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Election snafu, mayoral fireworks highlight special meeting

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 8/29/18

TOWER—A normally routine special city council meeting this past Thursday, to certify primary election results here, offered some apologies and subsequent fireworks as the city grappled with the …

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Election snafu, mayoral fireworks highlight special meeting

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TOWER—A normally routine special city council meeting this past Thursday, to certify primary election results here, offered some apologies and subsequent fireworks as the city grappled with the fallout from the Aug. 14 election snafu.

Mayor Josh Carlson acknowledged that 25 voters in the city received the wrong ballots, potentially disenfranchising those voters, depending on a final decision by St. Louis County election officials. Indeed, the election results certified by the council did not appear to include the results from voters who were mistakenly provided ballots from the city’s uninhabited Precinct Two even though they reside in Precinct One. The city’s two precincts lie within two distinct legislative districts, which have slightly different ballots during some elections, including this year’s primary.

Carlson said City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith, who oversees the city’s elections, had developed some steps that she believes will help ensure that a similar error won’t occur again.

Keith suggested again that the county’s process played a role in the incident. “One of the things that we find just completely astonishing is that there is no packing slip that comes with the boxes,” she said, referring to the box of election materials that the county delivers just ahead of the election. “We are going to generate a packing slip so we know what we’ve got,” she added. She said in the future, the ballots will be pulled out and separated and will be triple-checked by her, the deputy clerk, and the election judges to be sure that the ballots for the city’s two precincts are not interspersed.

Resident Steve Wilson, who was the voter who first recognized that the election officials were providing the wrong ballots to voters, was present at the meeting and said he was pleased that the city was taking the matter seriously. Wilson said he was really disappointed to learn that he has potentially lost his vote. “I take voting so seriously and I never ever want to experience this again,” he said. Again, I’m glad you’re taking steps to address it and I hope you’ll continue to monitor the situation for any sign of something going wrong in the future.”

“We hear you,” said council member Brooke Anderson, who apologized for the incident.

“I appreciate that, Brooke,” Wilson responded.

Carlson said he believed that the incident was an honest mistake that involved no ill will on the part of city election officials and he said he didn’t believe any punishment or other type of accountability was warranted.

Wilson suggested training was a key to preventing it in the future. “One thing that was striking when I brought it to the attention of all the election judges that I had a 6B ballot, none of them were aware, apparently, that there were two different ballots to begin with.”

With the council’s approval of the vote tally, the meeting’s only agenda item was complete. But a visibly angry Carlson used the next 20 minutes to lambaste Timberjay Publisher Marshall Helmberger for an editorial in last week’s newspaper that criticized the city council for what the newspaper described as its “lackadaisical oversight role” of city operations. “Make no mistake about it,” said Carlson, referring to the editorial. “I’m pissed.”

Carlson said he took “particular exception” to the suggestion in the editorial that the city’s decision-making was lacking in transparency, since the council routinely makes decisions, even on major items, without any questions or discussion at council meetings.

“The fact that we do not sit here and squabble or ask stupid questions that should have already been researched before the meeting and make quick, concise decisions up here does not show a lack of effort. Quite often, it’s quite the opposite. I’m not exactly sure Mr. Helmberger what more you want from your city council.”

“I don’t know if you want me to respond,” said Helmberger.

“Oh, by all means,” said Carlson. “Usually it’s not a two-way so I just have to listen to all the garbage you print.”

Helmberger continued: “There have been so many issues over the past two years where I have frankly been mystified as to how decisions were arrived at given that the discussion that takes place at council is so limited,” said Helmberger. “You’re right that in the past, sometimes meetings used to take two hours. That was a fairly standard council meeting, because the discussion that you say you’re having before the meetings or outside the meetings, those normally take place in a public meeting so the public is aware of the discussion and the argument and the reasons behind the decisions you make. Otherwise, all we know is that we get to a council meeting and things that we have very little information about are just being approved without questions.”

Helmberger noted that he had raised similar concerns with Carlson in the past, which had prompted similar attacks, and apparent retaliation, from Carlson. After the Timberjay made an issue of frequent Open Meeting Law violations by the city late last year, Carlson motioned at the next reorganization meeting to discontinue use of the Timberjay as its official newspaper and he removed Helmberger from the Tower Economic Development Authority. Carlson had also previously attacked Helmberger at a council meeting over an editorial he viewed as unsatisfactory.

Brooke Anderson spoke up and said she doesn’t talk to other members of the council outside of public meetings. Carlson acknowledged that he and two other council members are friends and sometimes get together. “But the last thing that we are going to do is sit down at D’Ericks and have a beer and talk about what we’re going to vote on Monday morning. It couldn’t be further from our minds.”

Carlson also took issue with the suggestion in the editorial that some council members were eager to be off the council and had partially “checked out” from their jobs.

Carlson insisted that the council is “doing our due diligence.”

“That’s your opinion, I understand,” responded Helmberger.

“Whether you agree with the decisions or not, that’s on you,” said Carlson.

Carlson then offered an extended defense of his tenure on the council and his efforts to fix what he saw as shortcomings of previous councils. He said he first ran to restore a contract with the Breitung Police Department, calling the city’s previous decision to discontinue the contract “an absolute farce.”

He said Hoodoo Point Campground had been left in a “hot mess.”

“Not a nickel had been put into that place. It realized $27,000 in revenue that they could use to keep the levy down with. In the past budget, we budgeted $60,000. That’s helped with city bills.”

Carlson cited road projects, such as North Second, Main Street, and the Pine St. bridge, all of which involved county or state funding.

Councilor Lance Dougherty noted that the city had gone through a complete staff turnover.

“Twice,” added Carlson.

Carlson said he would look back at the end of his term “and feel pretty darn good about what we’ve accomplished.”

Steve Altenburg said the council has also paid down a considerable amount of unfunded city debt, which Keith said totaled nearly half a million dollars. Dougherty said the council had also begun setting aside funds for future replacement of city vehicles, something he said had not taken place before.

Carlson also chastised Helmberger for attempting to influence city decisions. “I said from day one when I was elected mayor that I’m going to run this council and run these meetings. That will hold true for the last four months of this term. I’ve always said there’s no way in hell that I will let you run this city from behind that desk at the Timberjay. You want that opportunity, you’ve got until October 5th to take up residence in this town and you can run a write-in campaign.”

“That’s not my purpose,” responded Helmberger, who Carlson quickly cut off by adjourning the meeting.

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