Backroom politics – Berthoud trustees possibly violate ethics code
The Surveyor Staff
(Editor’s note: this story has been updated since it was published online Monday, April 2)
Questions are being raised pertaining to potential backroom politics in the town of Berthoud surrounding the appointment of a new town trustee.
During the 2018 municipal election for the Town of Berthoud, which was completed on April 3, Will Karspeck and Jeff Hindman, both current town trustees, ran for mayor. Karspeck won with 69 percent of the votes. Voters also came out in support of Pete Tomassi, Maureen Dower and Tim Hardy for trustees.
When the new board is sworn in on Tuesday, April 17, according to town statute, they will have the option of appointing a trustee or calling for an election to fill the seat vacated by Karspeck. The board has 60 days to make an appointment. In the past the trustees have selected the individual with the next highest number of votes, respecting the election process and, in this case, the position would go to Kevin Pischke, who came in 115 votes behind Tim Hardy. The other precedent would be to take applications to decide, as a board, who should fill the seat.
In a recent phone interview, trustee elect Pete Tomassi said he was contacted by phone Friday morning, April 6, by current trustee Brian Laak. According to Tomassi, Laak said there had been discussion between himself, Jeff Hindman, Maureen Dower and Tim Hardy, privately, about appointing Paul Alaback, a former town trustee and member of the planning commission, to fill Karspeck’s open trustee seat, as opposed to appointing Pischke.
In 2014, while serving as a trustee himself, Alaback sent a group email to the board of trustees discussing the appointment of Dick Shepard to the planning commission in Berthoud. According to Steven Zansberg, a Denver attorney specializing in Open Meetings Law and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, these email communications violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law; a law which requires local governmental bodies to discuss public business in meetings which are open to the public, and not in private communications. In that email Alaback expressed his disfavor for Shepard and voiced support for the only other candidate at the time, Tim Hardy. Alaback wrote letters to the editor in the Reporter Herald newspaper supporting Hindman for mayor in 2016 and again in 2018 and also supported Laak when he ran for trustee in 2016.
An email which was sent out to all of the current trustees on March 20, 2018, by Town Clerk Christian Samora directly spoke to the open seat, “I believe this is an issue that the board will discuss after the election, since there is not technically a vacancy until after the new officials are sworn in. We should refrain from discussing this as a group by email outside of an open meeting.”
In an email Tomassi sent to Karspeck, Dower, Hardy, Hindman and Laak, on Friday, April 6, and received by the Surveyor from Tomassi later that day, he stated, “I am opposed to the idea of appointing Paul Alaback as the trustee to complete the remaining two years on Will’s term for the simple reason that the next highest vote count among the candidates seeking the office was received by Kevin Pischke. I intend to honor the voters’ decision and nominate Kevin.”
Hindman responded to Tomassi’s email that same day by replying that it wasn’t appropriate for him to, “discuss decisions to be considered by the board in group emails,” also mentioning the open meeting act. Tomassi replied to Hindman’s email by saying, “Brian called me this morning regarding the appointment of a successor trustee and it was clear from the conversation that he had already spoken with Maureen, Tim and you about nominating Paul.”
During a phone interview with mayor elect Karspeck on Friday, April 6, when asked if he had also been approached by Laak about who would replace him as a trustee Karspek said, “Brian said he didn’t want to appoint the next vote getter, Kevin Pischke.” According to Karspeck, the conversation with Laak did not include discussion about Alaback. Karspeck, but did however say about the new appointment, “I want to do it in the public; there is a precedent with the next vote getter.” He continued by saying, “This is really unfortunate. I will reach out to Maureen and Tim; there should be zero lobbying and campaigning going on right now.”
Tomassi and the other trustee elects would not be under the Open Meetings Law at this point, as they have not been sworn in. Laak and Hindman could potentially have stepped over their bounds by discussing the appointment of Alaback outside of a public forum. The actions would however be in violation of the code of ethics the current board, which include Hindman and Laak, put in place early on in their terms.
On Tuesday, April 10, Tomassi received an email from Laak, which he submitted to the Surveyor. In a portion of the email Laak stated, “When I called you the other day my primary goal was to inform you that appointing or finding our next trustee is not necessarily as simple as “the next highest voter getter,” and that, “I stand by my statement that a unanimous vote for our next trustee is a worthy goal and it would be great to achieve for the town and our board. This does not always happen, but it is neat when it does.” Tomassi responded in part by saying, “You made no mention of discussing other potential successors or other options available to us as Board members. You made it a point of telling me that with Maureen’s vote, Tim’s vote, and your vote, you already had three votes. When I asked you about Jeff, you said that he also was in favor of nominating Paul (Alaback),” and that, “With four votes secured prior to any public meeting, you already had your pick. That is not collaboration, it is not a deliberation, it is not discussion, it is borderline coercion.”
Weighing in on the circumstances, current Mayor Pro Tem Chris Buckridge said in a phone interview, “This should be a totally public process. Behind the scenes deals without any input from the citizens, staff or attorney, that is the definition of corruption. It is 100 percent wrong. If by the technical reading of the law it is not a direct violation of the law, every citizen of Berthoud should consider it a violation of ethics.”
Current Mayor Steve Mulvihill, when asked about the situation said, “This is a direct affront to Will’s (Karspeck) election and a direct affront to the voters.” Mulvihill also expressed his disappointment that newly-elected trustees Hardy and Dower had been dragged “into the swamp” through the exchange. Mulvihill also expressed he felt it was, “unethical to put together a coalition like this.”
When contacted by phone and asked if he had been approached regarding appointing Alaback to the open trustee position on Friday April 6, Hardy responded by saying, “no comment.” Phone calls to Hindman, Dower and Laak were not returned at the time of this story’s publication.
Alaback responded to a non-specific request for him to return a call with an email that stated, “Obviously filling the vacated seat is a matter for the board to resolve within the applicable laws and policies of the Town of Berthoud. If I am nominated and then appointed by the new board, I am willing to serve in this short two year term.”
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