Final Hahnewald barn numbers shocking to some, not surprising to others
AVON — Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes was right when she predicted the decision to move the Hahnewald barn would be defeated if put to a public vote.
Just how unpopular the idea was, however, may be coming as a surprise to many involved.
Michael Cacioppo, who has been watching elections in Eagle County for 44 years, said he was not sure if the public was going to vote against the barn as the survey was wrapping up on Tuesday.
“Tamra got a lot of votes in the November election,” he pointed out, in reference to Council Member Tamra Underwood’s strong support of the barn idea during her successful campaign for election in 2018.
As Tuesday’s survey numbers were being revealed, Cacioppo was shocked, saying he had never seen an election so one sided. The final tally came in late on Tuesday — 891 against, 104 in favor of relocating the 110-year-old structure to the site where the former town hall now sits vacant.
Considering the town council voted 4-to-3 in favor of the very same decision on Feb. 12, the numbers may be surprising, but not to those three council members who voted against it.
Council Member Scott Prince, who was elected to another four-year-term on council in 2018, said he heard loud opposition to the barn while campaigning for re-election, a process which put him in front of more Avon voters than he had ever talked to before.
Council Member Jake Wolf, who also voted against it, said Tuesday’s results reinforce a belief he’s held for a while — that a majority of the council is out of touch with the community.
Chico Thuon, who also sits on the council, said he’s a bit embarrassed by how close the barn idea came to becoming a reality.
“It was vividly clear that people were not in support of this,” Thuon said. “Yet we had to waste town money and staff time holding this election to appease the quartet who voted in favor of it.”
Another overturned decision
Whether or not an election should be held on the barn move was an issue in itself during the 2018 election.
Thuon made it clear while campaigning that he was in support of a special election if necessary to convince a council majority that the public was against the idea.
In her first meeting as a new council member, Underwood said she was not in support of a special election, referencing a memo from town attorney Eric Heil which warned council of political implications the special election could have.
“Referring the matter to a special election may also create a political precedence that projects of similar scope, size and/or cost should be referred to the electorate, even if not legally required,” Heil wrote.
While warning sitting council members of the political consequences of their decisions may seem a bit out of the scope of a town attorney, it should be noted Heil is also applying to be Avon’s new town manager, a position that has been open since June.
Heil was also town attorney the last time Avon voters overturned a council action – in early 2015 voters reversed a 2014 decision to seek $3.2 million in bonds for the purchase of a new town hall building.
The town ended up purchasing the building for less than half the original price.
The assumption by the general public “that council would honor the outcome of an election can become complicated and contentious if circumstances change after an election,” Heil wrote, “such as a change in project cost or project details, and then council proceeds with a project that the public perceives does not accurately reflect the details in the ballot question or if council proceeds with a project after the voters have rejected the ballot measure.”
Nevertheless, the new town hall was bought for $1.5 million and served as the very building where the barn ballots were counted on Tuesday.
When the decision to buy the building for $3.2 million was on the ballot in 2015, it received more than twice the votes the barn received on Tuesday, despite being defeated by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio and seeing 30 percent less turnout.
Power of persuasion
Unlike the decision to purchase a new town hall in 2014, the Feb. 12 barn decision was not subject to referendum, as it dealt with re-allocating funds already budgeted, as opposed to bonding for new monies.
That meant persuading the council to agree to an election on the issue took exactly that — persuasion — from the community.
Leading up to the Feb. 12 decision, council members had been vocal in their non support of an election. Mayor Smith Hymes even said sending the issue to the ballot would be a waste of staff time and money, “because it won’t pass.”
Wildridge resident Peter Warren, one of the leaders of the effort to put the barn issue to a vote, said the mayor and others on council who had voted in favor of the barn idea started to become agreeable to the election suggestion after “a lot of dialogue” following the Feb. 12 decision.
In seeing the final numbers show little support for the council’s decision, coupled with a relatively large turnout (the 2015 town hall decision tallied 647 ballots in total, compared to 995 ballots for the barn decision), Warren said Tuesday’s results send several important messages to the town council.
“Residents are engaged in what their political officials are contemplating,” Warren said on Wednesday. “And there’s a degree of vociferousness on the part of those engaged people in wanting to communicate and have those officials understand and comprehend their position.”
Thuon said he fears residents will be ready for recall if any more town money is spent on the barn.
“We spent $120,000 studying it and another $10,000 on this election, people get mad when they think about what else that money could be used for,” Thuon said.
The council is expected to discuss the survey and take action at their regular meeting on Tuesday, April 9.
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