Talk of the town

Oak Creek rocked by accusations, resignations


— Word travels quickly in a town of 850 people. And rumors never flew faster than a few weeks ago, when prnted accusations made by a town employee set in motion a chorus of "he said, she said" throughout the town of Oak Creek.

The March 12 release of a 12-page letter chronicling perceived blunders at Town Hall coincided with a letter of resignation by Oak Creek Town Manager Ray Leibensperger.

So Oak Creek voters will go to the polls in a week, with accusations about town officials fresh on their minds, and some of those 850 faces will cast their ballot for new representatives or affirm the current ones.

Jo Dee Stordal, the author of the lengthy memorandum, resigned Feb. 28 as assistant town treasurer of Oak Creek.

She began distributing copies of her memo March 12, first to town officials and then to residents.

In the memo, Stordal explained why she thought the town did not need a town manager and included several references to instances she said confirmed Leibensperger's incompetence and questionable behavior.

She called for the removal of Leibensperger and the defeat of Mayor Deb VanGundy and all but one of the trustees running for re-election.

"We have the opportunity, with the upcoming election," she wrote, "to change to situation at the ballot box."

Leibensperger, who became Oak Creek's first town manager last February, submitted his letter of resignation March 12.

He and his wife, Chris, moved from Florida, where he served as city clerk and treasurer of Lake Helen, Fla.

Allegations of sexual harassment at the Lake Helen Town Hall followed Leibensperger to Oak Creek, further cementing the opinions of those who believed the size of the town did not merit a town manager.

"It's too bad he didn't have a better reception," Oak Creek resident Reta McNutt said.

The Town Board approved Leibensperger's new contract, which included a 5-percent raise and a $200 monthly car allowance, at its Feb. 28 meeting.

Leibensperger, however, said he has neither seen nor signed the new contract.

"I assume I'm under the new contract," he said.

The Town Board has not included Leibensperger's resignation on its agenda, so time will tell, Leibensperger said, if he stays or goes.

"As far as I'm concerned, everything is up in the air," he said. "I'm just sitting here with no definitive future. If they (the board) don't do anything, April 12 will be my last day."

Leibensperger said he sent out resumes in February, to which he received a few responses, when he was unsure about the board's intentions to renew his contract.

Stordal mentioned in her letter she was considering forwarding the memo to the newspaper in Daytona Beach, Fla., where Leibensperger submitted a resume for the town manager position.

The board must take action on the letter of resignation by April 12.

"We want to sit down and find out why he was (considering) leaving," VanGundy said.

Depending on the outcome of the April 2 election, that task could fall to an entirely new board.

In retrospect, Leibensperger said, he could not have known Stordal's accusations would fly the same day he informed the board of his resignation.

"If I had know about the letter, I never would have submitted the resignation," Leibensperger said.

"That gave the appearance I was ducking the issues."

People who have called Oak Creek home for years shake their heads at the rift.

At a forum featuring the candidates for Town Board and mayor Thursday night at the town community center, several residents and the candidates themselves alluded to an Oak Creek gone by that would have rejected such backbiting and resentment.

J. Elliott, a candidate for one of five trustee positions and owner of the Colorado Bar on Oak Creek's main street, moved to Oak Creek several years ago. He and his wife wanted to live in Colorado, he said, so they spent several days in six or seven towns to determine which community would best suit them.

Oak Creek, he said, impressed them the most.

"We liked the way the people got along, the way things were handled here, the attitude of the folks," Elliott said. "Lately that attitude has been slipping away.

"I thought maybe I could get in and kind of help it get back to what it was."

The large field of candidates for the Town Board surprises people in Oak Creek, where trustees are usually appointed because no one wants to hold the position.

Eight candidates, three of them currently on the board, are running for five seats.

The field includes newcomers Elliot, Dave Stordal, John Crawford, Robert Hageman and Bob Dresden and trustees Sonja Norris, Bill Paxton and Mike Kein.

A bigger surprise comes with the mayoral race.

The role of mayor promises low prestige and high tension. It's a position few people care to hold.

"I get to sign a lot of papers, and I get to take a lot of blame, but when it comes down to it, I am one vote out of step," VanGundy said of her position. "I can tell you where I stand on issues, but I can't guarantee an outcome."

The board appointed VanGundy four years ago as mayor. At the time, she sat on the board. She once again assumed the mayoral seat again two years ago, when no one contested her.

That changed this year when Cargo Rodeman, well known in South Routt for her strong opinions about the police department, the Town Board and the water in Oak Creek, stepped up to challenge the mayor.

"There are issues in all areas of our town government that, in my opinion, are being dealt with incorrectly, if at all," Rodeman said.

The longtime South Routt resident admits she isn't na enough to think she could change priorities at Town Hall.

But she still wants to give it a try.

The one man who keeps VanGundy one vote out of step is Kein. On most votes at Town Hall, he can be expected to make the decision 6-1.

Kein said he decided to seek re-election to change the town's nuisance code, which he considers a major violation of residents' constitutional rights.

The veteran trustee said he feels the frustration of many residents who look at the town's financial situation and shake their heads.

The audit for fiscal year 2001 will cost the town of Oak Creek $16,000. Much of that expense goes to helping the audit firm recover the loss incurred on the town's 2000 audit.

Oak Creek boasts few paved blocks. The melting snow only heightens residents' annoyance with dirt alleys and side streets that ooze with mud and slush.

Residents complain about unplowed streets, potholes and unfinished improvement projects.

But that mess cannot be blamed on the town manager, Kein said.

"Our finances are in a mess," he said. "It's not Ray's fault. It was in a mess before he got here."

Kein said he still remains optimistic about the change a new board might bring to town.

Norris, who also sits on the current board, said she found Stordal's letter offensive.

The memo labeled the current board, with the exception of Kein, as weak and charged trustees as having "allowed the values of our community to be eroded."

Stordal's accusations, Norris said, cast horrible doubts on the present board and left the townspeople disillusioned.

"It has divided this town," she said. "I'm tired of the rumors and innuendos."

Norris said she would continue to support Leibensperger.

"I'm not saying he's perfect," she said. "But I think he's done a lot of good for this town."

Some candidates at the Thursday forum clearly stated their intentions to not back away from a good fight.

"I plan to stay," candidate David Stordal said.

Stordal moved to Oak Creek a year ago with his wife, Jo Dee, who soon after took the job as assistant town treasurer.

She encouraged her husband to run for the board.

"I said, 'Why not?'" David Stordal said. "It looked like we needed a change."

A change would be good for the town's well being, Joe Turon said.

Turon moved to Oak Creek in 1934, where he met his wife, Lottie, who was born in Oak Creek.

The longtime resident can remember when 2,000 to 3,000 people lived in Oak Creek. He can recall a main street that boasted 13 bars, two liquor stores, two or three show halls, four or five stores and two policemen.

So many different people from so many different backgrounds could have bred conflict and division.

"But they worked together, and that's what's missing now," Turon said. "Everyone worked together."

Despite the accusations, protests and second-guessing, residents realize the town will return to normal.

"It seems like every few years we go through this pattern," candidate Bob Dresden said.

"But it will pass."


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