Interview #141: Aurora, CO Council Member Nicole Johnston (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

After public commenters demanded that the Aurora council speak out against an ICE detention center in Aurora, Council Member Nicole Johnston and some of her colleagues attended a nationwide, pro-immigrant protest at the facility. However, a small splinter group caused an uproar with their behavior, and one of her colleagues held her publicly–and unfairly–responsible in a council meeting.

Q: At the June 24 council meeting, there was a long list of public commenters. Many of them were there to speak against the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Aurora. Why was immigration and the ICE facility coming up now?

A: There is a history. We have a center that is overseen by this private GEO Group. But there was an internal investigation that gave a series of infractions. We’ve had outbreaks of measles and chickenpox, which affects our first responders if they have to come in. They can leave being exposed. Nationally and locally, we’ve been looking at this.

Q: You did bring up the federal inspector general’s report at the study session prior to the meeting. In response, Mayor Bob LeGare and Councilwoman Francoise Bergan both said they didn’t think Aurora should get involved in federal affairs. But this came about because you and Council Members Crystal Murillo, Allison Hiltz, and Angela Lawson–or “the Squad”–sent a letter to council expressing concern about conditions at this facility. Did you believe that your other colleagues didn’t know about the ICE facility?

A: We all know about the ICE facility. We were not asking our colleagues to develop policy to step on the feet of our federal government. We were just saying, “hey, this is wrong. We don’t want our community to think that we just stand by this. Please, as a council, let’s sign this unanimously and show strong support that we support our immigrant and refugee communities.” Only four of the ten council members signed that letter.

Q: That brings us to the evening of July 12–a Friday night. Where was Nicole Johnston?

A: I attended, along with many people throughout the country–700 cities–in a Lights for Liberty event. The purpose was to shine light on the atrocities that are happening in detention centers.

Q: The protest was at the detention center.

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Aurora, CO Council Member Nicole Johnston

A: It was. The protest started with a march. There were speakers speaking to the group. Simultaneously, there’s flagpoles–the American flag was flying. While we were speaking, a group of people had gone past this barrier, took down the American flag, put up a flag of Mexico, attempted to burn the American flag, and put up a pro-police flag–but they had defaced it. I did not know all of those details while I was several hundreds of feet away.

Q: The following Monday, there was a scheduled council meeting and the first public commenter to speak was actually Council Member Dave Gruber, who used his time to hold you and two of your colleagues culpable for the group’s actions. Do you think he planned to whip the audience into a frenzy?

A: I absolutely thought that was intentional. It was a packed house. On the side was a woman who had already been tagging me on Twitter, spreading lies. She was ready to record his speech. She downloaded it on a far-right group, which now has probably almost 30,000 views, saying that we were participants in [desecrating the flag].

Q: After he spoke, you tried to cut in, but Mayor LeGare told you that was not the procedure. Minutes later, Council Member Charlie Richardson moved to overturn his ruling and let you speak. How many times since you’ve been on council have council members attempted to overrule the chair?

A: This was the first. We did not organize that protest. When he [said in his comments to] imagine a loved one of a service member being presented with that desecrated flag, that personally insulted me deeply. I was married to a Marine for over 15 years. Council Member Gruber knew that military connection I had. To give that example was dirty, below the belt. It was something that I don’t know if I can get past.

Q: The editorial board of the Aurora Sentinel called for the council to censure Dave Gruber. How do you feel about that?

A: With our council rules, to censure someone we need six votes. If we don’t get the six votes, those that bring that charge forward of censure are responsible for paying all legal or attorney fees. If Council Member Gruber had an attorney to defend himself and we brought forward censure, if we did not get the six votes, we aren’t on the winning side.


Follow Council Member Nicole Johnston on Twitter: @nicoleforaurora

RECAP: Best of Podcast Interviews

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This week, we take a listen back to some of the spiciest, most compelling, and most art-filled interview segments in the past several months. If you have a friend who you’ve been dying to introduce to the magic of city council meetings, sit ’em down and have them listen to this!

This podcast episode is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

This includes excerpts from:

Interview #72: Hamilton, ON Councilor Matthew Green (with podcast)

Interview #85: Aurora, CO Council Member Allison Hiltz (with podcast)

Interview #54: Cheyenne, WY Mayor Marian Orr (with podcast)

Interview #87: Pullman, WA Councilmember C. Brandon Chapman (with podcast)

Interview #82: Syracuse, NY Councilor Khalid Bey (with podcast)

Interview #85: Aurora, CO Council Member Allison Hiltz (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

First-term council member Allison Hiltz has already seen a ton in her first three months: a bicycle shop in distress, sexual harassment training on the rocks, and an uproar involving the Girl Scouts. Listen for all the details!

Q: There’s this image of city council meetings that they are the place you go if your back is up against a wall and you need to plead your case to somebody. On February 5, there were over half a dozen people who came to beg that your city council save the Second Chance Bicycle Shop, which was about to be evicted.  Were they correct to come to you in a meeting to ask for help?

A: Yeah. I think it’s always correct to come and talk about the community at council meetings. That’s what city councils should be. That’s our job to know what’s happening in the community and to help.

Q: Do you get the urge to drop everything and figure out how to help these folks out?

A: I always want to drop everything and fix everything but then I have to stop, take a breath, and just work on getting the right people on it.

Q: Right, you’ve got to pace yourself. You’ve got a four-year term! I heard you are a lifelong Girl Scout. Is that correct?

A: Yes!

Q: Nice, nice. Same here. What was the idea that the Girl Scouts had for the Aurora city council?

A: It was to protect the health and safety of minors who are in cars with people who are smoking.

Q: This proposed ordinance came up at the January 22 meeting. At one point, Council Member Bob LeGare said the ordinance was trying to “legislate the action of stupid people.” You took offense to his use of the word “stupid.” How do you respond to the argument that Bob LeGare may simply have been “telling it like it is” while you were being “politically correct?”

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Aurora, CO Council Member Allison Hiltz

A: You know, I still stand by that comment. I understand that we live in a political world where you can just say whatever you want and call people the names that you want. I do think that as an elected official, you’re held to a higher standard. It is up to us to maintain a level of professionalism. I think once you start calling names over one action, why not start calling everyone else a name for whatever action they have?

Q: Was it the word that bothered you or was it the judgment behind that word being leveled upon people for some behavior?

A: It’s the judgment. No one’s saying that smoking in a car with children is a good idea. But it’s also not our job as council members to start judging the individual actions of people. Once you start passing judgment on people, it just goes into a whole different way of legislating that is not my preferred way.

Q: How surprised were you that between the first meeting with the Girl Scouts’ ordinance and the second meeting, the rhetoric had shifted to opposition?

A: I think it was easy for some to forget that these are 12-year-old girls. There was a lot of conversation about some things that I think maybe were not necessary to have said so vehemently and sternly in a public setting to 12-year-old girls. I would have much preferred those concerns to have been made to those Girl Scouts in a one-on-one context. It’s easy to forget sometimes that the people you’re talking about are real human beings and also 12.


Follow Council Member Allison Hiltz on Twitter: @AllisonHiltz