A look into how Thornton city council has silenced voices and abused power
“Please listen to us”
If you’re a Thornton resident who has tried to reach out to Mayor Jan Kulmann, or city council members David Acunto, Eric Garcia, Adam Matkowsky, or Jessica Sandgren, it will be no surprise to you that Yellow Scene Magazine (YS) also could not reach any of them directly for comment.
A pattern of disregard for citizens, elimination of discussion forums, and alleged abuse of power by the mayor and her council member supporters has brought some Thornton residents to a breaking point. Specific complaints include the lengthy absences of Acunto, Matkosky leaving council meetings early, ending specific Ward meetings, and the lingering effects of the removal of former council member Dr. Jacque Phillips and the firing of city attorney Luis Corchado, as well as lawsuits stemming from these actions.
Public voting records show that Acunto has missed about one-third of all council meetings in the past two years, and Matkowsky has left meetings early or been absent seven times in 2023 — out of 18 meetings so far.
“I think it’s an incredible disservice to the residents who have voted for them to completely not show up for meetings at all, and again, to have no communication as to what’s caused absences,” City council member Julia Marvin stated.
Citizens often receive no replies from Kulmann when appearing during public comment to request a meeting or seek clarification. Kulmann will simply wait in silence until the speaker’s time is up and then move on, never addressing the questions or requests for meetings. Kulmann has the support of Acunto, Garcia, Matkosky, Sangren as well as Tony Unrein, giving them the majority of seats on the nine-person council.
“I would say part of it is that they’ve [the city council majority] been really insistent that we don’t respond to residents during public comments. Don’t have a back-and-forth,” Marvin said.
“It has always been my understanding that that’s not a time to engage in a back-and-forth conversation,” Unrein replied regarding questions about resident’s frustrations.
“We’ve been struggling for years to find a way to make people aware of what’s going on. A lot of people have completely tapped out of politics,” a Thornton resident shared.
“One of the effects that is most upsetting, I believe, to my constituents, is the lack of accountability and transparency, and then also lack of response … I feel included in that [lack of response] as a council member because I struggled to get things to a place of actual, constructive discussion,” council member Kathy Henson shared her frustration.
“Please listen to us. Yeah, the city has problems, but we still love it. We want to be part of this community. We want to be heard. We want to help this place be better. Can we have those meetings?” One resident pleaded during an October 10th council meeting to a response of complete silence.
An Undemocratic Process
Phillips was removed from her Ward 1 seat in a 5-4 vote in early 2022 with allegations she had changed her primary residency when accepting a board member position and finding a home near the new job in another city.
Henson disagreed with the outcome. “It was a very unfortunate choice. It was overturning a free and fair election and is very serious. Dr. Phillips was removed because our charter language allowed council members to decide what evidence they would consider and what they would not… She met all the residency requirements to run for council, and those criteria were still in place and still being met [when she was removed],” Henson said.
“[Phillips] is clearly here. You see her around town. She’s at every meeting. She’s got more meetings than the other council members and she’s not even on council anymore,” resident Jessica Stone-Troy commented on Phillips engagement with Thornton civic life.
Not long after Phillip’s removal, public Ward meetings with staff and council members, which used to be open forums for each of Thornton’s five Wards, were canceled. The Ward specific meetings were replaced with a general meeting. Several residents who spoke with YS complained that this new forum does not contain a way to have a productive discussion or have questions answered like previous Ward specific meetings did. Residents wonder where they can interact with the council to voice concerns.
One resident has taken a different approach, adopting a Stephen Colbert-like satirical character called “Danny Kulmann” — no relation to the mayor — that follows and parodies Kulmann — the mayor — at public events. Danny donned a bright red MAGA hat and jokingly endorsed Kulmann as the “most MAGA candidate” for Thornton to nearby citizens at public events.
In a disturbing abuse of power, the mayor has had Danny arrested multiple times by the Thornton Police department, initially for violating a 15-foot restraining order — where video clearly shows the mayor approaching Danny, not vice versa — the case was eventually dismissed. More recently, Danny was silenced by Thornton Police on direction of the mayor for speaking over his allotted three minutes at council meetings on September 24th, October 10th, and 24th. Live video feed was cut during these interactions.
