By Lynn Burton
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
The Carbondale Fire Board pretty much issued a collective “no comment” to allegations of election mistakes during its monthly meeting on May 14.
The allegations were brought by newly elected board member Carl Smith in what he told the five member board was an “after action review,” which he explained is a process the district itself uses following an incident its staff or volunteers have responded to.
As of May 21, Smith had not been sworn in as a Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District board member. At the May 14 meeting, he said the actions of Designated Election Official Jenny Cutright on election night raised questions in his mind as well as others. “There was a perception from a number of people of ‘what’s going on?’” said Smith.
When contacted by The Sopris Sun for this story on May 21, Fire Chief Ron Leach backed the way that Cutright did her job on election night. “She is an experienced and capable designated election official (DEO),” Leach said. “Her integrity is impeccable. … She did everything appropriately on election night.”
Smith presented what he saw as several mistakes or possible mistakes that occurred during the long election night that did not conclude until Cutright posted the results after midnight on May 14.
Among Smith’s allegations:
• Judges (ballot counters) should have posted the results themselves but instead gave them to Cutright, who later posted them.
• The results should be been posted “immediately” but Cutright did not do so for 20-30 minutes;
• Some staff members learned of the election results before they were posted for all to see;
• Ballots were left unattended for 20-30 minutes after the judges left;
• Cutright, Leach and the district’s attorney, Eric Gross, met behind closed doors in Cutright’s office after the judges brought up the ballots from the basement.
After Smith outlined his concerns, Fire Board Chairman Gene Schilling said “OK,” and asked for comments from the other board members. There were none.
The board briefly discussed two other agenda items and Schilling asked for a motion to adjourn the meeting.
At that point, Gary McElwee, a challenger who placed fifth among the five candidates in the election, spoke up and said it was “interesting” that nobody had a comment on the “unusual circumstances” of the election.
“Nobody has a comment?” he asked the board.
McElwee reiterated that two staffers and the district’s attorney retired to a room for 20 minutes after the judges delivered the votes. “ … (Colorado Revised Statutes) say the votes must be posted immediately,” McElwee said.
Schilling replied, “I have no comment.”
After brief comments from McElwee and board member Lou Eller, Schilling said he’d been through a lot of elections and had “no doubt” the election was done fairly.
“(But) there’s a perception that needs to be brought out in the open,” McElwee replied. “People are wondering … .”
Schilling reiterated that everything was “done correctly.”
Soon after that exchange, Schilling made a motion to adjourn the half-hour meeting, which passed unanimously.
After the meeting, McElwee told The Sun, “If the board truly did hear the general public ‘loud and clear’ and are seeking transparency, then ‘no comment’ only tells me there will not be any change.”
When asked after the meeting about his “no comments,” Schilling told The Sun the fire board will have to look into Smith’s concerns. “I don’t know what went on.” He said the board would have to look at state statutes, so at that point in time (during the meeting) he had no comment.
When asked if he had any questions during the meeting, he said “Nope,” then said the board will have to discuss where to go from here.
This week, Leach defended Cutright on all counts. He said the judges brought the ballots upstairs from the basement after the count in a “banker’s box” and gave them to Cutright, who put them in her office. She later went to the basement and found five “spoiled ballots” in a box.
At one point after receiving the ballots, Cutright’s office was swarmed with staffers, candidates and others, so Leach said he “kicked them out” so that the process would not be disrupted. All that remained in the room behind a closed door were Cutright, Leach and attorney Gross. The three spent time in the office because this is the first election in which the district must operate under the new CRS 14-1164, a 100-page-plus law that governs how special district elections must be conducted.
Leach said the results posted on election night were a copy of the abstract the judges gave to Cutright. “She kept the original.”
Five candidates vied for three seats in the election, including incumbents Schilling and Michael Kennedy. Smith garnered the most votes with 974, followed by Kennedy with 917. Schilling edged sitting board member Mark Chain by five votes (875-870). McElwee chalked up 863 votes.
Leach concluded his remarks to The Sun by thanking Chain for his contributions to the fire board during his nine-year tenure. “He did a great job for his community … .”