Former Fort Collins council members accuse mayor hopeful Gerry Horak of sexual harassment

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Gerry Horak is seen here during a city council meeting on April 14, 2015 at City Hall.

A group of women including two former City Council members says longtime Fort Collins council member and current mayoral candidate Gerry Horak has a history of making sexually inappropriate remarks to women.

Lisa Poppaw and Kristin Stephens, who served with Horak from 2011 to 2015 and 2015 to 2019, respectively, say he repeatedly made inappropriate and demeaning sexual remarks, typically at community functions when he had been drinking. They called his conduct the “worst-kept secret” in Fort Collins. 

Other witnesses interviewed for this story separately detailed and confirmed the allegations made by named sources. They asked to remain unnamed out of concerns that their comments would bring harm to their careers or personal lives.

Horak denies most of the accusations, several of which involved sexually explicit language and comments about women’s bodies or their appearance.

“I didn’t say those things,” Horak said in an interview with the Coloradoan after reporters detailed specific accounts and invited his response. “I don’t talk that way. I don’t think that way.”

Specific examples of Horak’s alleged harassment shared with the Coloradoan occurred between 2011 and 2018, both while he was on council and while he was a council candidate. City Manager Darin Atteberry said he spoke with Horak two or three times between 2013 and 2019 “about comments he made that concerned or offended women” and provided records of two conversations he had with Horak to the Coloradoan. Atteberry declined to share detailed context of those conversations “out of respect for the individuals involved.”

Mayor Wade Troxell said he never spoke with Horak about his behavior. But he sees the city’s Respectful Workplace Policy, adopted in 2019, as a response to concerns about Horak’s conduct.

Horak told the Coloradoan that he’s complimented women on their appearance occasionally, but he said he compliments men on their appearance, too. He echoed that message in an email to supporters on Thursday.

“I never intended any flattering comment to be taken for more than face value or in a sexual and provocative way,” the email read. “I am deeply troubled that any of these comments hurt others or that any individual felt uncomfortable talking to me.” 

Horak, whose council career stretches back to the 1980s, said in an interview he would be “very careful in what I say in the future.”

‘Unfiltered and unchecked’

Stephens, now a Larimer County commissioner, said Horak first harassed her in 2011 at the Larimer County Democratic Party’s annual dinner at the Fort Collins Marriott. She was running for council’s District 4 seat at the time, sitting at a table with then-District 6 candidate Horak as she prepared to make the first big speech of her political career in front of several hundred people. 

She recalls Horak saying that her outfit, a sleeveless dress, was “turning (him) on” and commenting on her “bare arms.”

“He knew I was about to speak, and I was really flustered,” Stephens recalled. “I was not ready for that. I was barely ready to speak at all. … It was so sexual in nature, what he was saying to me, that it made me really, really uncomfortable.”

A witness confirmed hearing Horak make inappropriate remarks to Stephens.

“My impression from having been there … is that he wasn’t propositioning her,” the witness said. “It was kind of a power play. It was more about making sure she knew he was the powerful guy in the room.”

Stephens remembers bombing the speech after that — and thinking, “now I’ve got to stay away from this person.”

Horak denied making the remarks.

“I want all women to feel safe and valued,” he said in his email statement. “For my entire adult life, I have always intended to make Fort Collins a better place for my wife, daughters, granddaughters and every woman in our community. I have fought for equal pay and rights for women, including making a change to the city policy to ensure equal pay for women.” 

Horak again made inappropriate comments, Stephens said, on Election Day 2011, when she ran into him at City Hall as she was dropping off her ballot. He asked her if she was headed to her watch party, and she said she had to go home first to change into a dress and pantyhose. She recalls Horak responding that he’d like to see that. A corroborating source recalled the remark as well.

Horak also denied making that comment. 

The third incident happened later in 2011, at a dinner at CB & Potts, Stephens said. Attendees couldn’t remember the exact circumstances of the event but said Stephens and Horak were there, along with a Loveland attorney associated with the Larimer County Democratic Party.

She said Horak, who by that point was a sitting council member, made a loud comment about her appearance using crude language, saying she had the “best (breasts) in the Democratic Party.”

He “was totally objectifying me,” Stephens said. “I was there at the table being talked about like I wasn’t even there. This person wasn’t talking about my opinions or my ability to reach people or my service to the Democratic Party. This person was talking about my body, and in front of a group of people. I didn’t know how to react.”

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The attorney angrily called Horak out for the remark, and a verbal altercation ensued, recalled Stephens and another witness. Horak said he didn’t make a comment about Stephens’ body and he didn’t recall attending a dinner at CB & Potts or arguing with an attendee.

