Mesa County’s bungled school-board election

Mesa County Valley School District 51 officials have been given an “F” from voters for a bungled and botched school board election.

Because of a series of errors that began early in October, the winning candidate in one district was not really eligible to run  – even though a district official certified his candidacy.  What happens now?  No one can say. This is uncharted territory among election fiascoes.

It all began when Paul Pitton, a popular coach and math teacher in the district, decided to run for a District B seat. He determined which district he lived in by looking at a map on the Mesa County website. His home in the outlying community of Whitewater was shown in District B.

He filled out the paperwork and was certified to run in District B by the school board executive assistant who failed to look at a map before certifying the candidacy.

Yard signs went up. A campaign website went online. Pitton began stumping. On Oct. 13, ballots were mailed to voters with his name as one of three seeking the seat.

Two days later, there was a revelation, with political undertones.

Ann Tisue, the conservative school board member whose seat is up for grabs, notified the district that the progressive and union-backed Pitton didn’t live in District B.

Then the demerit-deserving mess went into orbit. Tisue called a press conference to announce that Pitton was ineligible to run. She announced it because the district administration was in duck-and-cover mode. The district was busy with legal research and trying to figure out the best way to inform voters of the mistake.

It took four days – during a time when voters were already checking their ballots – to decide how to let parents and other voters know an error had put a non-eligible candidate on the ballot.

Emails obtained by The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel showed that during that time, district communications director Dan Dougherty was communicating with Superintendent Steve Schultz about various “thought starters” and “response elements” to counteract the public shellacking that was sure to follow. The expressed hope was that the district could soften the mistake under a blizzard of feel-good stories about other goings on at the district.

Dougherty said the real problem was figuring out what the district could legally say without skewing the election in favor of any one candidate.

“Given the magnitude and complexity of the mistake, district leadership contacted our attorney for advice. The attorney needed time to research the matter, Dougherty said in response to an emailed question. “Timing was a complicating factor – ballots had already been mailed.”

The district finally released a statement owning up to the error, four days after it was discovered, and after the Daily Sentinel started asking questions. It took another four days for the district to send letters to parents explaining the error.

Pitton held steady during that time. He opted not to withdraw from the race. Instead, he promised that he would move from District D to District B if elected. State law is murky on if that is allowed.

So voters were left to cast ballots having no clue if a vote for Pitton was a vote wasted.

Three Mesa County residents, including Tisue’s husband, tried to force the matter to a pre-election resolution by petitioning a judge to declare that Pitton should not be a candidate. In another bit of obfuscation, they refused to say where the funds came from to hire a high-priced attorney from Denver to pursue that.

The judge declined, stating that it is not in the court’s purview to meddle in elections – even hopelessly muddled ones in which 26,000 voters had already cast ballots.

Pitton won handily Tuesday. He said, following the vote tally, that his District D house is already on the market so he can move into district B. It is not clear if that will be enough to satisfy the letter of the law. The board is going to schedule a special meeting this week to try to untangle that – and to deal with challenges that are sure to follow.

The district has added a “District B Update” section to its website. It does not clear up anything with this statement: “Any contest to his (Pitton’s) candidacy will have to be resolved post-election.”


Photo credit: Aaron Fulkerson, Creative Commons, Flickr