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Looking back at 2009: As it turns 20, the Columbine Courier recalls the year's events in South Jeffco

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By Emile Hallez

  2009 was a year of anniversaries.

Two decades ago a small newspaper opened its doors and became the main source of local news for an unincorporated part of Jefferson County that has come to be known simply as South Jeffco.

The inaugural year of the Columbine Courier, then called the Southwest Community Courier, was marked by political turmoil around the globe. Signs of the impending conclusion of the Cold War were evident. President George H.W. Bush, in his first year in office, met with Mikhail Gorbachev at the Malta Summit, a move symbolizing a thaw in diplomatic relations. The Berlin Wall fell in Germany, leading to an emotional reunion of people once separated by that infamous stretch of the Iron Curtain.

In China, hundreds of students camped out in Tiananmen Square demanding an overhaul of the national government. Weeks of demonstration ended when Chinese soldiers closed in on the crowd, firing at random.

The Columbine Courier may have opened in a chaotic year, but the goals of the humble paper were simple. It provided relevant news to a small community, advertising for local businesses and a voice to a population previously underrepresented by the media.

The first edition of the Courier, only 12 pages at the time, was published on Oct. 18, 1989.

Business was initially rough, to say the least.

“When we went out there, we thought there was no way we can’t make money here,” said Kamal Eways, who was one of the paper’s first owners. “Well, there was a way. There was more than one. We couldn’t make money on squat.”

Advertising contracts with major local businesses came one at a time, and eventually the Courier hammered out its spot with loyal readers as South Jeffco’s local newspaper. Today the paper has a circulation of more than 24,000.

 

10th anniversary of the Columbine shootings

While 2009 marked a milestone for this newspaper, much more prominent and glaringly sobering was the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings.

Hundreds of community members gathered April 19 at the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park for a candlelight vigil.

Former Columbine teacher Alan Cram, who handed out more than 1,100 candles at the event, said he still worries about the well-being of local children.

“I’m still concerned about the kids,” he said. “It’s too easy to let kids go off and do their thing. Without having support, it’s pretty lonely out there. We need to be available for them.”

Two law enforcement officers who arrived at the scene on April 20, 1999, shared their memories and thoughts.

“I had never prepared to work a scene like that — to walk into a school that should be loud and filled with laughter and instead see bullet holes,” said Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office homicide Investigator Kate Battan.

The scope of Battan’s investigation was massive. The office’s collection of files from the shooting contains more than 30,000 original documents related to the event and, to date, a total of 80 investigators had worked on the case.

Battan responded to criticism that the sheriff’s office made missteps leading up to the shooting. The department failed to take seriously a report of threats Eric Harris made on a Web page toward his former friend Brooks Brown.

“That is a hard pill for the sheriff’s office to swallow,” she said. “We’re not saying we’re perfect. … With the benefit of hindsight, we might have changed some things.”

Division Chief Dave Walcher spoke about the chaotic police response on the day of the shootings.

“I heard a barrage of radio traffic. When it really hits the fan, you can tell by people’s voices on the radio,” he said.

An “unmanageable” swarm of 900 officers from 34 different agencies arrived at the scene, many responding to calls for backup. Some showed up as volunteers after hearing the radio message.

Law enforcement officials are now better prepared for potential emergencies, Walcher said. Training for officers includes RAID, or rapid and immediate deployment. Useful information such as school floor plans and contact information is also available in first-responders’ cars.

As the anniversary of that horrific day approached, two Columbine students organized a “Day Without Hate,” an event modeled after an observance at Stanley Lake High School during which students remembered the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech.

The idea was to educate their peers about the senselessness of division resulting from cliques and social hierarchy.

“We are done with all the drama,” said Beau Loendorf, a senior who helped plan the day. “We are done with the hate.”

 

Jeffco schools battle budget woes

If 2009 had any recurring theme for Jeffco Public Schools, it was deciding how to approach a perpetually dwindling budget. The district has yearly expenditures approaching $1 billion, but severe drops in state funding are forcing cuts of $18 million to $20 million per year for the next three fiscal years.

