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Newspaper and Travel Guide
for Pecos Country of West Texas

Friday, April 21, 2006

Missing ballots throw election result into doubt

Staff Writers

Who is the Democratic candidate for Reeves County Judge - and given Reeves County’s Democratic leanings, the probable winner of November’s coming general election?

That’s a question that may wind up being decided in court, after it was discovered that about 5 percent of the ballots cast in the April 11 primary runoff election were not counted.

Last week’s runoff election left Sam Mata Contreras with a 65-vote victory over Al Gomez, a victory that is now in question after at least 150 uncounted votes surfaced during an initial check of votes counted and votes cast in the runoff.

The votes are from Ballot Box 7 in Precinct 4 - a box that favored Gomez in early voting totals. Voters in that box cast ballots locally in both the Reeves County Judge and Precinct 4 commissioner’s races.

In the Precinct 4 Commissioner’s runoff race between incumbent Gilberto “Hivi” Rayos and challenger Ramiro “Ram” Guerra, the 384-135 lead held by Guerra was a wide enough margin that 150 votes cannot change the result.

What happened?

According to Democratic Chairman for Reeves County Bob Dean, a discrepancy was discovered last week on Wednesday, the day after the polls closed and is the result of a mistake caused by new electronic equipment and a ballot shortage on Election Day.

Dean told the Secretary of State’s office in a telephone call today that some emergency ballots were not counted as well as the ballots recorded on an electronic disk used to record votes cast in Box 7 on Election Day.

Events began to unfold on Tuesday afternoon.

“We had a new election judge. He had worked the primary, but not as a judge,” Dean said speaking on the courthouse steps Tuesday evening. “Each judge has a tub with his supplies in it. When the judge for Box 7 turned in his tub the electronic card was left in the tub and overlooked.”

Dean said the election judge was Sam Anchondo, and that the mistake was first discovered last Wednesday, when it became obvious that something was not right.

“When we began to double check the results we discovered that the votes cast did not match the number of voters on the sign-in sheets,” he said.

Dean said that on Thursday he called Jessie Zuniga, the man in charge of the computers for the election, but that with the Good Friday and Easter holidays, Tuesday, April 18, was the first day he was available.

In the original count election night over 160 ballots were counted for Box 7 - but all were from early voting.

“It was not obvious from the numbers that ballots had not been counted - not until we began to reconcile the ballots with the sign-in sheets,” he said.

By 7 p.m. there was a crowd of Contreras and Gomez supporters at the courthouse along with numerous Democratic Party and election officials.

The end result was the discovery of the missing electronic disk and some uncounted emergency ballots.

Dean said that the disk had been locked in County Clerk Diane Florez’ safe since election night and that the electronic system was such that no one could tamper with the disk without all of the correct software and equipment.

“There is no possibility of fraud,” he said. “The disk was in the possession of the county clerk the entire time - it just wasn’t counted.”

Dean also said that he was sure the omission was not intentional. “It was just an honest mistake caused by new equipment and new procedures that anyone could have made - not really any one person’s fault,” he said.

The April 11 runoff was only the second election using the county’s new optical scanning equipment. The county purchased the equipment to replace its former punch card ballot system, which was outlawed for use after December of 2005 because of vote counting problems using that equipment during the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

Once the mistake was discovered, the next problem facing officials was how to county the missing votes.

Dean said that to count the votes “Central Counting” would have to be reopened. Central Counting is the group of people who count the ballots on election night - both the emergency ballots and the electronic ones.

The question was how and when Central Counting could be opened.

Election officials, candidates and supporters gathered this morning in the 2nd floor courtroom at Reeves County Courthouse for a conference call with the Secretary of State’s office to determine how to resolve the matter.

Present were Dean, Gomez and his wife MaryAnn, Contreras and his wife Anna, Central Counting Judge Nadine Smith, Election Clerk Debbie Thomas, County Clerk Diane Florez and about 10 spectators.

Melinda Nickless with the Secretary of State’s Election Division answered Dean’s telephone call at 10:10 a.m.

After Dean explained that an electronic disk and some emergency ballots had not been counted by Central Counting on election night Nickless informed the group that it would take a court order from 143rd District Court to legally reopen Central Counting and recount the votes - with the formerly uncounted votes added in.

“A District Judge will have to give you the authority to do that with a court order,” she said.

Nickless also told the group that once Central Counting was reopened all the regular rules and regulations would be in effect just as if it were election night, unless the judge modified those rules in the court order.

Nickless also addressed the matter of fault.