Stephens won election to council in 2015. She said Horak didn’t make any inappropriate remarks to her while they served on council together.

Poppaw couldn’t recall exact words Horak used but said his remarks made her feel uncomfortable on numerous occasions, and she had multiple conversations with colleagues about his behavior.

“I was incredulous about the way he interacted with women, the things he would say and his behavior,” she said.

“His behavior has always been fairly unfiltered and unchecked,” she added, saying the remarks started early in her council tenure.

A former city employee, who asked not to be named because of her current position in the community, said she had similar encounters with Horak beginning in 2018 where he made direct comments about her attire during a public event and made comments to other women.

“I think he thought they were flattering remarks, but it was apparent they were embarrassing to me and to those around me,” she said.

During a conversation in the city’s manager’s office, Horak told a pregnant woman “he was glad she was pregnant because pregnant women are the most beautiful,” the former city employee recalled. She said she also witnessed Horak tell a woman at a nonprofit fundraiser that she looked great that night and must be doing “kegel exercises” (which are used to help strengthen pelvic floor muscles). 

The former employee contacted Stephens, who was also at the fundraiser, to file a complaint. “I wanted it to go on the record,” the woman said. 

Stephens said she reported the incident to Atteberry but it didn’t proceed to a formal complaint because the woman involved didn’t want to pursue it.

Horak remembered the fundraiser but said he only complimented the woman on her dress. He didn’t recall the comment to the pregnant woman but said he “think(s) women are pretty when they’re pregnant.” 

The Coloradoan began investigating Horak’s conduct this month after receiving a tip that a group of city staff members was considering coming forward about Horak’s behavior.

Stephens, Poppaw and other sources shared their stories with the Coloradoan after reporters contacted them directly or indirectly. The Coloradoan also interviewed people who witnessed some of the events or who learned about them soon after.

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Mayor, city manager were aware of concerns about conduct

Troxell said he never directly heard Horak make inappropriate sexual comments, but he “heard people talking about what he had said” on at least one occasion.

“For me it was harder because it was second-hand,” he said in response to a question about whether he ever considered doing anything about what he’d heard.

“To me (his behavior) does not represent Fort Collins and who should be leading our community,” said Troxell, who endorsed candidate Molly Skold for mayor earlier this year. “You might say (endorsing Skold) is my response to trying to do the right thing for our community.” 

The Anti-Harassment Ad Hoc Committee that included Troxell, Stephens and then-council member Bob Overbeck drafted much of the policy that set up a process for discrimination, sexual harassment or retaliation complaints against elected or appointed city officials. Horak and the rest of council unanimously approved the policy in February 2019, two months before Horak hit his term limit and ended his council tenure.

No complaints have been filed through the city’s Respectful Workplace Policy since its adoption.

“Our elected officials and those they appoint believe that how they treat others, and how they allow their peers to treat others, is a direct reflection of our collective character,” the policy states. 

Atteberry said in a written response to questions from the Coloradoan that he is “deeply committed to providing a safe and respectful environment for all. This belief is not based on a law or a policy, but what I believe is fundamentally right about how all people should be treated with dignity and respect.”

“While it’s not appropriate for me to respond to specific questions regarding any particular complaint of improper comment or conduct, I can confirm that any concerns brought forward to city management before the Respectful Workplace Policy was adopted were addressed,” he wrote.

In a Colorado public records request to the city for complaints about Horak and harassment, the Coloradoan obtained Atteberry’s handwritten notes from two relevant conversations: a one-on-one with Horak on Dec. 26, 2017, and a meeting with a former police chief on April 24, 2013, about comments Horak had reportedly made to female police employees.

The notes from the 2017 one-on-one meeting referenced a “complaint/concern expressed” about a “comment made two weeks ago to a female coworker.” The notes didn’t state the outcome of the meeting or the content of the complaint, but they indicated that the employee had lodged a complaint with her supervisor that reached Atteberry through the city’s chain of command.

Horak said he recalls the discussion with Atteberry but said Atteberry didn’t specify what the complaint was and he doesn’t know what prompted the meeting.

Atteberry’s notes from the 2013 meeting referenced reported comments from Horak to women in the police department. It includes a list of reported remarks, one of which reads, “people of your kind are only allowed to be dog catchers and meter maids.”

“Nothing sexual” is written at the top of the note. Next to the word “perceptions,” Atteberry wrote, “coming off as demeaning, females in police are in a man’s industry … insulting and derogatory.” The notes indicate that Atteberry brought up the comments with Horak in a one-on-one meeting in June 2013.