The removal of Ward meetings, the refusal to engage with residents at council meetings, and the arrests of Danny Kulmann all point to a pattern of silencing dissident voices. The Thornton Police Department stated that they “will not be granting any interviews referencing the Danny Kulmann situation.”
“Civil disobedience protest is a cornerstone of our nation, It’s the most American thing … It’s what makes me American more than anything else,” Namazi shared.
“Everything goes back to Stargate”
The roots for the removal of Phillips from city council may run deeper than just the surface complaint of out-of-town residency.
Before she was Thornton’s mayor, Kulmann was the governing board president of the Stargate School. During her time, multiple accusations of bullying and sexual assault were ignored on her watch. 9News reported in 2018 that “seven complaints were filed in the last two years with the Office of Civil Rights inside the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.” One of the most egregious examples was of a high school coach accused of sexual advances on minors who was allowed to retain his position.
Phillips led a lawsuit representing some of the children against the charter school. Years later, Phillips clashed with Kulmann while they both held elected office for Thornton. “I was a thorn in their side. I’m advocating for the south end, and you know, they’re all development, and oil and gas, and I’m like, we don’t have enough water,” Phillips said.
“And that all stemmed from the lawsuit at Stargate that Jacque spearheaded. That’s where all this started. That was the tipping point,” said Thornton resident Karin. Many residents see the removal of Phillips by council vote as both retaliation for previous interactions at Stargate and a way to bolster the mayor’s support on council. “People have to draw their own conclusions …. And if you look at the evidence, it’s hard to think that they’re completely separate,” stated Henson.
“The joke around Thornton is that everything goes back to Stargate,” Roberta Ayala, community organizer and Ward 2 city council candidate, shared.
Phillips sees a bigger picture. “I think it was way more than that. One theory is Jan is running for CD8 [as a Republican for Colorado District 8 seat in 2024], and that they needed me gone. They wanted to put Jessica Sandgren in as mayor, but to keep their five majority, they needed a Republican in my seat. I think it was about way more than that. As long as I was on council, they couldn’t cancel the Ward meetings,” Phillips explained.
“I think part of what has been so gross to watch over the past four years has been every single avenue for residents to communicate and engage, has been shut down. It sort of starts to feel like, you know, authoritarian stuff. Where it’s one-way communication. You know, there’s no dialogue, there’s no opportunity to ask questions,” Marvin expanded.
Phillip’s vacant seat was filled by council vote, choosing Thornton political newcomer Eric Garcia over other qualified candidates, including a former Ward 1 representative.
When asked if Garcia was the most qualified candidate, Marvin replied: “No. We have a lot of incredibly qualified people who have been involved for a long time, and are very entrenched in the community, and really in touch with community needs, and Eric Garcia was not one of those people.”
Ward 1 residents had no input on the removal of their elected representative and replacement with Garcia. “Overturning the results of a free and fair election is dangerous for democracy,” Thornton city council member Kathy Henson expounded.
When asked about her stance on the removal of Phillips, candidate Nicole Matkosky — who is married to current council member Adam Matkoswky — replied to the Sentinel: “This is in the past and I am focusing on the future of Thornton.”
City attorney Luis Corchado was also unceremoniously fired. This led to a costly lawsuit the city lost over the improper firing. “Then they did to Luis what they did to me, I mean, that was just that was a power move,” Phillips stated.
“As usual, I have no idea what is going on behind the scenes with the mayor and four council members who have made a decision about the attorney’s contract. This is another, behind closed doors, dirty deal.” Phillips was quoted at the time by the Sentinal.
Building the block
Community organizers, activists, citizens, and most politicians that YS spoke with all agreed that the lack of campaign finance reform has allowed special interest groups to infiltrate Thornton elections.
“As a community, our voices are marginalized, and special interest groups have the vast majority of the power because they’re able to buy politicians. In my personal opinion, that’s what’s happened in Thornton,” Ayala explained. She continued, “For the past 10 to 15 years, oil and gas, and developers have had their way because they’ve been able to bankroll those campaigns, get them into office, and those people are beholden to their special interests.”
Developers and oil and gas companies have donated large amounts of money to Kulmann’s previous campaign for mayor, raising nearly $70,000 for the local election. Kulmann herself comes from an oil and gas background. Campaign finance records show large donations totaling $7,500 from developers such as Carlson Associates members during this election season as well.