“Fault? I’m not sure you can say this is anyone’s fault,” she said. “With new equipment and practices mistakes are going to happen,” Nickless said.

After the telephone call Dean left to find 143rd District Judge Bob Parks to seek the necessary court order.

“We’ll probably have to have three counting teams if we have to do a recount,” Dean said this morning, prior to his call to Nickless. The addition of the Box 7 votes brings the total number of ballots cast in the runoff election to about 2,500.

Dean said that Gomez can request a recount be done either with the optical scanning equipment, or by hand, depending on the decision by Judge Parks on how to handle the initial canvass of the ballots.

The failure to count the Election Day votes in Box 7 came after officials initially failed to count the ballots for Box 4, located at the Toyah Senior Citizens Center.

Contreras, the Town of Pecos City Finance Director, originally had a 71-vote margin over Gomez, the former President of the Pecos Chamber of Commerce. The addition of the Toyah ballots, which were counted on April 12, cut Contreras’ lead over Gomez to 65 votes. The change did not affect the outcome of the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, where challenger Gabriel Martinez defeated incumbent Normal Hill by a 120-vote margin.

Contreras and Gomez are seeking the Democratic nomination for Reeves County Judge, after Jimmy B. Galindo opted not to seek a fourth term in office. The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Bobby Hanks in the Nov. 7 general election. Hanks ran unopposed for the nomination for Reeves County Judge in the March Republican primary.

Hanks was the only Republican running locally in the March 7 primary. Only one local candidate in recent years has won election to county office in the general election without winning the Democratic primary race.

Judge OKs count of missing ballots from runoff

Staff Writers

Reeves County election officials were scheduled Thursday evening to count the 152 votes that were left out of the original final count of the April 11 Democratic Party primary runoff election.

The Election Day ballots from Box 7 were to be counted shortly after 6 p.m. at the Reeves County Clerk’s office, according Reeves County Democratic Party Chairman Bob Dean.

The uncounted ballots consist of 101 electronically cast ballots and 51 emergency paper ballots from Box 7, located at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Fifth and Plum streets, where voters cast ballots for County Judge, Precinct 4 County Commissioner and two state runoff races.

Only the race for Reeves County Judge can be affected by the final outcome. Town of Pecos City Finance Director Sam Contreras defeated former Pecos Chamber of Commerce President Al Gomez by 65 votes in the original final vote count, before the missing ballots were discovered.

In the other local election involving Box 7, for Precinct 4 commissioner, challenger Ramiro “Ram” Guerra held a 249-vote lead over incumbent Gilberto “Hivi” Rayos going into the count of the 152 missing ballots.

Wednesday evening Dean and legal counsel Randy Reynolds went before 143rd District Judge Bob Parks requesting an order to open the sealed election box in question to complete the counting process.

Reynolds, who is the 143rd District Attorney, was acting in a private capacity.

Parks issued the order at 5:55 p.m. and ordered Dean to open the box at 6:10 p.m. in the office of Reeves County Clerk Diane Florez.

Parks’ order stipulated that each candidate may appoint two persons as designated poll watchers to be present “during all activities as authorized poll watchers as long as they are duly qualified as poll watchers as provided by law.”

The order also allows any interested person to observe the opening of the box and requires the counting of the votes to be complete before 1 p.m. on Friday, April 21. Parks further ordered that after completion of the counting the ballots and all other election materials such as tally sheets, computer printouts and electronic disks be boxed and sealed and delivered to Reeves County Sheriff Andy Gomez “who shall store those records as he would evidence of a criminal case.”

Dean, on Thursday, said that what would take place Thursday night was not a recount. All of the ballots were not going to be recounted.

Instead, only the uncounted ballots would be counted and then those totals would be added to the previously counted election totals.

Trey Trainor, general counsel for Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams, said on Thursday that local officials were following the proper procedures in going through Judge Parks to get the legal authority to reopen the central counting station, and that only doing a count on the missing Box 7 votes at this time was also correct.

“If they have a court order, they will count the ballots and it will be included in the updated vote count,” said Trainor, after which any legal challenge to the vote can occur if one of the candidates alleges there were irregularities in the overall voting procedure. Gomez will have to win 109 of the 152 missing votes to catch Contreras, if the county judge’s race is marked on all of the Box 7 ballots.

“If there’s a tie, then they will do a recount of the ballots,” Trainor said, while either Gomez or Contreras can ask for the recount after the final tally. From there, any further legal action would go before Judge Parks.

