Editor's Note: "Asking a lot" runs in the last Flume of each month. The interview is condensed and edited.
Leona Nelson of Shawnee has earned the Flume's People's Choice award for "Best Public Watchdog for Park County" three times - in 2004, 2010 and 2011. Her motto is "Don't mess with Mother Leona."
She was new to politics in 1984 when she ran for county commissioner. She had been writing a column for The Flume in which she wrote about the county commissioners and the state Legislature, and people felt she would make a good commissioner. Nelson ran as a Democrat that year and lost by 24 votes in the primary. Four years later, she ran again for county commissioner, but this time as a Republican; she lost again, this time by 101 or 102 votes.
She was later appointed to the Park County Planning Commission "to keep me from writing about them," she said. She served seven years on that commission, and she has been serving on the Board of Adjustment for six years.
In April 2006, Nelson and her husband, Roy Nelson, were honored by the Republican Central Committee for their 20 years of continued and dedicated service to the party. Roy Nelson died from cancer in October 2007.
Leona Nelson, now 80, has served as a director for 26 years on the Upper South Platte Water Conservancy District; she's been the treasurer for the past 15 years. The district covers all of Park County and parts of Jefferson, Douglas, Teller and Clear Creek counties.
Nelson has also been a treasurer and one of the directors on the Shawnee Water Consumers Association. She's also a lifetime member of the Park County Historical Society as well as the South Park City Museum Foundation.
Nelson has four children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
DO: Where did you grow up?
Nelson: Western Kansas - 18 miles from Colorado. They used to have license plates that said "native" or "semi-native" for Colorado. I could have had a semi-native because I was so close.
DO: When did you end up in Conifer?
Nelson: How far do you want to go back? I moved to Colorado with my first husband in 1954, and we were on sugar beet farms and cattle ranch and potato farms. I hauled sugar beets to the sugar beet dump. And I was divorced. I raised four kids by myself for seven years. Then met my second husband [Roy Nelson] and we were married in 1967. He and I moved to Conifer in 1968.
[In Conifer] we had 75 acres, and I drove a school bus for 10 years, from '68 to '78, when we bought this place [the Shawnee Trading Post].
DO: What are some of the changes you've seen in the county since you've been here?
Nelson: There's so much, I don't know where to start or where to end. One day [the county commissioners] approved 7,000 acres for subdivisions, so we started a
group called Concerned Citizens of Park County. We'd go sit in on planning commission and county commissioners meetings; they weren't even taping them. And we kept asking them for a master plan. Martha Fitzsimmons, who lived here in Shawnee, they owned the ranch across the road, she was on the planning commission. She came over one day and she said, "Leona, we have a master plan, but I didn't approve it because it had not been presented to the public." So I asked her if I could see it; so she gave me a copy just to keep overnight, and I spent most of the night reading it. The county commissioners didn't have copies and neither did the planning commission. [They] had copies made, then they started planning for Park County. We had some commissioners that just did away with the planning commission completely; this was all before I got appointed, and [they] wound up being recalled, all three county commissioners were recalled. Only time that's happened in the state of Colorado, or anyplace that I know of.
DO: What year was that?
Nelson: Late '90s. Two Democrats and a Republican were elected on the same day they were recalled.
DO: What are some of the not-so-good things?
Nelson: Any of the commissioners do not really listen to their public. I think the statute says they have to put in 16 hours a week, and I'm not sure that any of the commissioners have ever done that. These particular commissioners are there on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
The jail was one of the worst things that happened to Park County; it was bad enough that they built the jail to start with, but the worst part of it was they built the additions onto it without a vote of the people.
Fred Wegener was the sheriff when they built the jail. They hired an outside group to manage the jail when it was first built; they were doing such a poor job of it, they did not renew their contract. Park County took over, [and] after that they decided to build additions onto it without a vote of the people. It's in the hole a million dollars almost every year - the county's in the hole - because they have to make payments on it and they've never had enough money to make the payments. It comes out of the general fund. It's built in pods so they could close down two or three pods and not have to have the maintenance crew or so many deputies to look after it, but for some reason they won't do that. It used to be they had prisoners from Denver and some other counties, but then Denver built their own jail and they were sending them to Texas too. Illegal immigrants - that outfit supposedly rented space from them but they stopped doing that also.
