On Sunday, Aug. 3, readers of The Pueblo Chieftain understandably might have wondered who was really running the city of Pueblo.
The paper that morning reported that three of Pueblo's seven city councilors had been receiving pointed guidance from Pueblo County transportation director Greg Severance, with one in particular, council vice president Ami Nawrocki, exchanging detailed and sometimes intimate emails with him.
Hundreds of emails obtained by the newspaper also call into question whether Nawrocki, Council President Sandy Daff and Councilor Chris Kaufman violated a law governing open meetings by discussing a trash-collection plan away from public view.
Following a tip to Chieftain reporter Peter Roper, the paper sought and obtained 1,186 pages of printed, partially redacted emails to and from city councilors, under the Colorado Open Records Act. And perhaps because Pueblo's local government pulls emails directly from a server — unlike the city of Colorado Springs, which depends on the good faith of the requestee to deliver incriminating evidence to the public — the emails told quite a story. "Pueblo County official worked to manipulate councilors," said the headline.
Out of sight
Severance is paid solely to work on transportation issues for the county. But according to several sources, the paper reported, Severance has been telling people he could soon be Pueblo's next city manager. He sometimes signed his emails to councilors with "This Guy" or referred to himself as "Don Corleone," an Independent review of the emails confirms. In a May 14 note, he referred to himself, Daff, Kaufman and Nawrocki as a "team," among other examples of collaboration.
In a May 18 email, Nawrocki forwarded Severance her reply to a request from a reporter for PULP, the Pueblo monthly paper, with the message, "Greg, I just sent this off. I probably should have asked beforehand, but let me know what you think of my response." A week later, after responding to a constituent's email, Nawrocki, who also works as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, forwarded it to Severance. "I'm on a roll," she wrote. "Does it sound too angry?"
The most salacious aspect reported so far came in a June 8 exchange, when Severance, while writing how he fears nothing from Pueblo's county commissioners because he's "their star," says to Nawrocki, "Remember — I hate losing. And I never lose." Her response was redacted by the city attorney, but the Chieftain was able to discern it, and printed it because the conversation related to city business: "That thing about you never losing? Baby, you turn me on when you say that and I just can't think clearly."
In a phone interview, the Indy asked Nawrocki, a 44-year-old in the second year of a four-year term, why she would use a publicly accessible government email account to deliver such sentiments.
"This is probably going to sound very disingenuous and naïve, but I'm not a career politician," says Nawrocki (whose ringback tone is The Doors' "Love Her Madly"). "Clearly, there were mistakes that were made and for that I'm very, very sorry. The choice of words on public email were — you know, clearly there were mistakes made in judgment in using some of the words that I used."
She denies, however, that any illegal meeting took place. Kaufman and Daff did not return messages seeking comment. Severance said he would talk to us, but then failed to return follow-up emails.
Out of mind
The meeting allegation comes from an early July conversation about what to do about illegal dumping in Pueblo. Severance — who has since been suspended, with pay, by county commissioners — proposed a "Bazooka Plan" in an email he signed as "Private G," designed to fight off local waste-management companies, who don't want to see their business given to one company. He roped in Nawrocki ("I completely agree.") and Kaufman ("I'm in."). Only Daff balked at what was nearing a legal line, writing on July 7: "I typically don't respond to these group emails."
Daff is no stranger to the accusation of improperly conducting public business in private, as a fellow city councilor, Chris Nicoll, leaked the news to the Chieftain in April of closed-door meetings being held to determine if a half-cent tax used to fund the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation could be used for other needs.
It's an environment ripe for a strong hand to grab the wheel, says Chieftain managing editor Steve Henson.
"I don't think that there's anybody of influence in city government, whether it's the city manager or city attorney, who has the stature to tell them, 'Hey, knock this off. What you're doing is wrong,'" he says. "We have a relatively new city manager, a relatively new city attorney ... so, lacking that leadership, they've kind of gone off the reservation."