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No small-town harmony for Silverton

Bar comments escalate to bitter recall fight
A sign tapped to the front door of the Silverton Town Hall states it all: A political rift in this small mountain hamlet north of Durango has brought local governance to a standstill.

Today, Silverton residents go to the polls, where they’ll vote either to recall Trustee Karla Safranski and install Patty Dailey as the new member of their embattled Town Board – or decide to keep Safranski after all.

Many Silvertonians hope the election will bring some measure of closure to a months-long political saga that has convulsed the tiny mountain hamlet and deadlocked government.

It all began in August, when one city employee was accused of violating a “niceness contract” by making intemperate comments about his boss in the wee hours of the morning at one of Silverton’s bars.

Yet the effects on the town of that tirade seem to prove that chaos theory – whereby a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas – holds true in small-town politics, too. In the months since, the dispute over what to do about the squabbling city employees has divided Silverton, split the Town Board, shut down Town Hall, paralyzed town government and ended several careers. By January, it had gotten so heated that residents’ political disagreements required police intervention.

American democracy is no stranger to crisis. But while gridlock in Congress often boils down to fundamental policy disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on any number of issues, the political fault line that’s dividing Silverton seems more difficult to identify.

“It’s been very, very tense,” said Mark Garcia, interim town director.

Garcia said he looked forward to the government resuming basic functions, like the board reaching conclusions upon voting.

But the impasse has taken its toll in other ways. In a town with just 625 year-round residents, locals have been living and breathing the escalating imbroglio day-in day-out, meaning interactions with neighbors sometimes become awkward. Routine trips to the grocery store risk ending in confrontation with other shoppers.

“In bigger cities, politics can be intense, but it doesn’t have that kind of personal edge. In small towns, politics can be very bitter,” said Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch.

Many Silverton residents – who requested not to be named for fear of inciting their political enemies’ rage – said, psychologically, the brawling has taken a toll on everyone.

“It’s never been this bad,” said Mark Esper, editor of the Silverton Standard & the Miner, who said the entire ordeal had become embarrassing.

But many people who watch Colorado politics closely said Silverton had nothing to be embarrassed about.

After all, bickering has a long, if tragic, tradition in American politics. In 1804, sitting Vice President Aaron Burr shot his New York political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel; Hamilton died the next day.

Even by today’s standards, Silverton’s tumult is merely on par with other Colorado towns’ pandemonium.

“Political fights can definitely be very nasty, and very personal, in small towns,” Toro said.

“In Colorado, there are several small towns that have had completely dysfunctional governments,” said Toro, citing Nunn in Weld County as one example.

The internecine resentments bedevilling Nunn cannot hold a candle to what befell the town of Granby. In 2004, resident Marvin John Heemeyer, dismayed by the upholding of infelicitous zoning regulations, commandeered a Komatsu D355A bulldozer and demolished Granby’s Town Hall and the former mayor’s house – only to kill himself when his specially outfitted protest-bulldozer became entangled within the innards of the basement of a Gambles store that Heemayer had demolished at an earlier point in his rampage.

Less violent examples of small-town strife may also prove heartening.

Rich Coolidge, spokesman for the Colorado secretary of state, said in terms of municipal furor – as measured in recall elections – Center, in Sauguache County, had perennially outperformed other small towns across the state.

Since 2012, residents of Center have mounted four attempts to recall school board members – with some of the recall elections going to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Already, some Silverton residents are deriving comfort from Center’s track record of discord and dysfunction.

“I was interim town administrator there for 18 months,” said Garcia, Silverton’s interim town manager. “So I have a lot of experience with the type of tension that is going on in Silverton.”


An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name of Silverton Trustee Karla Safranski.

Silverton timeline

July: After months of rancor and feuding, Town Administrator Brian Carlson and Public Works Director Gilbert Archuleta sign a “niceness contract” forbidding the men from trash-talking at behest of Silverton Town Board.

Aug. 16-17: While socializing at a local watering hole in the early-morning hours, Archuleta allegedly disparages Carlson, breaking the niceness contract.

Aug. 18: The Silverton Town Board instructs the town’s attorney to conduct an investigation into whether Archuleta in fact violated the niceness contract while patronizing Montanya, a downtown distillery.

Sept. 17: Town Board votes to fire both Archuleta and Carlson in two 4-3 votes.

November: Discontent with Silverton’s Town Board intensifies following the ousting of Archuleta and Carlson. Petitioners submit more than 170 signatures seeking the recall of Trustee Karla Safranski. A recall election is scheduled for Feb. 10. Silverton resident Patty Dailey announces she’ll run against Safranski in that election. Town Clerk Chelsea Stromberg quits.

Late November: In the midst of increasing municipal dysfunction, Silverton Town Board Trustee Tracy Boeyink resigns for personal reasons, leaving the board evenly split between warring factions.

December: Silverton Town Board accomplishes little, as votes on even basic aspects of town business keep splitting 3-3.

Jan. 12: Town Board rejects each of the six people who apply to fill Boeyink’s former seat in a series of 3-3 votes, all but guaranteeing another special election to take place in April or late May.

Jan. 13: Dailey and her husband, Fred Fasching, arrive at Town Hall to berate Mayor Chris Tookey. Interim Town Manager Mark Garcia calls sheriff to scene, then shuts down Town Hall for the week in order to “get some work done.” Fasching denies any wrongdoing, telling Sheriff Bruce Conrad that he and others merely wanted to “inform Mayor Tookey they felt she was despicable in the role of mayor and should resign her position.”

Jan. 26: As February’s recall election approaches, dark gossip foments, forcing Trustee David Zanoni to publicly refute rumors that the San Juan Fire Department, where Archuleta is fire chief, would show favoritism while performing its fire-fighting duties.

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