Election Chief Resigns After Budget Whacked

The official in charge of coordinating the 2008 election in Colorado’s most populous county has resigned, citing, among other frustrations, the slashing of next year’s election budget by nearly a third. 

John Bass, a Republican who previously served as the elected El Paso County assessor, was appointed to oversee elections there just six months ago. He announced his retirement this month after 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 criticized an unhealthy environment within the county government. El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs, has a population of nearly 600,000.

“I’ve never been around such a corrupted operation – corrupted, if not within a legal context, then within an ethical context,” Bass said.

Keep reading for the full interview, which appears in this week’s Colorado Springs Independent.

Bass resigns; election calamity next?

After 21 years – many of the recent ones spent banging his head against a wall – John Bass has given up county government. As of June 30, the man who started as a real estate technician, twice was elected assessor, and most recently headed up the county’s election department will retire.

And in ever-calm, respectful tones, Bass, 51, explains why.

“I had reached the point where being around the board of county commissioners and their so-called administrators was not a healthy environment for me anymore,” he says. “There’s no hard feeling, other than I’ve never been around such a corrupted operation – corrupted, if not within a legal context, then within an ethical context.

“This county is better, and its people should demand [better].”

Bass, a Republican and lifelong Colorado Springs resident, essentially says that when you conclude it’s time to end your career, you get off the stage. Life in county government, he adds, isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Between 1998 and last year, as assessor, Bass reduced his department staff by 20 percent while exponentially increasing services. “It can be done,” he says, of making government more efficient when you spend tax dollars in the right ways.

He championed rank-and-file county employees, and complained when they didn’t get the raises they deserved in working conditions where morale was (and is) often below rock-bottom. He spoke out when one of his employees complained of being the target of sexual harassment by a county commissioner, and when the board was considering a gun-friendly work environment.

“I have not been one to shy away from controversy in the county,” Bass says.

When Bass was term-limited after eight years as assessor, Clerk & Recorder Bob Balink hired him to head the elections department. Bass says he has a deep respect for Balink, and, in fairness, concedes he didn’t find the job there particularly rewarding. However, what he says next is cause for everyone in El Paso County to jump to attention: Commissioners have slashed by one-third the amount the election department asked for to pull off the 2008 elections.

Did we mention that next year is a pivotal presidential election year, and Colorado likely will be a hotly contested, battleground state?

Bass is calm as he describes the process by which he figured out how much to request. Exceedingly calm, given the catastrophe that could occur.

Using the historical baselines of the 2004 and 2006 presidential and general elections, the office determined it would need an estimated $1.8 million to successfully pull off the election, Bass says.

Keep in mind that El Paso County is now the most populous county in the state. That translates to 370 precincts and 190 polling places. Nearly 2,000 judges must be hired and trained to help conduct the election. Temporary workers must be found.

In addition, a 2002 federal law requires the state to have a centralized system in place. Colorado is under sanction by the Department of Justice for not already having that. In fact, it’s still in the developmental design stage.

The 2008 presidential election is not exactly the best time to be rolling out a new system. But hey, that’s tough. And the costs for any kinks at the local level will be eaten locally.

Finally, another federal law requires all jurisdictions provide paper ballots to any and all registered voters. Now, this is really simple math: Say there are 60,000 ballots needed for the primary, and another 300,000 for the general election. The ballots, Bass says, cost 80 cents each. That comes to $288,000 alone.

Yet the perpetually cash-strapped commissioners slashed the $1.8 million request almost by one-third, to around $1.2 million. Bass calls this the “height of irresponsibility.”

“Their ignorance is exceeded only by their arrogance,” he says of the commissioners, who approve the clerk & recorder’s budget.

Does this spell disaster for next year’s election?

“I hope it’s not,” Bass says, “for Mr. Balink and the people of El Paso County.”

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