by Rick Langenberg
Let the Green Mountain Falls recall campaign begin.
That’s the word of GMF elections officials, as the committee organizing the unprecedented movement kicked off their petition signing effort at the local post office last weekend.
After several weeks of encountering technical delays, the Concerns Citizens Group of Green Mountain Falls won a preliminary victory late last week, as election officials gave the thumb-up for their petitions aimed at removing five elected leaders from office. This marks the first large-scale recall ever mounted in the history of GMF.
According to City Clerk Chris Frandina, the group’s petition has been approved for format and they have until Nov. 4 to collect 45 autographs from registered GMF voters on each petition. The group wants to recall council members Mac Pitrone, Ralph LoCascio, Howard Price, Margaret Peterson and Jane Newberry.
Recall group leaders, led by Judy Wiedner and Dick Lackmond, are ecstatic about the decision and say they are optimistic about their chances of forcing a vote. “They (city officials) have been nitpicking this thing to death, said Lackmond, who stated that the group submitted its petition format to city hall several times “We are finally ready to start collecting signatures.”
However, the recall campaign is stirring mixed sentiments in the community, a fact that was publicly evident at last week’s regular trustees meeting. Another round of emotional comments surfaced, along with an unusual bout of allegations regarding voter fraud and city harassment.
Clerk responds to criticism
In a rare public statement, Frandina, who has been criticized by the recall group for having way too much authority in managing the town, took issue with recent correspondence that questioned her track record in running elections. “I have no problem with my work ethic and character,” said Frandina, at the close of last week’s meeting. “You cannot make an error in an election. That did not happen. An election is extremely important.”
She was referring to a letter the recall group recently sent to Frandina, demanding that she remove herself as the designated election official for the recall situation due to a conflict of interest. “You certified the list of voters (in the last election in 2012) which contained unqualified voters, including one which you attempted to prosecute in a veiled effort to hide your error,” stated the Concerned Citizens group. Frandina publicly blasted the group for this allegation which she referred to as libelous. Moreover, she advised the group to get acquainted with election laws and procedures and the process to be followed when someone casts a vote illegally. At issue was a vote reportedly made by local business owner Ben Stephens, the main operator of The Pantry restaurant since 2001 and a frequent critic of the GMF administration. Although not part of the committee, Stephens supports the recall effort and is a regular fixture at local trustee meetings.
Stephens said he received a mail ballot in the spring of 2012 with his name on it during the town’s most recent election and went ahead and voted, even though he thought he was no longer an eligible elector. Stephens owns property in GMF, but had moved to Chipita Park. “I really figured it would get thrown out and it wouldn’t be that big of a deal,” said Stephens, who referred to the vote as more of a symbolic gesture. Stephens was a staunch opponent of a proposed GMF tax increase, which was approved by the voters in April 2012.
But the city didn’t view it that way and indicated he could be charged criminally for voter fraud, and sent him what he referred to as an alarming letter. Stephens said he eventually talked to District Attorney Day May and apologized for his actions and also spoke with representatives of the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. According to Stephens, no punitive action was taken against him, but he did receive stern warnings.
However, he was stunned by the city’s aggressiveness in pursuing his case. “They tried to set me up,” said Stephens. “Why did I receive a ballot in the first place? This is why we need to make changes at city hall.”
During several of the Concerned Citizens meetings, Frandina has received as much criticism as the targeted council members. However, most trustees heavily support her for the way she handles her job, citing her expertise and experience. Frandina has been the town’s clerk for more than 20 years.
In a follow-up letter to the Citizens group, Frandina says the city has been above-board in how it handles elections and is merely following proper guidelines. As for the recall, the clerk, speaking as a citizen, was critical last week of the group’s campaign. “If they feel this (the recall effort) is for the good of the town, they are wrong,” said Frandina, who cited the challenges the community faces in grappling with the recent flood and other key local issues. She questioned if members of the group really care about the community.
At last week’s meeting, Frandina got some support from former resident and trustee Gail Gerig, who urged the elected leaders to put their personal differences aside and try to work for the common good of the town. Like Frandina, Gerig expressed reservations about the recall. “It just saddens me to see what is going on,” said Gerig. “The town has been through a terrible tragedy. The town doesn’t need another tragedy. It is just heartbreaking. Think about the real purpose (of the board of trustees).”
Gerig also took a shot at certain trustees’ obsession with social media. “We had a board that didn’t have the technology of today. But we communicated effectively as the majority,” explained Gerig, who served as a trustee during the town’s water crisis in the 1980s, when it was trying to negotiate a long-term deal with the city of Colorado Springs. She admits different views abounded at the time, but the board agreed to let the majority opinion rule.
But some city hall critics contend that an important factor contributing to the current recall campaign is that many residents are not getting a voice. Nancy Brittian, who supports the recall, asked why summer residents aren’t being treated as citizens, when they pay an ample share of taxes. “Are we not citizens?” questioned Brittian, who noted that she is only gone for four or five months. “I hope you keep our police,” added the summer resident, in citing one issue that the recall group is pushing.
Agreement reached with El Paso County
Despite the tensions over recall situation, the board of trustees took action that removes Frandina from overseeing the possible vote.
The council unanimously agreed to an intergovernmental agreement that would put a possible election in the laps of El Paso County. The head designated election official would be El Paso County Clerk Wayne Williams, if a vote does occur.
However, GMF would still foot the bill, estimated initially at around $6,000. But in another election twist, Billie Harwood, a member of the Citizens group, handed the city last week a check for $5,000 to pay for most of the costs. “I don’t want to see the town hurt,” said Harwood, who helped organized the group’s initial meetings. Lackmond, however, objected to the town’s pact with El Paso County. Based on bids and information he has obtained, Lackmond stated that the town could pay for its own election at a cost of $200.
But the trustees contended that too many unknown questions exist regarding a recall and they wanted to put election experts in charge. Plus, attorney Lisa Tormoen Hickey advised the council that it would have to hire a special legal counsel if it pursued its own election