In a world where anyone can yank the reins for the public’s attention, creating sustainable change has never been harder.
Aurora Councilperson Nicole Johnston was able to do both.
Actually, she’s a former city council member now. She stepped down from her post last week, a few months short of completing her first term on the dais.
Johnston came with and brought sea change in political thought and action to the city council, which for generations has largely been a moderately conservative and blue-collar-ish collection of people. They mostly reflected the largely moderately conservative and blue-collar-ish people who lived here.
But since the 1970s, Aurora has grown increasingly diverse and politically liberal. The city council, however, did not.
That changed in a big way almost four years ago when Johnston, Crystal Murillo and Allison Hiltz were elected to the council. Each had been part of Emerge Colorado, a political group that focuses on recruiting politically liberal women to run for state and local offices.
Each of the three women were instrumental in bringing a new, loud and persistent voice to Aurora’s city government that seemed each week to be asking either “why” or “why not.”
Even before she was sworn in as a city lawmaker, Johnston wanted to know why people who lived near gas and oil wells in northeastern Aurora had no say in how those industrial sites were operated. She, like many in Colorado, learned that oil and gas operated across Aurora and Colorado with much of the same impunity as railroads and utility companies. Mining for gold or oil in the state has long put the “eminent” in everyone’s domain.
Not anymore, thanks a great deal to Johnston, who primarily steered a recently adopted guide for Aurora control of the industry. It came in tandem with a statewide push to ensure petroleum companies comply with regulations that make sense for everyone affected by oil and gas production.
That was just the beginning. Regular calls from the dais each week that began with, “Mayor?” ended with commentary or questions from Johnston that helped to move Aurora in directions it’s never been before.
In three years, Johnston has been at the front of the parade demanding reform of council ethics rules, campaign reform, police reform and the development of land near Buckley Air Force Base and the Denver Landfill that have serious environmental concerns. She’s a regular and vocal critic during city council meetings of everything she’s critical of, and sometimes, that’s a lot.
Most recently, she had become the loudest voice in the chorus pushing back against first-term Mayor Mike Coffman. Coffman, a former Congressional representative in the area, has been adjusting the office to suit him, which hasn’t suited Johnston and more than half of the city council. He’s shown a penchant for making big and incomplete announcements on social media and acting like a council person in offering legislation and amendments. The city’s mayor is an odd position. It’s full time, but the position is precluded from most legislative duties and the mayor is just another member of council when it comes to running the city.
Recently, in a letter sent to The Sentinel, Johnston took issue with Coffman’s ideas on addressing the city’s growing problem with homelessness, in particular, statements that those looking for free shelter get “sober or get a job.”
“(Coffman) continued with misinformed generalizations as if he is the expert in this area,” Johnston wrote. “He is not.”
From the time she joined the council, she earned a reputation for being frank and honest. She was quick to call and even visit the newsroom to point out what she disagreed with in The Sentinel news and opinion pages.
To her credit, she was just as fast and frank to call to say she’d gotten a DWAI charge while driving home one night from a meeting.
A Colorado State Trooper, responding to her call for assistance after her car got stuck in mud, asked if Johnston had been drinking. “She said she told the officer she had and agreed to a breathalyzer, which registered a .05 percent blood alcohol level — just high enough to qualify as a DWAI in Colorado,” The Sentinel wrote in 2018.
“This was the first time I have ever had a traffic violation, and the experience has been extremely frustrating for one simple reason — I should know better,” Johnston said. “I have seen, like most other people, countless public service advisories about driving while impaired, and even though I was at the lowest possible limit, I still should have had better judgment.”
In all the years I’ve seen public officials busted for legal trouble or, less often, actually admit it, no one has stood up like Johnston did and said, “I was wrong. I shouldn’t have done it.”
It was that kind of honesty and integrity that raised the bar for everyone on city council. She leaves that behind with a growing caucus on the city dais that is increasingly forthright and adamant in staking out directions Aurora has never taken before.
Johnston is moving to Colorado Springs to ensure she can marshall her kids through the tough years of junior and senior high school, and work, professionally, to address the growing problem of mental health in that region.
She by no means accomplished a great deal on the city council by herself, but her integrity and honesty were all hers and have helped set a new course for the entire city.
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