Peevish Attack Underscores Election Woes

The notice, sent out by the El Paso County election office, was downright peevish.

“In a last minute decision the City of Colorado Springs notified [us] that it will not be participating in the November 6, 2007 Coordinated Election,” went the press release, sent earlier this month. “That decision … will cause a significant increase in the cost of the election for the remaining participants…an increase of approximately 52 percent to 66 percent in some cases.”

The City of Colorado Springs is the largest jurisdiction in El Paso County’s – making it the county’s biggest customer. And when she learned of the jab, city Clerk & Recorder Kathryn Young had her own sharp words for the county.

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“They’re upset because they want us to pay for the election,” Young said. “They were trying to put the cost of the election on the back of the city, and it is totally inappropriate and very unfair. An election shouldn’t be based on us.”

The exchange is the latest in an unfolding chronicle involving a cash-strapped election department in the largest county in Colorado. Less than three months ago John Bass, a Republican who previously served as the elected El Paso County assessor, resigned as elections chief after just six months. Among other frustrations, Bass cited the slashing of next year’s election budget by nearly a third.

County commissioners, who approve the funding to conduct elections, whacked the department’s $1.8 million request for the 2008 primary and general election to around $1.2 million. In an interview, Bass let the elected commissioners have it, calling their operation corrupt, “if not within a legal context, then within an ethical context.”

El Paso County Clerk & Recorder Bob Balink, whose office oversees the election department, responded with assurances that the 2008 election will be carried out smoothly, albeit with less money than requested.

Meanwhile, that leaves this year’s election to pay for. By law, Balink’s office has to conduct the coordinated election for all 24 jurisdictions that will be participating – many of which will hold school board and town council elections. The city of Colorado Springs initially had planned to ask voters to weigh in on a Qwest franchise question, but the City Council ultimately opted to wait until the ’08 or ’09 ballot, Young said.

When she learned of the decision to wait, she said she notified the county election department. Shortly after that, the county issued its critical press release claiming that as a result of the city’s non-participation, “the remaining entities will have to pick up the estimated cost that the City was to have paid … approximately $228,000.”

That cost, said assistant elections manager Keri Ashley, will be reapportioned among the other jurisdictions that are participating in the election. The county will not be forced to pay any unanticipated fees.

“This may have a significant impact on the other jurisdictions and that is very disappointing news,” said Liz Olson, Bass’s replacement as the county’s new election chief, in her criticism of the city. “We hope this does not create an undue burden for any of them.”

To which Young again called foul. The county, she noted again, has a legal obligation to carry out the election, and the city should not be responsible for paying for it.

“They have their own equipment; they have own counting equipment – all they would have to do is hire a certain number of judges,” Young said. “What in the world would they need $228,000 from us for, anyway?”

Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at cdegette@coloradoconfidential.com

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