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Brunner, Stewart at odds as election nears

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Missives mailed to voters by two political adversaries and Paonia town board candidates have left many voters wondering what information is true and what isn't, and have further divided the two candidates, who have sparred for several months.

It began when trustee candidate Bill Brunner sent a political mailing to registered voters, criticizing the board and town management on five points: the 2014 audit; water projects; converting street lights to LED bulbs; the emergency water ordinance; and the ongoing lawsuit filed against the town and current town manager Jane Berry by former town clerk Barbara Peterson.

Brunner's mailing included a postcard survey, where voters were asked to check boxes next to comments related to each of the points, if they agreed with the comment. At the March 8 board meeting Brunner presented a survey results summary and 230 cards that were mailed back. Brunner said he was ridiculed by some board members and called "Donald Trump" by trustee Eric Goold. He accused the board of refusing to acknowledge citizen comments.

Stewart, who is running unopposed for mayor, said the board did not ignore the postcards or the survey, which were all entered into the public record. Stewart also presented a five-point response, headlined "Facts Matter, Choose Your Town Trustee Wisely," also entered into the record and mailed out to voters. Stewart expressed "serious concerns about his candidacy," and stated his letter was filled with false information. That Brunner used "Paonia Town Council" as a return address for the cards borders on false representation, Stewart told the DCI.

Brunner said Stewart handed out copies of his letter at the meeting, "as mayor pro tem," in essence campaigning during the meeting.

Stewart's stated concern is about the broad repercussions of putting false information out during a time when voters are trying to choose candidates. "What he has done is made misstatements of fact during an election."

Brunner said much of the brouhaha is a matter of differing opinions, but Stewart disagrees. The issues related to his comments are very complex and already difficult for the average citizen to understand unless they follow them closely, said Stewart. "By making false statements he is making it more difficult to understand."

Brunner did concede about his statement that the town budgeted $100,000 to convert street lighting to LED lights. The actual estimated cost is about $26,000. In his opening statement at the March 10 candidate forum, Brunner publicly apologized for the error. He later told the DCI he believes that money allotted for streetlights could better be used for street maintenance, such as filling potholes.

Regarding the 2014 audit, Brunner wrote that "council contracted with the highest bidder, RubinBrown, for last year's audit, at well over $40,000." The audit contract was for $22,250, wrote Stewart. Due to the complexities of the audit, some of which the town needs to address with the IRS, the board publicly approved additional auditing services. The $40,000 represented 506 hours of accounting services, "less than $80/hour. The money was well spent." Brunner's figures for the lowest bid were also inaccurate, said Stewart.

Brunner called the dismissal of Peterson "immoral," and urged the town to settle the lawsuit before the April election, since "... the town's legal insurance caps at $100,000." Peterson "has a pretty good case," and if she wins, "that could leave a debt of nearly $900 per household."

Stewart challenges how Brunner would know anything about the case, since all discussion has been held in executive session. At the March 22 board meeting, Paul Douglas, who has also been critical of the town, asked for specifics of the town's insurance policy, and inquired who would pay if the policy doesn't cover the cost of the suit.

Stewart didn't provide details, "But I would also like to tell you," he told Douglas, "that this town is smart enough that it has sufficient insurance coverage, period."

In response to Stewart's letter, Brunner mailed a second postcard. In it he responds to Stewart's statement that he owns an aircraft registered at the North Fork Airport, which has been a point of contention for Brunner. He told the DCI that Stewart is "flat wrong." Aircraft or not, Stewart told the DCI, "He flies a craft out of the airport," which he fails to state in his mailings.

Regarding water rates, which were increased in December to cover debt obligations for mandated water delivery system upgrades, Brunner states that almost $3 million of the remaining money, which was recently shifted from water storage to water delivery system upgrades, "is over and above the state mandated upgrades" and that the town has "little interest in involving the voters on how this money will be spent."

Stewart said the upgrades, for which engineering contracts have already been approved, have been discussed at numerous meetings, and that they are necessary. Of the funds, $850,000 is in loan forgiveness that the town would have a difficult time getting in the future. He asks Brunner if he would return the money and "damage the Town's ability to obtain financing in the future, and leave 100 year old, rusty pipes in place?"

"When you rush to spend a lot of money, you don't get much for it," said Brunner. "I'm not personally convinced that it's a wise use of money."

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