At the head of the initiatives to decrease spending was creation of a community panel known as the Facilities Usage Committee, which examined possible savings from maximizing use of district buildings. The committee created a list of budget-reducing options and listened to community input at four well-attended meetings.

Though the committee is not authorized to make any decisions, it is giving the school board a list of final recommendations.

The current list of options advocates closure of eight facilities, including Ken Caryl Middle School.

“These are dire times,” said the school’s principal, Patrick Sandos. “This is one of those situations that there may not be good alternatives. … You’re cutting people; you’re cutting buildings.”

If Ken Caryl closes, the student population will be shifted to nearby Deer Creek Middle School, which is currently under-utilized. Concerns about the move include filling Deer Creek to near capacity and the possibility that students will have to cross Wadsworth Boulevard on their walk to school.

“I have some concerns about 1,100 kids in one building,” Sandos said. “I don’t know that you can meet individual needs in a building that size.”

The school board will formally receive the final recommendations of the facilities committee on Jan. 14, and then the board likely will decide which schools will close.

  Flu pandemic comes to Jeffco

Like most of the world, Jefferson County was not immune to the effects of the swine flu pandemic. After one student was diagnosed with the virus in May, the Arvada charter school Excel Academy was temporarily closed, and 450 students had to stay home for a matter of days.

The school district began tracking student absences and attempted to pinpoint spikes that were tied to the illness.

“Basically, if their child has the fever, they should keep their child home,” Superintendent Cindy Stevenson said. “We’re not panicking, but we’re ready if anything should occur.”

Later in the year, several club football games were canceled. When children tested positive for the virus in September, their South Jeffco Sports Association teams pulled out of weekly games. A total of four teams canceled games during a two-week period.

Despite alarms raised by the emergence of the virus, common-sense approaches to preventing transmission are effective, said Dr. Christine Billings, an epidemiologist with the Jeffco Public Health Department.

“There is no increased risk of playing a sport and catching H1N1,” she said, noting that only about 1 percent of recent school absences were linked to the sickness. “Just don’t share water bottles, wash your hands frequently, no community snacks, things like that.”

But swine flu does spread efficiently, she said.

“If you have one kid who’s got a confirmed case of H1N1, you probably have 10 other kids that have it on their team.”

Jefferson County responded to the pandemic in the same way many cities and counties did. It offered a series of vaccination clinics, though the arrival of the vaccine came late in the season, likely after the peak in cases of swine flu.

  Motorists vs. cyclists

In Deer Creek Canyon, one ongoing story stands out.

Animosity between road bicyclists and local residents reached a boiling point after a permit for a charity ride on Deer Creek Canyon Road was rejected. Outcry from locals about the already-heavy bicycle traffic on the road and tense relations between drivers and cyclists prompted the Board of County Commissions to deny the request for an event that would have benefited two charities.

Critics of cycling in the canyon complained that riders often cruised side by side, making it difficult for drivers to pass them on the narrow, winding roads. Cyclists, however, contended they frequently encountered aggressive or offensive behavior from passing motorists.

Just over a week after the permit was denied, a bicycle and a car collided on the road.

The county commissioners were planning to pursue legislation that would have granted them authority to regulate cycling in the county, including barring cyclists from certain stretches of roads.

The controversial move fizzled out after the commissioners received harsh criticism from cyclists all over the world. In the end, the board said the best way for cyclists and motorists to get along is for both parties to follow existing laws, such as mandates requiring cyclists riding two abreast to yield to motorists.

  A pet project gets under way

One of the larger developments in Jeffco this year was the beginning of construction on the Table Mountain Animal Center’s new building, the Foothills Animal Shelter. Groundbreaking began June 30 on the 30,000-square-foot building, which has a scheduled opening of fall 2010 and a price tag of $9.7 million.

“We recognized we needed a facility, and I think everyone would agree it’s long overdue,” said County Commissioner Kevin McCasky, who endorsed the project, $3 million of which is funded by the county. “For a government, we actually moved fairly swiftly.”