Contreras won with 1,162 votes to 1,097 for Gomez in the first revision of the original vote count. Contreras’ original victory margin was 71 votes, until it was discovered that the ballots from Box 4 in Toyah, which is part of Precinct 2, had not been counted initially. Gomez cut the margin by six votes when the Toyah ballots were added.

The election was the second using the county’s new electronic voting equipment, and polling sites on Election Day ran out of scannable ballots, forcing poll workers to use “emergency” ballots.

Dean said on Tuesday that the initial discrepancy with Box 7 was discovered on April 12, the day after the polls closed. He said it was the result of a mistake caused by new electronic equipment and a ballot shortage on Election Day.

Dean told the Secretary of State’s office in a telephone call today that some emergency ballots were not counted as well as the ballots recorded on an electronic disk used to record votes cast in Box 7 on Election Day.

“We had a new election judge. He had worked the primary, but not as a judge,” Dean. “Each judge has a tub with his supplies in it. When the judge for Box 7 turned in his tub the electronic card was left in the tub and overlooked.”

“When we began to double check the results we discovered that the votes cast did not match the number of voters on the sign-in sheets,” he said.

Dean said that the disk had been locked in County Clerk Diane Florez’ safe since election night and that the electronic system was such that no one could tamper with the disk without all of the correct software and equipment.

“There is no possibility of fraud,” he said. “The disk was in the possession of the county clerk the entire time - it just wasn’t counted.”

A separate problem noted on Thursday involved legal notices on the calling of the election, and on the drawing for ballot placements. State law requires at least a quarter-page legal notice be published prior to any placement drawing or the election, but the notice placed for the March 7 election was only 40 percent the required size, and no legal notice was placed for the April 11 runoff.

However, Trainor said he doubted the failure to place proper legal notices about the election was going to affect the primary result. “Absent a legal challenge, it isn’t going to have any effect on the election,” he said.

He added that because this is a primary election, problems with the procedure are the responsibility of the local Democratic Party to handle.

Trainor said that while Reeves was only one of 13 Texas counties that had been using the punch card ballot system that caused problems in the 2000 Florida vote, all 254 counties in the state have had to switch over to the optical scanner voting system.

Dean also said that he was sure the omission was not intentional. “It was just an honest mistake caused by new equipment and new procedures that anyone could have made - not really any one person’s fault,” he said.

Trainor said until now, he had not heard of a problem similar to the ones encountered in Reeves County, but there have been some troubles with the new system in other places across the state.

“We have experienced some programming issues where the computer would over-read or under-read, but not where the chip was misplaced,” he said. “All the problems we’ve seen in the new machines has mostly traced back to human error, but with the implementation of the new machines and the new programming business, this takes some time to get used to.

“Quite frankly, the number of problems that have been reported with the new machines has been relatively calm,” Trainor said.

Age blamed for collapse of building’s awning

Old age is being blamed for the collapse of a wood and cement block overhang on the roof of the former Radio Shack building at Washington and Eddy streets on Wednesday.

The north side of the roof collapsed onto the 1000 block of West Washington Street shortly after 4:30 p.m., according to Martin Arreguy, who is in charge of the Town of Pecos City’s building clean-up efforts. “There was no evidence of termites, and nobody banged into it. It just fell on its own volition,” he said.

“My crews were working on Cowan street, tearing down a home, and they immediately went over there and moved it to the side, because the debris was blocking the street,” Arreguy said. Clean-up crews had Washington Street blocked off Thursday morning so the debris could be lifted into a dump truck and taken to the Town of Pecos City landfill. The building had been occupied until the end of December by the Pecos Radio Shack store. City Manager Joseph Torres said its owner, Dave Thomas, was notified after the collapse and went out to view the damage to his building.

“I noticed a couple of days ago it looked like it was sagging a little more than it had been,” said Town of Pecos City Fire Marshal Jack Brookshire, who ordered the debris and the remaining parts of the roof over the side of the building condemned so it could be hauled away.

“It was just an old building overhang that just collapsed,” said Brookshire.

“We were just fortunate nobody was hurt,” Arreguy said.

“It’s something you think about. When I first heard about it went down there, I was afraid someone might have been under there,” said Thomas, who added the roof was in place at the time he bought the building in the mid-1980s.

The overhang’s collapse didn’t affect the part of the roof over the actual building, though Brookshire said, “It looks like they’re going to have to in there and replace part of the roof where it’s open.”

“Since I’ve just retired, this comes at a bad time for me,” said Thomas. He said he already has contacted a worker to seal off the opening on the south side of the roof to prevent any further damage.