Horak said he remembers the encounter that led to the meeting. He recalled seeing two female police officers at a coffee shop and telling them he was pleased to see that women were being added to the police department.

“I noted that in the 1980s, when I was first on council, women were only allowed to work in administration or as animal control officers,” he said in written answers to Coloradoan follow-up questions. “While some at that time felt that law enforcement was not the place for women, I did not and do not agree with that viewpoint. While on council I urged the city manager and police chief to hire more women and minorities.”

He wrote that he “was not clear in my communication in that moment, and that saddens me. The message (the women) received was exactly the opposite of what I intended to convey.”

The records also include an email dated April 10, 2019, from Regional Air Quality Council Executive Director Mark Silverstein to Horak. 

“Certain RAQC staff mentioned that you made references/comparisons to how three of the women were dressed,” the email read. “This caused some discomfort. I am asking that you please refrain from these types of remarks going forward.” 

In a one-sentence response, Horak apologized and said he “also spoke about how men were dressed referring to relaxed dress at the meeting outside the Denver area.” He reiterated that message in a written statement to the Coloradoan and added that he “never intended for my comments to be taken as suggestive or to personally hurt or make any woman uncomfortable.”

Horak was first appointed to the RAQC as a representative from Larimer County in 2013 and served until the end of his term in 2019. 

Why women came forward now

Horak suggested in an interview that Poppaw’s and Stephens’ reasons for coming forward now are politically motivated. 

“Every one of the people you mentioned to me is working for one of the candidates against me,” he said. “I will say that.”

Poppaw and Stephens have both endorsed and donated to mayoral candidate Jeni Arndt but said they aren’t working for her campaign.

“There’s no coincidence that these things come out during campaigns because they’re relevant then,” Stephens said. “These stories relate to character when somebody is running for office. Otherwise, it’s just a story about somebody who’s retired from office.”

Stephens said she hasn’t previously spoken publicly about her experiences because “frankly, nobody had ever asked me.” Her attempt to hold Horak accountable for his fundraiser comments had gone nowhere, and she didn’t see a viable path forward to bring up her own experiences with Horak from years before.

She and Poppaw added that there was no process in place to formally object to Horak’s behavior until two months before his council tenure ended, which they said allowed Horak’s behavior to go largely unchecked. 

Stephens said she broached the topic privately with Horak on a phone call after he sought her support in his mayoral campaign. She recalled him saying he didn’t remember the fundraiser incident and said he cut the conversation short when she brought up her own experiences with him.

Horak told the Coloradoan he recalls the conversation but said Stephens wouldn’t specify her concerns about him and claimed that Stephens warned him that someone could go public with allegations about him if he continued his mayoral campaign.   

Stephens said she was hesitant to come forward until she learned the Coloradoan was investigating the matter and that other women were sharing accounts.

“You have this sort of reckoning within yourself of, ‘Do I come forward?’ knowing that this is a bombshell,” Stephens said. “But I also believe in telling the truth. I believe in telling the truth on behalf of other women, and I believe my faith calls me to tell the truth.”

Poppaw said she stayed silent because women in politics — regardless of party — are “excluded from a lot of conversations if they formally address issues like sexually inappropriate comments and behavior.

“I can’t say Gerry’s comments or behavior were unique,” she said. It was unique on City Council but not unusual in other settings that women were expected “to laugh along and go along,” Poppaw said. 

Poppaw said on several occasions she told Horak to “knock it off” and at some point, “he stopped doing it to me and around me.” 

She said she wasn’t convinced she would be taken seriously if she said anything about her concerns. “What’s the point of coming forward if you’re not going to be taken seriously?” she said, describing her thinking at the time.

Poppaw, now 52 and retired from public office, said she’s coming forward because “this sort of behavior is no longer tolerated.” The #MeToo movement has continued to influence the way people think about workplace harassment, and more women are taking leadership roles in government. 

Now, when society shines a light on men’s inappropriate behavior, “we take it seriously,” Poppaw said.

Stephens hopes her choice to share her story publicly will encourage women who’ve experienced harassment to do the same. 

“I don’t think you come to this easily,” she said. “This is not about trying to destroy a person, but again, I didn’t do anything bad. My bad behavior didn’t cause this situation. I want women to know that, if they have a similar situation.”

Pat Ferrier is a senior reporter covering business, health care and growth issues in Northern Colorado. Contact her at patferrier@coloradoan.com

Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Contact her at jmarmaduke@coloradoan.com. Support their work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.