District Court Judge J. Steven Patrick denied Town of Lake City’s request for a postponement of next month’s special OHV election following a three-and-a-half-hour hearing on Thursday afternoon, June 13, which was held in Hinsdale County Court.
Town officials based their law suit for a delay in the Tuesday, July 23, special election to Tuesday, November 5, on “unusual circumstances” cited by their attorney, David Masters, resulting from excessive snow and avalanche-borne debris which might compromise the election if a flood event occurs.
Sitting at the Defendants’ table with their attorney, Terry Camp of the Delta, Colorado, legal firm Brown & Camp, were John Coy and Larry Iiams on behalf of Turn Around Lake City. Turn Around Lake City successfully petitioned for the July 23 special election seeking adoption of an ordinance prohibiting OHVs in Lake City.
In his remarks, Terry Camp stated that the town’s law suit seeking election postponement was predicated on “hypotheticals and uncertainties… there is no current flood, disaster or circumstance which precludes the town from conducting an election.”
Judge Patrick was studious in his attention to opening and closing remarks by both Masters for the town and Camp for Coy and Iiams, intently listening and taking occasional notes during approximately an hour of testimony and cross-examination from Hinsdale County Administrator Jami Scroggins, Hinsdale County Sheriff Justin Casey, Town Manager Caroline Mitchell, and Town Clerk Jamie Turrentine, who were called by Masters on behalf of the town as Plaintiffs.
Testifying for approximately an hour and ten minutes for the Defendants were Larry Iiams, John Coy, and Michelle Pierce, with a fourth witness,
Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District Manager Frank Kugel testifying by phone.
Final testimony was heard at 4:35 p.m. Thursday, after which Judge Patrick announced a 10-minute recess before resuming court.
From the hearing’s start at 1 p.m., chairs in the historic courtroom were largely filled, although public attendance gradually diminished as the hearing continued.
Looking out over the audience prior to his pronouncement, Judge Patrick credited both the able counsel for Plaintiffs and Defendants and remarked on the “larger than usual” Hinsdale court attendance, each of whom he invited to enroll for jury duty in unforeseen court events in the future.
In his ruling, Judge Patrick acknowledged Plaintiff’s contention that an emergency exists compounded by the large amount of debris in spring runoff with the potential for flooding. Flooding, he continued, might lead to evacuation, damage to homes and potential consequences to town offices and the Lake City Post Office which could impede an election.
He also referenced Defendant’s argument of the Constitutional right to due process and existing statutory framework for elections not addressing emergencies.
In his conclusion, Judge Patrick stated his concern that a postponement of the special election until November might impact the number of voters and reflected that if there is no flood, there is no reason the election shouldn’t proceed.
He acknowledged that there is the “spector of a crisis” between now and July 23, and, unfortunately, “without a crystal ball I don’t have any projections.”
Patrick stated Town of Lake City is entitled to relief but declined to grant relief at this time. “If there is an event — flooding, dam breakage — the town can file a motion with one business day for response, and I will set a hearing; if something should happen, the town is entitled to relief. If nothing happens, there is no reason not to have an election.”
The day following the hearing, June 14, Judge Patrick formalized his order regarding the Hinsdale County District Court, Town of Lake City, Plaintiffs, vs. Defendants, John Coy et al, as follows:
“This matter came for a hearing on the motion of Plaintiff. Masters appeared with representatives of Plaintiff and Camp appeared on behalf of Defendants, who also appeared.”
“After approximately three hours of evidence and argument, the court ruled from the bench. The Court found that Plaintiff had properly brought the action and was entitled to relief should an ‘event’ occur prior to the July 23 election date. If Plaintiff’s counsel concludes an event has occurred, they may file a motion requesting relief. Defendant may file a response within one business day. A hearing shall be set if either the occurrence of an event is disputed or if the form of the relief requested is disputed. Otherwise, the election shall proceed as contemplated on the schedule testified to in court.”
As a brief restate of last Thursday’s court hearing, Masters for Town of Lake City referenced the Local State of Emergency declarations which were adopted by both Hinsdale County and Town of Lake City in the wake of avalanche-created debris fields complicating the risk of flooding.
Masters told court, “The town still faces uncertain threats” which impairs the municipality’s ability to assure a fair election in which every vote is counted. Masters stated that the postponement date of November 5 was selected as a convenience because Hinsdale County has already scheduled an election on that date.
Camp for Defendants told court “life is full of uncertainties” in questioning the town’s desire to set aside Constitutional rights predicated on “hypotheticals and uncertainties” which may or may not occur.
“The fact is that the town is open for business,” Camp told Judge Patrick, “and it’s open for an election. The level of effort required by the town is not insurmountable.”
Judge Patrick injected questions to both Masters and Camp in their closing statements.
Following Master’s re-statement that the special election should be moved to November 5 as the result of an “emergency situation and the town’s uncertainty of providing an election in which every vote that should be counted will be counted,” Judge Patrick asked for clarification.
“Is the contention that every vote should be counted less true in November than it will be in July?,” Patrick asked. Master responded that voter turnout in his view would be the same whether in July or November.
In his closing, Camp declared that the Town of Lake City had not met the burden of proof in convincing court to postpone the election. “If a flood event did, in fact, occur,” he told Judge Patrick, “then it would be appropriate for the town to go to court and seek an extension of the deadline for ballots to be returned.”
“What doesn’t make sense,” Camp continued, “is to delay an election all the way to November… this is not Denver or a large city, this is a small town with a population who are largely absent in the winter, and delaying this election is a virtual guarantee voter turnout will be suppressed.”
Patrick questioned Camp that if the election proceeds and an event does occur, “How could it be resolved in a timely fashion?”
Camp responded that in his view post-flood, a hearing could be scheduled expeditiously with the ability to “grant relief through extension of a deadline.”