Pyote exits shut down for I-20 road replacement work

Construction work on the westbound main traffic lane of Interstate 20 in Pyote has begun, and the exit and entrance ramps in both directions on the highway will be closed until next week.

The FM 1927/State Highway 115 exit has been shut down, along with the rest areas in both directions at mile marker 68, two miles east of Pyote, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Westbound drivers coming from Monahans and getting off I-20 at Pyote should use Exit 70 (Spur 65), while eastbound drivers coming from Pecos should use Exit 58 and follow the south frontage road to access those destinations.

Message boards are advising drivers of closed exits and alternate routes. Ramp closures are expected to last from 7 to 10 days.

The closures are part of reconstruction work on the right lane of I-20 in both directions between Pyote and Sandhills State Park, due to severe rutting conditions on the road. Other exits to be affected as the construction proceeds include Exit 70, Exit 73 (FM 1219) in Wickett, Exit 76 (BI-20D) west of Monahans, Exits 79 (Loop 464), and 80 (State Highway 18) in Monahans, and Exit 83 (BI-20D) east of Monahans.

TxDOT announced plans last year to replace the surface of 21 miles of I-20 in Ward County due to rutting problems in the right lane. Similar work is scheduled to follow on the right lane of I-20 in Reeves County, both east and west of Pecos.

P-B-T board OKs purchase of new uniforms

Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD Board members had the opportunity to see a sample of the new band uniform that the Pecos Eagle Band will sport this next year as part of their regular meeting Tuesday evening.

The board had approved the purchase of new uniforms during a March board meeting. On Tuesday, they were given a look at the new design and told the total cost of the uniforms will come in at under $50,000.

Pecos Eagle Head Band Director William Goff brought several concerns to the board last month, including the outdated uniforms, lack of storage and practice space at both the high school and middle school and the need for sound proof practice rooms for small groups to practice.

Goff said that the uniforms were really outdated and that points were deducted during a competition because they were still using uniforms with capes.

He said that they were also heavy and cumbersome and were very uncomfortable, especially during the summer.

On Tuesday, school finance director Cookie Canon presented the board with a sample of the new uniform that they will purchase.

The uniform comes with snaps that can be adjusted to fit each student, according to Canon.

“You gave me a ceiling of $55,000,” said Canon.

“We won’t check out the uniforms, since the dry cleaning is already included in the budget,” she said.

Canon said that the uniforms are machine washable, but that they last longer if they are dry-cleaned.

Canon said that the uniforms will be delivered by Aug. 31, two days prior to Pecos’ season opening football game in Odessa, and will include two new drum major uniforms. Total price for the uniforms which will include: band jacket, bibber pants, gauntlet, Shako hat, plume and garment bag for 180 uniforms and two drum major uniforms will be $48,109.

Athletic Director Chris Henson, who was on hand for the board meeting, said that their first game will be on Sept. 2, against Alpine at Ratliff Stadium.

“Our first home game will be Sept. 9,” said Henson. “It will be great to see the new uniforms out on the field.”

In other action, board members approved alcohol and drug counseling programs. “This is part of our drug testing policy,” said PHS Principal Steve Lucas.

He said that the counseling goes hand in hand with the drug policy that was implemented this school year. “It is required that we have counseling,” he said.

Lucas said that they had received three proposals, two local and one from Odessa.

“The first one on the list is just an education program, the student has to pay for it and it is in Odessa,” said Lucas.

The eight-hour educational program would cost $120.

The second program, from Pecos, was for eight counseling sessions and at a cost of $800 to the students.

“The third one, also from Pecos, is for 12 counseling sessions and at a cost of $1,200 to the students,” said Lucas. “They felt that this counseling sessions would be done weekly, instead of in just one day.”

He said that the first program proposed was an educational program only and not counseling. “They talk to the counselor at the beginning of the program and at the end, but it’s more educational than anything else.”

Lucas said that the student’s would have a choice of which program to attend.

“The other two are counseling sessions. It’s just required that they attend a session,” he said.

“Is there any district that you know of that trains their counselors for this?” asked board member Amy Miller.

“That was something we had discussed with the interim superintendent, McCall,” said Lucas.

However, Lucas said that it takes a lot of schooling to get the certification and counselors already have plenty to do.

“They already have enough to do and this would just require extra schooling and more work to get the certification,” said Lucas.

Board members wanted to know if the students were required to take the counseling sessions in steps.

“Like if they get into trouble the first time, they do the first program, the second time, the second program and the third time, the more expensive one,” said board member Bubba Williams.