“You give a $5,000 or $10,000 donation to her and then the next thing you know, they’re building these big condominiums. These big housing projects and stuff over here,” Karin complained, referring to the influence of developers on city council.
“If you roll with Jan, they will get you money, and you’ll fall in line with whatever they need. And I know that she plans to run congressionally again. So she’s building a pretty broad alliance of organizations and those organizations are willing to turn their backs, and not support their own, for promises that Jan makes attractive,” Christopher Russell, a Ward 4 candidate stated.
Questions have also been raised about the timing of a new police union contract negotiation as well as lack of interviews for local fire union endorsements. “On the surface, to me, I think the police one is the one that’s the most obvious [example], look, police endorsed you, and then you gave [them] a $1.1 million raise,” Phillips replied when asked about influences on Kulmann and associated council members.
The Thornton Police Department was given a $1.1 million budget increase in late July. “The union endorsements come before the November City Council ballot has been set and even prior to the petition to run for council deadline, which is Aug. 28. ,” the Sentinel shared. The Police Union endorsed Kulmann, and Nicole Matkowky — married to current council member Adam Matkowsky — as well as Acunto and Garcia who are running for re-election.
“We don’t have a retention problem with our police. So the extra million dollars a year and bonuses seemed unnecessary,” Marvin stated.
The fire department did not hold interviews with all candidates before endorsing during this election season. “The fire department didn’t even ask us at all. They just endorsed all of Jan’s slate,” Ayala recalled. “[They] essentially told me that a union wants to support you, they like you, but you know, this is just politics. I’ve never known a fire department to not support their own,” Russell, also a former firefighter, shared.
It was not just police and firefighters. Developer’s and real estate endorsements also appear influenced by Kulmann and her block. “I was habitually told, even within my circles of realtors and builders, that Chris, it’s not you. It’s the mayor slate that we have to endorse. So, much like the police department, I don’t know what type of promises she’s made to those individuals that aren’t endorsing me as being one of their own in the profession,” Russell, currently a realtor, opened up.
“People are afraid to run against any of these candidates. People don’t like how things are being run, but they feel like they can’t get involved to help shape the future of our city. It feels like our city is being run by like, the mafia or something,” Stone-Troy shared.
Silencing and ignoring residents, lack of attending meetings, removing Phillips and Corchado, as well as the block of endorsements Kulmann has seemingly cultivated have left residents feeling a wide range of emotions from lost, to enraged, and even disengaged. Many feel a lack of media coverage or general awareness of what is happening on city council is part of the problem.
“Because of my involvement and being in the campaign, a lot of people here have really dug in, like oh my gosh, this is crazy. This is unbelievable. I would have never known this is happening. It’s an eye opener. I think everybody has the same conclusions, but it’s a lack of exposure,” Russell shared.
“It’s all just a rubber stamp. It’s always really bothered me. It seems like it’s very much a financial conflict of interest if you’re accepting large sums of money from people for your campaign, it absolutely seems like a financial conflict of interest to then be voting on proposals that directly benefit them,” Marvin shared.
“Stargate and then Thornton, it’s like the same crap reheated. A rubber stamp of the same power dynamic, but on the city level,” Ayala vented her disappointment. “And if that’s the case how do we allow a leader like that to just rubber stamp that on a bigger scale, to Congress or something else, wherever the next step is for Jan Kulmann,” Ayala questioned.
“I feel like they’re just treating the city like a political stepping stone to get to whatever is like their next goal,” said Stone-Troy
“I don’t think they give one sh*t about anything in the city of Thornton. I think they’re in it for the money. I mean, I think they’re 100% corrupt,” Phillips emphasized.
In spite of politics and the perception of behind the scenes influences, it is residents who suffer the most. “I think that we have a lot of important business to conduct in the city and I wish that our focus would remain on city business on responding to the people who we are paid to represent and to respond to our constituents,” Henson shared.
“I just want a city council that actually cares about the whole city and once the best for everyone and all parts of the city,” Tracy, Thornton resident, replied.
“They’re just creating a very unstable environment, and it just hurts everybody,” one resident shared.