Recall-prone El Paso County fails in effort to oust embattled sheriff

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here was a flash and a bang and then… that was it.

Embattled El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa narrowly dodged a recall effort that might have succeeded if it weren’t for that pesky signature verification process. The group behind the effort to oust the sheriff said it collected more than 48,000 signatures, about 4,000 more than needed to get the recall on the ballot in November. Recall organizer Randy Stagner said he didn’t feel that was a safe enough buffer to justify the county spending $20,000 to verify all the signatures.

“In the beginning we said we wouldn’t submit them without the cushion,” said Stagner, who had wanted 60,000. “But the voters still brought a very strong and loud message that they want [Maketa] out.”

Maketa, who is term-limited, is set to leave office in January at the end of his third term.

This whole saga began in May with accusations that Maketa had affairs with three women in the office whom he then promoted to positions they were unqualified for and used public funds to travel with on vacation. Maketa had dismissed rumors of misconduct in the past, notably when a local weekly published allegations of special treatment in 2010.

In May, Dave Philipps at The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported on Maketa picking himself to win a prestigious sheriff’s office award.

Shortly after that, three of Maketa’s top commanders filed a seven-page complaint to the El Paso Board of County Commissioners, prefaced as an “overview of abuses that potentially place El Paso County at considerable financial risk.” The abuses outlined in the document include sexual impropriety, creating a hostile work environment through intimidation, discrimination and favoritism and effectively dismantling any shred of oversight of the office’s $60 million annual budget.

Shortly thereafter, a slew of steamy text messages and a shirtless selfie were leaked to The Gazette, providing the first glimpse of possible dalliance within the office. With that, Maketa’s story became the Rocky Mountain version of Anthony Weiner’s, but with allegations that go far beyond the merely lurid.

“I come before you embarrassed and humbled of the events of last week,” Maketa said in video sent out to his staff, admitting he “engaged in inappropriate behavior in the past” but reiterating he would not resign from his post. A disgruntled deputy took a cell phone video of the video and leaked it to the Gazette, landing a grainy image of the disgraced sheriff on the front page of the paper.

On May 29, the El Paso County Board of Commissioners gave Maketa a unanimous vote of no confidence, launched an investigation into his alleged wrongdoings and asked him to resign. “We believe that leadership within the sheriff’s office has been compromised along with the functionality within the office,” wrote Amy Lathen in an official statement. Other commissioners were more direct: Peggy Littleton called Maketa’s choice to stay in office during the investigation “a slap in the face”; Sallie Clark described the whole situation as “a public distraction”; Darryl Glenn called the allegations “the worst kept secret in the county.”

Maketa had one defender with star power in the form of former New Life Church pastor Ted Haggard—himself no stranger to scandal—who penned a blog post on the matter, insisting on the suspension of judgement and faith in due process.

In mid-June, duelling rallies for and against the embattled sheriff had a showdown in front of his downtown office, resulting in a comically awkward photo of Maketa’s wife and alleged mistress hugging and smiling together. His wife broke her silence to tell the media their marriage is strong and they’ll be just fine.

A few days later, a recall effort sprang up and a group of volunteers began gathering signatures on a petition to put a recall on the ballot in November. “I had a lot of current and retired deputies ask me to do it,” said Stagner, a retired fire chief.

They would need 44,373 signatures from registered voters—25 percent of voters that elected the sheriff in 2010—to succeed. Stagner amassed more than 60 volunteers to collect signatures and even garnered the support of former employees and longtime friends of Maketa.

Because petition signatures end up on public rolls, those currently working under the sheriff might have been wary of retribution, but, as Stagner noted, “a lot of deputies said, ‘We don’t care. It’s our First Amendment right [to sign] and we will.’”

The collapse of the recall effort comes one year after the gun control recall hoopla that ousted state senators John Morse and Angela Giron.

Last year, recall backers against John Morse started gathering signatures as soon as the 2013 legislative session ended, ultimately collecting more than double the number of signatures they needed — just over 7,000 were required in his senate district — by mid-June. The effort landed the recall on the ballot that September.

Ryan Parsell, spokesman for the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s office, said since 2009, they’ve administered six official recall elections and dealt with 10 other efforts that didn’t quite make it onto the ballot. “Anecdotally, I can say that people marvel at the frequency of recalls in El Paso county. If people want to have an election, we’ll hold it for them,” Parsell said.

Though the Colorado County Clerks Association doesn’t formally keep track of the frequency of recall elections, Sheila Reiner, president of the association and Mesa County Clerk, agreed that there do seem to be more recalls coming out of El Paso county. “I don’t know why, but I do believe that El Paso handles more recalls than other counties,” she said.

“I think you’re gonna see a lot more [recalls] because people are tired of what’s going on,” said Stagner.

In El Paso County, it was another year, another recall.

[Composite by Nat Stein, photo of Sheriff Terry Maketa via The Gazette]

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