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Conflict claim clouds Basalt candidate forum

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

BASALT A low-key campaign for three Town Council seats in Basalt received a jolt Tuesday with an allegation that the president of the chamber of commerces board of directors hijacked a candidate forum for personal gain.Current Basalt Councilman Chris Seldin claimed that chamber board president David Fiore is using his influence to pose a question at Wednesdays candidate forum that is really a straw poll for Fiores development project.Fiore vehemently denied the claim. Candidates who could be reached Tuesday were divided on the topic.The chamber is sponsoring a forum for the six Town Council candidates Wednesday from 6-9 p.m. at the Basalt Middle School. The election is April 1.The chamber solicited written questions from the public, then a chamber committee decided what to ask the candidates. Fiore was part of that committee.The questions have been disclosed to the candidates and public in advance. One of two questions that will be posed to all candidates asks if the candidates are willing to expand the towns urban growth boundary to provide replacement housing for residents of the Pan & Fork Mobile Home Park. Town voters will decide in the April 1 election if the town should buy the mobile home park for $5 million, then relocate the residents.Fiore project rejectedSeldin isnt up for election this year, but he said the question offends him as an observer because of an alleged conflict. Fiore heads a firm that owns another Basalt trailer park. He unsuccessfully tried to convince the Town Council last year to expand the towns urban growth boundary so that he and the Catholic Archdiocese could build replacement housing for more than 200 residents in the Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park.The council held firm on the urban growth boundary in one of Basalts bigger land-use battles in 2007.Seldin sent Fiore a letter Tuesday that claimed it was a conflict of interest for him as president of the chamber to allow the chamber to ask a question that is connected to an issue in which Fiore has a direct economic interest.Seldin told The Aspen Times there is an appearance that the machinery of the chamber is being used for a straw poll for a developer.In his letter to Fiore, Seldin asked the chamber not to ask the questions he feels create the conflict.Given the circumstances, continuing to include these questions in the candidate forum will corrupt and impugn the integrity of the election process, Seldin wrote. Moreover, it would call into question the impartiality of the Chamber guaranteed by Article 1.4 of its bylaws.Public queries more generalFiore said in an interview and in an e-mail to Seldin that the allegations are completely without merit. Fiore said the questions that Seldin finds offensive were suggested by the public, not by him.Chamber executive director Heather Smith confirmed Fiores story. Its not just a David question, she said.Fiore used his knowledge of the issues raised by people who submitted comments and helped craft the wording of the question, according to Smith.Fiore said the question boils down to probing the candidates to learn about the implications of the town governments proposed purchase of the Pan & Fork. Citizens want to know how the town will proceed with relocating the residents from a trailer park that has been deemed as at risk from flooding. As proof, Fiore welcomed The Aspen Times to look at questions submitted by three members of the public.Those questions raise questions about the towns plan to buy the Pan & Fork. However, they arent directly related to the question the chamber is asking. The chamber took general comments, and crafted a very detailed, complicated question that touches on one aspect of the publics interest.Stand by their manFiore saw it differently. He said the chambers question is an attempt to learn more about the towns plan.Its a fair-game question, Fiore said.Fiore said he never felt that the question could raise a perception of a conflict of interest for him, even though similar issues apply to the Pan & Fork and his Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park.Fiore also claimed he has ardently opposed prior suggestions that the chamber take positions on development issues.A letter from the entire chamber board of directors rejected Seldins request to drop the two controversial questions from tonights forum. The questions still will be asked, Smith said.The other members of the board of directors are architect Brad Elliott, banker Tony Thompson, and retailers Lynne Mace and Brent Wenner. Mace and Thompson couldnt be reached for comment.Candidate views dividedThree of the candidates for Basalt Town Council seats had divided views on the conflict. Candidate Jacque Whitsitt said the questions that Seldin targeted also raised her suspicions. I didnt particularly think that was appropriate, she said.She doesnt see the issue as one of broad community appeal, at least not the way the chamber is asking the question. It is a complicated issue that applies in only a few cases and one of those cases in the past was with Fiores project, she said.Whitsitt doesnt think the question should be asked, but figured it is too late to withdraw it. She said the issue isnt a big enough deal to cause her to boycott the forum.I can participate and get my message across without dancing to the tune that the chamber wants me to, Whitsitt said.Candidate Garret Brandt said he didnt have a problem with the question. There is only an indirect connection to Fiores project, Brandt said, and the question poses a legitimate community issue should the town be flexible with its urban growth boundary to solve issues.If its a legitimate question; who cares who asked it? Brandt said.Candidate Pete McBride said he doesnt know if Fiore wrote the question or not. If so, it is inappropriate, he said.Im not too worried about it, honestly, he said.The question, as written, seems geared more to Basalts political insiders rather than to the public at large, according to McBride. It seemed a bit Inside Baseball, he said.Candidate Rick Stevens could not be reached before deadline time. Candidate Katie Schwoerer didnt return a telephone message. Candidate Brian Dillard is traveling and cannot attend the forum.scondon@aspentimes.com