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Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters was elected to the position in 2018. She was the subject of a recall effort after several issues arose, including the discovery of more than 500 uncounted ballots from a previous election found in a ballot drop box outside of the county elections office. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

An attempt to gather enough signatures to force a recall vote for controversial Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters has fallen shy of the minimum 12,129 needed signers. But that doesn’t mean one of the county’s ugliest political skirmishes in modern times is over.

Clerk Tina Peters will remain in the job without a voter challenge in spite of multiple perceived shortcomings. They include the biggie of overlooking 574 ballots in a drop-box outside the clerk’s office front door for months following the 2019 general election.  Those forgotten ballots triggered the recall effort that fell about 1,200 signatures shy by the deadline Monday. They also triggered an investigation by the Secretary of State’s Office which resulted in the appointment of an outside overseer and outside help for Peters’ office.   

Since then, Peters’ has, by many accounts, hired competent and experienced employees in her office. She reportedly did not have problems with the recent primary election. In fact, she boasted of having results returned more quickly than any other county in the state.

But other perceived failings have been stacking up with recall backers. Those recall promoters formally asked the Mesa County Commissioners Monday to appoint an unbiased board to look into new “malfeasance” they have uncovered using open records requests. Those allegations include Peters remodeling her home without obtaining needed building permits; registering a vehicle at an address other than her own to avoid taxes; using her county purchasing card to buy alcohol; filing false police reports targeting recall backers; and releasing personal information about past and present employees.

Peters could not be reached for comment about those allegations or the failed petition drive. Her cell phone number has been disconnected. Her Facebook account – where she has carried out a furious critique of petition backers in recent weeks — made no mention Monday of her victory in the recall attempt.

MORE: Forgotten ballots. Allegations of errors. Missed deadlines: The recall of Mesa County’s clerk is a political potboiler

Defeated recall backers are still claiming a victory of sorts for collecting a record number of signatures for a single ballot issue in Mesa County and for having signers that were split between Republicans (Peters’ party affiliation), Democrats and Independents. They also say the recall effort brought attention to problems in the office and forced Peters to make changes that have helped make the office more functional.

“I do believe we forced her to make changes. There will be enough scrutiny of her and her office now,” said Patti Inscho, a former clerk’s office employee who was hired by the Mesa County Commissioners to help Peters, a political neophyte, put things in order.

Peters fired Inscho after two months and after she alleged that Inscho did not do the work assigned to her. Inscho said Peters did not allow her to do her job. Inscho later joined the recall effort.

Volunteer Patti Inscho holds a petition calling for the recall of Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters outside the old R-5 HIgh School in downtown Grand Junction. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

That dispute highlights the acrimonious spiral the controversy has taken recently. Peters’ top deputy Belinda Knisley filed a police report accusing Inscho of failing to work during the pandemic. On her Facebook page, Peters alleged that Inscho only worked three days during her 60 days on the job. Law enforcement dismissed the report with no action.

“It is surreal,” Inscho said. “I never thought that someone would stoop to that level of falsehoods.”

Peters also filed complaints with the Secretary of State’s office about former Eagle County Clerk and current Eagle County Treasurer Teak Simonton, who was appointed to oversee the recall and compile a report about the functioning of Peters’ office. Peters complained that a Republican should have been appointed: Simonton was formerly a registered Republican but is currently registered as a Democrat. 

Peters filed a formal complaint about Simonton printing and compiling the petitions for the recall backers. Simonton said it was for conformity and ease of checking the petitions at the end of the drive.  The Secretary of State’s office found that it was not a violation, but the recall committee volunteered to defuse the matter by paying for the petitions.

Ballots blowing in the wind

The storm over Peters’ office began with the revelation of the forgotten ballots in February. Former employees and officials of the clerk’s office – a number of them Republicans – added a list of other perceived problems in the petition for the recall. Those included questionable expenses, improper election procedures, a costly decision to end historic election relationships with two Mesa County municipalities, and a mass exodus of employees after Peters took over in 2019. Twenty-four of 36 employees quit just prior to her term or in the months after.

Peters was also dinged for ballots flying in the wind out of a drive-up ballot box in front of her office in the recent primary election. She blamed a conspiracy by her enemies for staging the blowing ballots. She asked for a police investigation, but that went nowhere. 

“It’s frustrating. I would say I was disheartened that instead of trying to do good herself, she is trying to make others look bad,” said Sheila Reiner, the former county clerk who left office due to term limits.

Reiner, a Republican, was not involved in starting the recall effort. She helped out by passing petitions. She has been targeted for that help even though she has taken pains to compliment Peters for hiring experienced elections workers from other counties.

Peters recently announced that her office had found a case of voter fraud – a man who was trying to take on the voter identity of a dead person – and took a swipe at her predecessors.

Her press release stated that since she was sworn in, she has been focused on “overcoming her predecessor’s legacy of a lack of experienced staff, long wait times and poor customer service.”

 Reiner said she did not hear such complaints while she was in office.

Reiner said the RecallClerkTina effort was never a political hit job.

“It was a group of ladies who know how the clerk’s office should operate, and felt like they had to get involved,” she said.

Still to come in the clerk’s office controversy: Inscho filed a report with the Secretary of State’s office alleging that Peters committed 15 election violations. Those allegations have yet to be ruled on. Also, Simonton has completed a detailed 18-page report on her observations of Peters’ office. That report must be reviewed by the Secretary of State before it is released.

Recall backers said their next order of business is to shred the recall petitions. They fear that Peters would retaliate against signers if she had access to them.

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm