Four Larimer County state legislators are calling for their own public health director to be fired over an email he sent in frustration regarding a large banner that he believed was comparing him and his staff to fascists.
After public health officials across Colorado have endured protests with pitchforks, doxing, and insults screamed by angry constituents since the pandemic began, Larimer County’s Director of Health and Environment Tom Gonzalez requested help from other local government agencies to have the controversial sign removed.
The oversized sign is mounted on the side of a semi-trailer, parked in a private field near the Larimer County Public Health Department and has reportedly been there for the past few months. Its text reads “Resist the Fascists” in black lettering on a white background.
Gonzalez’s plea provoked a quick response, including an open letter to the Larimer County commissioners signed by four lawmakers from Larimer County, urging them to direct the board of public health to fire Gonzalez, characterizing his email request as unethical and tyrannical.
Authored by Senator Rob Woodward (R-Loveland), the letter charges Gonzalez with being “unfit for office,” using his “government connections” to quash the free speech rights of a private citizen, and asking commissioners to compromise their oath of office to “bend the rules” in an attempt to have the sign removed.
Woodward’s letter was signed by House Minority Leader Hugh McKean (R-Loveland), Rep. Barbara Kirkmeyer (R-Brighton) and Rep. Mike Lynch (R-Wellington), all of whom represent Larimer County districts. The four signers ask Larimer County Commissioners John Kefalas, Kristin Stephens, and Jody Shadduck-McNally to direct the board of Larimer County Public Health to terminate Gonzalez.
Presumably, the reference to fascists compares appointed public health officials — like Gonzalez, who recommend mandates for masks or vaccines to mediate COVID transmission, infections, and hospitalizations — to government officials overstepping their authority and undermining the constitutional rights of the individual.
National and local conservative pundits have compared public health officials and their recommendations to the Nazis in 20th century Germany, a fascist movement of far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, strong regimentation of society and of the economy, and responsible for the genocide of millions of people of particular religious, ethnic, and cultural identities and of certain national origins. 
On the evening of October 26, Gonzalez sent his email to “Larimer County leaders,” which included the three county commissioners, the county attorney and managers, regional mayors, the Larimer County sheriff, members of the Larimer County Public Health board, Gov. Polis’ office, and the state director of the public health department.
Gonzalez’s email read:
For over 52 years the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment has worked tirelessly to provide everyone in Larimer County the opportunity for a healthy life. [We are] a local public agency that has responded to the needs of the community during and after catastrophic floods and fire, West Nile Virus outbreaks, meningococcal outbreak, TB, waterborne outbreaks, polio, salmonella and many other public health emergencies.
But there is a group of people (small, yet vocal) intimidating our caring public health staff for our difficult work with suppressing COVID-19. This trailer and the horrible message is sitting next to your public health department in Fort Collins.
I am asking for your help to get this removed and out of our compassionate County. All we are trying to do is reduce COVID-19 hospitalizations on our all-ready [sic] overwhelmed hospitals. Thus, freeing up beds for all urgent medical emergencies.
Gonzalez’s email came after a proposed Verified Vaccine Facility Program was paused on Oct. 21, following vigorous public debate and substantial opposition, in order to allow more input from the community. The program would have complemented a previous mask mandate ordered by the Larimer County Public Health department on Oct. 15, and would have allowed businesses that require vaccinations for staff and patrons to forego the mask mandate.
Subsequent to Gonzalez’s email, as first reported by Brandon Wark in FreeStateColorado.com, recipients corresponded to determine to whom the property belongs, and to discuss a possibility that the sign could violate code ordinances. Kefalas contacted the North Fort Collins Business Association (NFCBA) requesting ideas and assistance on getting the sign removed. Shadduck-McNally encouraged sympathetic constituents to file complaints of code violation and hoped that pressure from NFCBA members and colleagues of the sign supporters might de-escalate the conflict.
An attempt to contact the owner of the property with the sign was made by County Manager Linda Hoffman, but she was unsuccessful.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith replied directly to Gonzalez and the commissioners in separate emails. In both, he cautioned against any action that might curtail free speech protections for any citizen. He also raised concern about adhering to public meeting laws in his email to commissioners.
A protest with approximately 500 attendees was held Monday at the site of the sign to protest Larimer’s mask mandate and the prospect of vaccine passports, featuring speeches by state lawmakers (including Lynch), and national conservative commentator Michelle Malkin and Del Bigtree, CEO of a national anti-vaccination group. Protestors’ signs included messages critical of Dr. Anthony Fauci, and demanding that Gonzalez be fired.
Reached for comment, McKean now says that he signed the letter not necessarily to urge Gonzalez’s firing (as it states), but instead to encourage the commissioners to respect the decision of the board of health in that regard. The members of the board of public health are appointed by the county commissioners, and they have the sole authority to hire and fire the director.
“My concern is always that we don’t trample on anyone’s constitutional rights, and this is certainly a subject of freedom of speech,” McKean said. “And that was my biggest concern with Mr. Gonzalez, that he went out of his way to contact the county commissioners who have responded to us in a letter that they are not Mr. Gonzalez’s boss, that that is the board of health. And so he went out of the chain of supervision to ask the county commissioners to do something about a sign that he deemed inappropriate. When you are in the public eye, there are very frequently things that you deem unsavory to yourself, but the fact is that it is someone’s First Amendment right to say what they want to say. And not only that, but it is a Fort Collins issue, not a county issue. And so, I signed the letter because I thought it was important to tell our county commissioners that knowing the chain of supervision under which Mr. Gonzalez works, that we would encourage them to support the decision of the board of health, whose purview it really is.”
McKean also clarified that the question of the sign’s compliance with ordinances would fall under the jurisdiction of the town of Fort Collins, and not that of Larimer County. McKean maintains that he does not know who put the sign up, nor toward whom the message was intended.
A request to the Assistant Larimer County Attorney Frank Haug for comment on this story was not immediately returned. This article will be updated with any response provided.