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13 Investigates: Vilas upcoming election called into question after state law violations

VILAS, Colo. (KRDO) -- 13 Investigates has uncovered missed election deadlines just days before a special district election in the small southeastern Colorado town of Vilas. The Colorado Secretary of State's Office is currently looking into potential violations of Colorado campaign finance laws in the same town.

The City of Vilas has a population of fewer than 100 people according to the 2019 census, and is a four hour drive from the Colorado Springs area.

Vilas Metropolitan Recreation District signs the checks for the area's recreational services and is responsible for a budget of a little more than $20,000. Eight candidates are running for four special district seats in their upcoming May 3 election.

Lisa Byrne, Vilas Metropolitan Recreation District

However, one director on the special district's board tells 13 Investigates the district has missed several deadlines for the upcoming election required by state statute. Vilas Mayor and Special District Director Lisa Byrne says she had no idea if they were having a polling or mail-in ballot election until earlier this month.

"Everyone has a right to have a fair election," Byrne told 13 Investigates. “What I’m finding here is that this election is being run with no protocol whatsoever. That follows any statute at all.”

According the state law, special districts, like the Vilas Metropolitan Special District, are meant to adopt an election resolution at some point from November through January. According to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), the special board or district is required to formally adopt an election resolution appointing a Designated Election Official (DEO). The resolution also includes what type of election the district will have - mail in ballot or polling.

However, the Vilas Metropolitan Recreation District approved a resolution during a special meeting on March 22, declaring they would have a mail-in ballot election according to the resolution obtained by 13 Investigates through a public records request. Then the district changed course on April 11, approving a new resolution for a polling place election and well past the required deadline according to state statute.

The Vilas Mayor is calling for the state to step in and halt the the special district's May 3 election.

“In the meetings that we’ve had since January 19th we’ve had five different election resolutions," Byrne said.

13 Investigates spoke with the Vilas Metropolitan Recreation District's Secretary Treasurer Rebecca Schroder and President Michael Brooks at district meeting on April 11 when members voted to approve the new resolution.

Neither agreed to speak with 13 Investigates on camera. However, they say their election process is legal.

"I've talked to a special district consultant, and it sounds like that happens all the time," Schroder said about the flip flopping from the mail-in ballot to polling elections since January.

The missed deadlines don't end there.

60 days before the May 3 election, the DEO is required to certify the ballot and the ballot content. On March 24, through his wife’s email address, the Vilas Metropolitan Recreation District's DEO, Phillip Norton, told Director Byrne he would not certify the ballot.  

“Not sure what documents you are wanting. I will not re-certify the ballot until I hear back the decision of your complaint to the SOS (Colorado Secretary of State's Office),” Norton wrote in an email obtained by 13 Investigates.

Byrne filed a complaint through the Colorado Secretary of State's Office on March 9.

The complaint accuses Secretary Treasurer Schroder and President Brooks of making inaccurate or incomplete filings through the Secretary of State's office and altering legal documents related to the election.

The Secretary of State's Office found there may be potential violations of Colorado campaign finance laws after reviewing Byrne's complaint.

According to the Colorado Secretary of States Office, the case is still open. Brooks and Schroder tell 13 Investigates they are cooperating with the state and providing any information they require.

Ultimately, the Secretary of State's office tells 13 Investigates they have no authority over special districts and their elections according to state law.

Neither the Department of Local Governments (DLG) nor the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) oversees Special District elections. DOLA trains special districts on the election rules. However, the state department says they don't enforce them.

There are no remedies prescribed for handling missed deadlines in Colorado local government election code. The only potential remedy is a court challenge following an election. The Vilas Special Election Director tells 13 Investigates she plans to take her fight to court.

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Dan Beedie

Dan is a reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about Dan here.

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