Carroll: Neighborhood dispute is fit for print
December 10, 2013
Living in affordable housing is a dream come true for many Aspen residents, but that doesn't mean they can pick their neighbors. Just like they can't determine what stories a newspaper prints.
I learned about the story of Elizabeth Lasko v. Rachel Polver last Thursday, when reporter Andre Salvail visited my office, and, in a hushed tone, said we needed to talk. I knew it was somewhat important when Andre took a careful gander outside of my office, surveyed the bustle and then shut the door.
Andre didn't feel comfortable about covering the dispute, and this one had the ingredients for one messy yarn. Lasko has said she feels threatened by Polver and is seeking a protection order to keep her neighbor at bay. Polver has responded with a counterclaim seeking an injunction that would prevent Lasko, the Independence Place homeowners association and three other neighbors from continuing their "campaign of oppression and harassment."
Because he knew Lasko and Polver through various social contacts, Andre conveyed he was wary of taking on this story. Later, after reading some court pleadings and documents related to the case, I could see why. This is one filthy little saga pitting neighbor against neighbor, and it's a potentially embarrassing one to those involved.
For sure, community journalism isn't always about covering fluffy bunny rabbits and ribbon-cuttings. And in Aspen, the small town that it is, everybody seems to know everybody, and if not, there's only one or two degrees of separation.
That was certainly the case during Monday's proceedings in Pitkin County Court.
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Recognizing the number of journalists in the room and the sheer nastiness of the allegations, Polver's attorney, Tim Whitsitt, who practices out of Carbondale, asked if the hearing could be held in private. He noted to Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely that it would be embarrassing to all parties involved if Aspen's two daily newspapers covered the allegations.
While that's hardly a strong enough argument to shut out the public from a public hearing, it didn't matter. That's because Fernandez-Ely recused herself from the case, meaning it would be postponed to another day. The judge's reason for recusal: A longtime court clerk, with whom Fernandez-Ely has worked closely with over the years, is a potential witness in the case.
Meanwhile, an attorney with Alpine Legal Services, a local nonprofit that provides legal advice and consultation, represented Lasko. After the short hearing, I asked the attorney for her name. And, in keeping with the recurring theme of keeping this now-public matter private, Emily Simeone declined to reveal it. Times like these are when court documents — which provide the names of the attorneys involved — come in handy.
As much as Lasko and Polver allegedly revile each other, it was becoming apparent that they do have one thing in common: They want to keep this story out of the press.
After the hearing, Polver asked that the story not be printed. And a witness for Lasko soon was emailing me a request to lay off the story. Not just for embarrassment, the person said, but out of fear that press attention could only escalate the matter.
These are not concerns to be taken lightly. Living in a housing complex, I know all too well about infighting, bickering and low-ball gossip. As an HOA president for one highly ineffective year, I sometimes found myself in the unenviable position of being asked to play referee over squabbles between neighbors. My solution was for them to figure it out among themselves; they are adults, after all.
Fortunately, their spats didn't make it to the courtroom. But when disputes like these do end up in the legal system, it's fair game for the press.
That's not to say that Lasko v. Polver is a petty case. It's a downright nasty one that no housing complex should be forced to endure, especially when some neighbors won't speak out because they are afraid for their safety.
It's also a story worth covering, not merely because of the salacious allegations flying around. These types of stories are relatable to many of our readers, and the public deserves to know how the justice system responds to such a story that keeps the soap industry in business.
Yes, it's one thing when neighbors are fighting neighbors within their own confines. But when it hits the courtroom, the dispute takes on an entirely different posture. Lasko v. Polver is now a community issue. Know your neighbor, as they say.
Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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