Elections for metro district board members aren’t usually contentious, but the rhetoric surrounding the campaign for the Forest Lakes board is more than just your run-of-the-mill neighborly dispute.
“It’s crazy how crazy this is getting,” said Brian Sheffield, manager for the Forest Lakes Metro District. “It’s not like this is the Colorado Senate.”
The Forest Lakes subdivision is about six miles north of Bayfield and is the largest neighborhood in Southwest Colorado. With more than 840 homes, the clustered neighborhood off County Road 501 is actually larger than Bayfield.
Residents there pay about $1,500 a year to the Forest Lakes Metro District, which was formed in 1973 to manage and maintain infrastructure such as water, sewer, roads and recreational services within the subdivision.
The metro district is governed by a five-member volunteer board of residents that is responsible for legislative functions, such as establishing neighborhood policies, passing resolutions and developing a vision for Forest Lakes.
According to state law, an election for board members should occur every two years, but because of a lack of interest from residents, and therefore no candidates to run, the last election was held in 2002.
Over the years, board members, who are paid about $50 for attending each monthly meeting, have either been re-elected despite term limits or they appointed members to fill any voids on the board.
This year is different. Six residents are vying for three available board seats.
Three Forest Lakes residents have banded together to run against the board’s incumbents (and a new candidate who supports the current board), claiming the metro district’s operation hasn’t been transparent over the years.
Contesting candidates say because board members have operated in the dark without involving the public, they have failed to properly maintain the neighborhood, while collecting generous salaries.
But not all agree.
The two incumbents – Brien Meyer and Charles Scavo – did not respond to attempts seeking comment.
But metro board president Casey Cook said the board and a seven-person paid-employee staff have done an admirable job.
“We have more people here than the town of Bayfield, yet we (operate and manage) it with less people,” Cook said. “And no one is trying to hide anything. It’s all public record.”
Tony Schrier, the new candidate who backs the current board and is a 19-year resident of the subdivision, also said criticisms are unfounded.
“I think the metro district has been doing a hell of a job,” Schrier said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way the operation is being run, and (if elected) I’d like to continue the same path.”
The three candidates challenging the way things have been done are Denis Stratford, Marie Thai and Myron Tolf – all longtime residents of the subdivision.
The candidates say the metro district has been content to operate out of the public eye, and they feel that without resident input, the neighborhood hasn’t had necessary improvements and is in a state of stagnation.
As a result, the challengers are calling for more financial transparency and community involvement, and they hope to accomplish that with a shake-up of the board of directors.
“We’re not saying anything nefarious is going on, but when you’re not transparent, it’s natural to make assumptions,” Thai said.
For instance, the candidates would like to change monthly board meetings from the middle of a workday to later in the evening so more people can attend. And, they’d like for elections to be more publicized.
“When you see the neighborhood stagnating, you wonder what we are getting in turn for our monthly fees,” Tolf said.
Cook, who has lived in Forest Lakes for two decades, said for years the meetings used to be held at night, but even then no one attended. And, the metro district would have to pay staffers overtime for staying late.
“It just didn’t make any sense,” Cook said.
Sheffield, who became subdivision manager two years ago, whole-heartedly contests the criticisms.
“In my time here, I can tell you this place has been run as it should be,” he said.
Sheffield said the metro district is audited every year, and the budget process is “extremely transparent.” He said the operating cost of the district is in line with a subdivision of its size, especially when compared with Durango and Bayfield.
Much of the criticism, Sheffield believes, is misplaced, and that many residents’ complaints that the neighborhood is stagnating are actually a critique of some homeowners who have let their homes go.
But Sheffield said the metro district has no authority to enforce covenants (rules and regulations of a neighborhood). That responsibility falls under a homeowners association, but Forest Lakes doesn’t have an HOA.
The Forest Lakes HOA dissolved in 2009 after a legal battle with Tolf over a carport being too close to a property line. The HOA lost and eventually folded, leaving no one in charge to enforce the subdivision’s covenants.
Still, John Wells, owner of the Wells Group real estate firm, said property values have increased in Forest Lakes, with the median home price somewhere around $300,000.
It’s not as high as Durango or Bayfield, but Forest Lakes is relatively far from any services, requiring longer commutes to work or school. That’s likely to keep costs down, Wells said.
Forest Lakes’ first election in 16 years on May 8 is likely to draw record numbers.
“Being on the board is a commitment, and it’s a thankless job,” Sheffield said. “Most people want to come home and live their lives. No one is getting rich doing this.”