DO: What are some other changes?
Nelson: They are continuing to update the land use regulations, which they need to do to keep up with modern times. And to me, the public should not complain about the LURs if they do not attend the meetings that are presented to the public and give their input as to what they'd like to see. I think that should apply to anything.
I tell [people] if they can't attend the meetings, then send emails and ask that they be written in as part of the record. Or get people who can go, take a group of people and go to the commissioners' meeting and only one of you has to talk; the rest could be a body count. Then the commissioners know how many are concerned and will act accordingly, supposedly.
I've got emails and pictures of that new county building, the communications building, the one they moved out of, I got a letter written, [that] said Mark Dowaliby and John Tighe kept saying that the fire department demanded that they move because it was a fire hazard. Well, I got pictures of the inside and the outside, and it's a brick building, built in the '60s, and whatever was done to it was done without Park County Building and Zoning telling them that they could move doors and windows. But we sent building contractors in there and they said there was no reason they couldn't continue to use that building. It was just the people that worked there that wanted a better place, better working conditions. Like I said, I have the letter. They claimed that they had to move out. So in April of last year, I got a copy of the letter from the fire department, stating the reason we did not condemn the building last year was that the county was supposed to fix up whatever was wrong. So they didn't condemn them at that time. So the county moves all these people out, has to rent different spaces for them, costing the county three times as much money. They purchased one of those modulars and set it next to this building and put the people in there. And like I said I've got pictures of all that stuff. So to me this building is costing us millions of dollars; it was unnecessary, according to building contractors who went and looked at the building.
The other thing we were concerned about was the King Coal Mine, where they're going to put a shooting range in there. In that coal mine in the late 1800s, it blew up and there were approximately 30 Chinese miners that are buried there. They couldn't get them out, so to me, a monument should be set there and it should be advertised and run as a historical place.
DO: What's working well in the county?
Nelson: One of the best things that happened is they were going to put an addition on to the old courthouse in Fairplay and use it for county offices, I hoped that I helped stop that, because I was working with the Colorado Preservation Committee, and I emailed them all the stuff, the plans they had, and the guy told me he guessed he was going to have to put it on the 2011 endangered buildings list. And finally the Fairplay Friends of the Library shut it off. But it wasn't just me; the Historical Society was against it also.
DO: You've been involved in watching so many things, what advice would you give to young people today about being involved in politics or watching what's going on?
Nelson: I would advise people not to sit around and gripe and complain about stuff; get involved. Because the commissioners cannot and the Planning Commission and the Board of Adjustment, they can't just automatically do what you want if they don't know what you want. If you don't bring it before them, then you don't have any right to complain.
DO: What's your favorite place to visit?
Nelson: Probably because I don't get there very often, I like to just go to the lake and go fishing. I don't have anybody to go fishing with. I've been to Florida, I've been all over.
DO: Do you have a favorite lake to go to?
Nelson: We used to go to Tarryall when Roy was alive, but [I don't really [have a favorite]. If I was going to be traveling, four or five years ago we went to Montana, to me Montana's prettier than Colorado, so I'd like to go back to Montana again.
DO: When were you happiest?
Nelson: I never really gave it any thought. I don't think it was when I was driving a tractor and milking cows, but growing up doing that, I didn't know any different. I missed it over the years. Well, I taught 4-H Club for 10 years, horsemanship classes and put on a horse show and gymkhana at Conifer for 10 years. Well I haven't really been unhappy.
I established a desire umpteen years ago, and I don't know whether I read it somewhere or what, but rather than sit around and hate my job, I decided I was going to like every one I had. And it worked, even driving tractors and milking cows, shoveling manure, I didn't mind because that was part of my job. But the only one I disliked, I was hired by Hartford Insurance Company to replace a woman who had been there for 25 years. I had no college education, or I had only a little bit of college, I had no idea how to run a job at an insurance company. So here I am trying to replace [her], and you can imagine, she treated me like I was a complete and thorough idiot. In essence I was. I finally resigned after a month. I doubt if anybody with experience would have been allowed to replace her, because she just knew everything.
DO: When was that?
