Free speech takes hit in midvalley
A midvalley resident was threatened with arrest Thursday night for trying to speak when he was told not to at a public hearing on development of the old Mount Sopris Tree Farm.
Royal Laybourn wanted to outline his vision for the tree farm to the Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District board of directors, which called the meeting to solicit ideas from the public. The board is overseeing development of recreational and community amenities at a 120-acre property in El Jebel.
Laybourn saved most of his comments until the end of the meeting, then tried to give a presentation. Recreation district board chairwoman Laurie Soliday told Laybourn it was too late because the meeting was scheduled to end at 8 p.m.
“The meeting’s over,” she declared, interrupting Laybourn when he tried to address an audience of about 25 people.
“I’m not going to be denied, Laurie,” Laybourn responded. He continued to make his presentation for a couple of seconds until an Eagle County Sheriff’s deputy stepped in front of him and they had a private conversation.
“He told me I was being disorderly and that I had to leave the meeting immediately or I’d be arrested,” Laybourn said. He complied to avoid a trip to jail.
But Laybourn said Friday that his treatment was unjust. Most of his criticism was aimed at Soliday, not the deputy.
“You can’t ask for public participation then stifle it,” he said.
Laybourn said he suspects that Soliday arranged to have the deputy in the room, which was held at the Eagle County office building and community center in El Jebel. The sheriff’s office substation is located in the same building.
Soliday denied asking the deputy to attend. “That had absolutely nothing to do with me,” she said.
Deputy Dave Lawson said no one asked him to attend the meeting. He attended because he was interested in the topic. It’s not unusual to see Lawson and other deputies pop into meetings at the community center.
Lawson said he didn’t intend to play referee at the meeting, but felt intervention was called for when the dispute arose. He noted, accurately, that some people at the meeting became upset when Laybourn tried to give his presentation. At least one person yelled for the officer to remove Laybourn.
But the exchange caught most people off guard because it happened so quickly. And Laybourn was not universally booed.
Lawson acknowledged that it was unusual to ask someone to be quiet at a public meeting. He said he wasn’t trying to interfere with free speech rights, but felt it was best to ask Laybourn to leave peacefully after his exchange with Soliday. Lawson said he doubted that he ever actually warned Laybourn that he would arrest him, but he agreed that he said his actions were bordering on disorderly and that there was an implication of arrest. He said when he asked Laybourn to leave peacefully, Laybourn said “no.” However, Laybourn left peacefully after a short time.
Soliday and Laybourn are in a running feud over differing visions for the tree farm. Both of them have worked for several years to try to turn the property into a top-notch community facility.
Laybourn believes the development of the tree farm should feature converting a handful of existing buildings into diverse community facilities (see related story).
He is frustrated that the recreation district isn’t leasing the old buildings and land immediately adjacent to them from Eagle County government.
Soliday said the recreation district simply doesn’t have the funds necessary to lease the buildings and maintain them until they can be converted into other uses. In fact, she said, it isn’t even known if those buildings can be used.
Midvalley voters approved a $5.1 million bond issue to create the Crown Mountain Recreation District and to build ball fields, soccer fields and other amenities at the tree farm last November.
The recreation district board was also elected at that time. It is in charge of deciding how the $5.1 million will be spent. Thursday night’s meeting was held to help prioritize what the public wants.
Laybourn said he appeared at three previous recreation district board meetings to try to share his vision for the property. The first time he was told the discussion was premature. Two other times the board recessed into an executive session, which is closed to the public, to discuss the lease negotiations with the county.
Given those failed attempts, Laybourn said he felt the proper time to deliver his public comments was at a public hearing.
Soliday disagreed. She said there wasn’t time to hear Laybourn’s proposal because people had already gathered for two hours. She said the meeting was billed as running from 6 to 8 p.m.
She didn’t see a problem with refusing to accept comments at a public meeting. “I don’t think it was heavy-handed at all,” she said.
Soliday said she has consistently encouraged Laybourn to ask in advance for time on the recreation district board’s agenda. She claimed he will receive it.
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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