson.
Morgan wrote Simpson’s “pattern of behavior” required the order because of his “intent to harass.” Simpson made 40 public record requests in 12 months. The city’s legal department spent about 30% of time and resources responding to Simpson’s accusations, according to Morgan.
The number alone – 3,261 – would average almost nine emails per day. Definitions and shades of harassment are different for each of us. The number that equates harassment is elusive. But we know it when we feel it – when volume of communication supersedes information shared. Nine emails per day could do it.
And if the number is infinite, if requests and demands never stop, if they get in the way of employees doing the work to keep Durango functioning and benefiting all residents, that’s too much. The line would be crossed.
In an email, Simpson wrote the number of emails is “closer to 150” and “I am just an engaged citizen.” He added he’s “generated quite a few emails” as a volunteer and chairman of the Infrastructure Advisory Board. When asked to take a call to talk more, he wrote, “Respectfully, I have to decline at this time.”
And Simpson did not answer our broad question, “What is it that triggers you deeply about how the city functions?”
We’d like to know more about intentions, and we’re calling for openness and honesty.
Of course, Simpson has the right to request information and engage city workers. In combing through his emails to the city, one thing is sure – he planted seeds of doubt. Many question city procedures and hint at legal action.
We generally appreciate the role gadflies have in calling out government. Any untoward business, we need to know about. We champion watchdogs, especially those poking around in the spirit of what’s best for the public.
At the same time, burying city staff members with requests to answer to a lone resident – at some point – is intimidating. One employee said they’re chasing ghosts.
Plainly, Simpson, who has unresolved litigation regarding unaudited 2022 city financial records, wants to hold the city accountable. That’s one thing. Inundating staff members, rendering them unproductive, can obstruct government, too. Not helpful.
In the correspondence, Morgan cited “false accusations of ill practice,” “the unlicensed practice of law by providing legal opinions to city officials,” “misogynistic statements,” “racist statements,” “meritless questioning of professional qualifications” and more.
The city doesn’t have any other mechanism but to send a cease and desist letter. Morgan said many emails were improper, including Simpson’s calling “nepotism” in the hiring of Interim Finance Director Tomas Gonzalez, who professionally knows José Madrigal, city manager. (Simpson later said he meant “cronyism.”) Also puzzling is Simpson saying Devon Schmidt, chief financial officer, “doesn’t have the experience to push back against José.”
We’re confused as to how these comments would advance governance.
This story, though, takes a turn, holds more gravitas and puts into context what affects all of us – Durango’s water rights. The city pointed to a conflict of interest, where Simpson could possibly influence our city’s water rights.
Simpson works for the Colorado Division of Water Resources as assistant engineer for Division 7. Durango owns water rights in Division 7 that are needed for the upcoming Durango-La Plata County Airport expansion, which requires a diligence application.
Morgan sent a letter on Oct. 27 to Tracy Kosloff, DWR deputy director, saying as much, explaining concern about Simpson’s potential role. Morgan’s letter demanded Simpson “cease and desist from any action in his capacity as an official with authority over the City of Durango’s water rights, whether direct or implied to influence, intimidate, or threaten the City of Durango or its officials.”
Morgan said Simpson appeared in the city attorney’s office twice wearing a Colorado DWR logoed shirt, when demanding unaudited 2023 financial records and threatening new litigation.
Schmidt and Madrigal both signed affidavits saying on Aug. 4, when Simpson appeared in that logoed shirt, they felt “intimidated by Mr. Simpson’s appearance and demeanor, fearing that if his demands were not met, it would negatively impact the City of Durango’s water.”
Chris Arend, communications director for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said any decisions about Durango’s water would be reviewed by – or under – the direction of the division engineer, not an assistant engineer.
Meanwhile, requests and lawsuits keep coming.
On Wednesday, Simpson, through his attorney Matt Roane of Pagosa Springs, filed a lawsuit against the city – naming City Clerk Fay Harmer, Morgan and Madrigal – alleging violation of Colorado Open Records Act from Simpson’s request on Sept. 1 and subsequent redacted emails. Simpson is seeking email communications in developing the Financial Advisory Board governance document.