Nelson: Oh, a hundred years ago [laughs]. Well, it was before I met Roy. I was probably divorced, because I was divorced for seven years raising those four kids by myself, so I'm sure it was in there.
DO: What other jobs or careers have you had?
Nelson: In the medical field, I worked for doctors, [doing] receptionist and bookkeeper. And I drove a school bus for 10 years in Conifer.
DO: What's been your greatest joy?
Nelson: Probably my four kids.
DO: What do you hate?
Nelson: I decided a long time ago not to hate anything or hate anybody; I just stay away from them. I dislike people's actions sometimes, especially people who question your intelligence, but like I said, I don't hate them; I just stay away from them.
DO: What's your greatest fear?
Nelson: Outliving my kids.
DO: What person do you most admire?
Nelson: This one lady lived here, she was one of the prettiest women I ever met. She wound up raising four kids by herself. Her husband didn't give her any child support. She was out sawing wood herself. [She had] twin boys and another boy and a girl. And she wound up recalling two guys on the school board all by herself. She wouldn't let anybody help her. I admired her for her perseverance in getting it done. She wound up moving to Virginia where she came from. [She declined to give her name]
DO: Do you read?
Nelson: About a book a day.
DO: Do you have a favorite author?
Nelson: No, I read anything and everything. I read historical novels, and intrigue murder mysteries, or whatever I can get my hands on.
DO: Do you have a favorite TV show?
Nelson: I always watch "Dancing with the Stars" and "NCIS." And one soap opera, I tape it if I'm not here to watch it.
DO: What one is that?
Nelson: "Days of Our Lives."
DO: Do you have a favorite movie?
Nelson: It would probably be "Sound of Music."
DO: What's your greatest regret?
Nelson: I don't really know. Maybe I haven't got there yet.
DO: Is there a talent that you would like to have?
Nelson: Public speaking. I've done enough of it but I get nervous.
DO: In what instance would you lie?
Nelson: To keep from hurting somebody's feelings, or to keep somebody from being injured, a safety hazard, something like that.
DO: What is your greatest achievement?
Nelson: Probably getting four kids raised without them going to jail. That and my term on the Upper South Platte Water Conservancy, saving water for the public.
DO: What is your most treasured possession?
Nelson: Probably my music, and my knitting and counted cross stitch, crafts you would say, because without those I would go crazy.
DO: What do you drive?
Nelson: Stick shift Ford pickup. I just bought a 1993 Cougar Mercury; it only had 35,000 miles on it, which will last me the rest of my lifetime. And it only cost me $2,500, so I could pay cash for it.
DO: What is your favorite thing to do?
Nelson: Knit and crochet. Sometimes playing games on the computer: Freecell and Spider Solitaire, Mahjong. I'll never get Alzheimer's because of all the stuff I do.
One of my favorite pastimes is raising flowers. You can take the girl off the farm but can't take the farm off the girl. That's one of the things that I do best, is planting. And reaping what you sow.
DO: What's your most remarkable characteristic?
Nelson: Probably my sense of humor. How could you live without a sense of humor? You would be sick all the time and your nerves would be shot.
DO: What do you dislike?
Nelson: Dishonesty, liars. I guess you could say prevaricators is better sounding than liars. Blatant prevaricators.
DO: What do you not like about yourself?
Nelson: My weight.
DO: What about religion?
Nelson: I do not go to church all the time, but I am religious.
DO: If money were no object and you could travel anywhere you wanted, where would that be?
Nelson: Probably Hawaii. They keep trying to get me to go to Hawaii, but I don't want to fly. I have a nephew and his wife there, and two sets of friends that are there, people that used to live here, so I have plenty of people to visit, but I just don't want to stay on a plane that long.
DO: What is your favorite food?
Nelson: Probably fruit. I have to eat stuff that doesn't make me fat.
DO: Do you have a favorite place to eat?
Nelson: Like we have a lot of choices. I like the Cutthroat. Roy was a plumber in downtown Denver and Chip [Thomas, owner of the Cutthroat] had a restaurant down there, so Roy used to go in there all the time. So when Roy passed away four years ago, it came out in the paper that Chip Thomas said he moved up here because Roy and I had moved up here.
CORRECTED: This version has been corrected from the original print version to include the editor's note at the top.