“No, it’s just their choice, as long as they do one by the time they get back into the regular curriculum,” said Lucas.

New Superintendent Manny Espino said that this was something he had wanted to discuss with the board.

“That’s something I wanted to discuss with you, I didn’t know what kind of stance, what message you want to send out, do you want to just send them and get an education, or a message that they will need to get counseling services,” said Espino.

He said that if they wanted to send out a strong message that this won’t be tolerated, they could make them attend the $800 session.

“We can always amend the local policy, that they do one, two and then three,” said Espino.

“What’s the time period?” asked board member Paul Deishler.

“Before they come back into regular classes, after the 30-day suspension,” said Lucas. Williams suggested that they accept all three.

“We can give them an option, approve all three and accept them and amend the local policy to go through three steps,” said Espino.

“We have only had one tested positive this year and is in athletics, so we don’t catch repeat offenders,” said Lucas.

“If they can afford the drugs, they can afford to do the time,” said board member Steve Valenzuela.

Balmorhea ISD holds BBQ fundraiser

A Barbecue Plate Sale will be held on Saturday from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m., in Downtown Balmorhea.

Plates will be $5 and the event is sponsored by the Balmorhea ISD School Board, to benefit their scholarship program.

For orders or more information call Armando 940-9565.

Bessie Haynes sets book fair dates

Bessie Haynes Elementary School is sponsoring a Scholastic Book Fair from May 1 through May 5.

The book fair will be open from 8:30 a.m. until 11:15 a.m. and from 1-3 p.m., in the school library.

There will be a wide selection of books for all reading levels and all grade levels. There will also be Harry Potter books, Captain Underpants and the books from the Series of Unfortunate Events.

The book fair will also feature posters, arts and crafts, software, pencils, erasers and bookmarks.

Books make great fun for summer reading.

Parents are encouraged to come and enrich their child’s imagination and reading skills with books from the book fair.

Hinojos participates in youth organization

Magdalena Hinojos is part of the Today’s Girl Youth Organization and will be attending the Today’s Girl State Pageant.

The Today’s Girl Youth Organization is a program dedicated to inspiring and motivating its participants. The program is designed to provide young ladies with early training in grooming, social graces, talent presentation, and educational values.

The system requires that participants give back to their community by volunteering in some capacity throughout the year. They provide the youth with an opportunity to excel and achieve their goals.

The majority of the participants in the Today’s Girl system maintain good grades, and are often honor roll students. They are leaders in their schools and hometowns. By keeping the participants active and involved in the world around them, their interest is stimulated, they learn to set goals and they make a difference by contributing their time and talents to charitable functions and organizations.

Hinojos is the daughter of April and Salvador Hinojos of Nolanville, Tx. and grandparents are David and Inez Hinojos of Pecos and Bob Faulkner of Pecos.

Travlands host study club and guests

The Modern Study Club met recently at the First Baptist Church Parking lot, to carpool for a trek to the Davis Mountains and a Conservation Department Program. Catherine and J.E. Travland hosted club members and their guests at their cabin in the Davis Mountain Resort and served a wonderful barbecue luncheon with all the trimmings.

President Lena Harpham presided during a business meeting held prior to lunch. During the opening ceremonies Nan Cate led the Club Collect and the pledges to the United States of America and Texas flags were said in unison.

Joyce Morton, secretary, read the minutes of the previous meeting and Betty Lee, treasurer, presented a statement of club finances.

Paula Fuller, Ways and Means Chairman, gave a report and Margie Williamson, Scholarship Chairman, reported the packet on Vanessa Valeriano, Modern Study Club’s candidate for the Western District GFWC-TFWC Alma Van Sickle Scholarship was near completion. The club also voted on guidelines for The Modern Study Club 2006 Pecos High School Scholarship to be presented in May.

Catherine Travland, chairman of the nominating committee presented a slate of officers for 2006-2008 as follows: president, Juracy Ray; vice-president, Margie Williamson; secretary, Catherine Travland; treasurer, Betty Lee; parliamentarian, Lena Harpham; reporter, Jean Olson and federation counselor, Paula Fuller. The officers were elected by acclamation.

The meeting was adjourned for the Bar-B-Que lunch followed by a choice of tours. Some members chose a visit to the Chihuahuan Desert Ranch Institute, while others went on a walking tour of Downtown Historic Fort Davis and others chose to sit on the bank of the creek near the Travland’s home to sketch and paint. It truly was a delightful day with delicious food and great company.

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