The new building will be more than twice the size of the existing facility and will feature improvements such as an upgraded ventilation system and a new medical facility that will provide cost-effective procedures such as spaying and neutering.

Though the new shelter marks a move toward increasing animal welfare, an attempt to create an off-leash dog park on Foothills & Recreation District property failed after months of struggle to secure a location.

“I felt like it was all about the opposition the entire time,” wrote Lynda Fine, a proponent of the planned park, in a letter to the Foothills board. “This has been, at best, an extremely disheartening event. The citizens of the Foothills district lost out on a positive addition to their community.”

The board had suggested Robert Easton Regional Park as the location for the dog park, but concerns from a nearby neighborhood about potential water contamination, increased traffic and other issues caused the proposal to founder.

   

The year was not without tribulations and controversy at the Taj Mahal.

Among the prominent issues within Jeffco government were private e-mail meetings held between the county commissioners, the outsourcing of audits once performed by internal auditor Susan Johnson, and the firing of County Administrator Jim Moore shortly following his testimony on behalf of county critic Mike Zinna, who successfully sued former commissioner Jim Congrove.

County Commissioner Kathy Hartman revealed in her constituent newsletter that she and Commissioner Kevin McCasky had discussed public policy in an e-mail exchange, a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law. The county attempted to quiet the controversy by creating an online record of e-mails between the commissioners, though the system is not regularly used.

“So far, they haven’t had to (use the system),” County Attorney Ellen Wakeman said in November, at which time only one e-mail had been posted on the Web page, which was created in late September. “That’s why there’s nothing there.”

Recently the site has posted more e-mails between the commissioners, though none of them reflects significant public-policy discussions.

Meanwhile, Commissioners Faye Griffin and Hartman voted in February to eliminate the internal-auditing department, which was composed of only two employees: Susan Johnson and her assistant. The move, Hartman said, was cost effective. The county spent about $215,000 per year on the two employees, who she said performed duplicative duties of external auditors.

“We have external auditors, federal auditors and an audit committee that can access any areas they want,” Hartman said. “The (internal audit department) was an idea of a previous board, and I think Commissioner Griffin and I thought it was not a good use of taxpayer resources.”

External auditors are now responsible for reviewing county-funded employee credit cards, employee complaints about financial issues and a biannual audit of the Human Services business office.

Former administrator Moore’s contract was quietly terminated in a unanimous vote by the board. The county had recently spent $600,000 on a settlement in a lawsuit brought against it by two former employees who alleged Moore fired them based on age discrimination.

Moore, who was swiftly replaced by former open space director Ralph Schell, had also testified in federal court that the Jeffco government actively took steps to silence county critic Mike Zinna. Moves against Zinna, Moore said, included working to evict him from his residence at the county-owned Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport and using a microphone kill switch when Zinna spoke at public hearings.

Zinna, in his First Amendment civil suit against Congrove, was awarded damages of $1,791, a number corresponding to the year the Bill of Rights was ratified. The former county gadfly is also seeking damages against Congrove, former assistant county attorney Duncan Bradley and Robert Cook in a federal wiretapping lawsuit, for which a trial date has not been set.

Though the year was filled with news — some uplifting and some inescapably controversial — some of the best storytelling came from an interview with 85-year-old Jim Kennedy.

Kennedy, who was diagnosed with lung cancer this year, reflected on his years in South Jeffco.

Kennedy helped build the Columbine Hills neighborhood and three of the area’s baseball fields more than 40 years ago.

He and others gathered early in the mornings to clear field space, using wheelbarrows to haul large rocks away in a part of town that exploded in population after the arrival of defense contractor Martin-Marietta.

“I had two older boys, and they wanted to play baseball,” Kennedy said. He and other fathers in the then-sparse neighborhood searched for kids in hopes of building a league.

“We got together and formed a little league,” Kennedy says, smiling. “Believe it or not, we went door to door, and we formed three baseball teams.”

 

Contact Emile Hallez Williams at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. Check www.ColumbineCourier.com for updates.