Ethics Dunces: Roland Mason and Phoebe Wilson

The moral of this story is that something can be whimsical, charming, funny, creative and effective, and still be wrong.

Roland Mason and Phoebe Wilson both garnered 317 votes in the November 3 race for the Crested Butte, Colorado city council race. That tied them for third place. Four seats were up for election, with the fourth place finisher getting a two-year term instead of a four-year term, so a tie wouldn’t do.  There was a recount  but no change: 317 votes for each. Colorado law directs that such dead heats must be settled by “lot,” which in most towns means flipping a coin. But Roland Mason had a better idea.


Yes, the two candidates duked it out in the Town Hall in a more dramatic version of “paper, stone and scissors,” invented, Mason claims, by him and his college room mates. The two candidates agreed that prevailing in two out of three showdowns would win third place in the election. The rules: they would stand back to back, take three steps, turn and pose like a bear, a cowboy, or a ninja. Ninja disarms cowboy. Bear mauls ninja. Cowboy shoots bear.

Yes, this is what the Minute Men fought for at Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill and Saratoga

The official Crested Butte document describes the results:

“Round One: Mason bear; Wilson bear: outcome—tie.
“Round Two: Mason cowboy; Wilson bear: outcome—Mason wins.
“Round Three: Mason bear; Wilson ninja: outcome—Mason wins.

“Final outcome: Mason wins a four-year seat. Wilson gets a two-year seat.”

“Roland came up with the idea and it was a lot of fun,” Wilson told the press. (Wilson also told the press that she wouldn’t be a “cowboy” because she objected to guns.) I’m sure glad she had a good time. It would be a shame to trivialize the democratic process and not get a kick out of it. Yes, the choice of election resolution method was funny. It was also profoundly disrespectful to American ideals and the right of self-determination.

Maybe some of the blame should go to  Colorado, which couldn’t bother to come up with a more dignified and substantive way of breaking ties than to draw lots, or Crested Butte, which should have had some adult in charge to point out to these two blithe and irresponsible spirits that settling an election like a 5th Grade recess dispute degrades our form of government. Mason and Wilson, however, should be ashamed of themselves. I think Wilson should have claimed the seat by virtue of the fact that Mason made such an irresponsible proposal. But no, she thought it would be “fun” to tell 634 people who took the time to vote for them that the election was so inconsequential that they would settle it like children…and dumb children at that.

The least they could have done is use a game that required some skills relevant to government and politics. Chess. Careers. Liars Poker. As it was, they made an eloquent statement about their reverence for democracy and the importance of city governance in Crested Butte. The statement was “What’s the big deal?”

I like whimsy. But I’ll take hanging chads over Cowboy-Bear-Ninja every time.


5 thoughts on “Ethics Dunces: Roland Mason and Phoebe Wilson

  1. Meh…I disagree, but I’m not entirely sure I know why. All I can say is that each had a defined and equal amount of votes with none to contest. Maybe it’s just the Colorado in me, but I think 3 rounds of Cowboy-Bear-Ninja is better than 1 flip of the coin. I also think 1 flip of the coin is better than expensive court challenges that only determine who has to raise campaign funds again in 2 years instead of 4 years. I know lawyers want everything vetted in a court of law – so for once, I’m glad I’m not a lawyer.

  2. Here are several options, all more dignified and more germane than reducing the election to infantile games. (And yes, I agree that fighting it out in court is not one of the good options.)

    1) Give them both a government ethics test (NOT the Illinois test!!!) and the winner has the high score.

    2) Have them answer questions poses by a panel of reporters, and let 5 citizens from a neighboring town or city decide.

    3) Have a group of high school seniors, a civics class or even a whole class, listen to each argue for their candidacy, answer questions, and vote.

    4) Hold a public service “pentathalon,” in which each candidate competes in writing (a coherent proposed ordinance), speaking (a 15 minute address), reading comprehension (spot the problems in a sloppily written ordinance), ethics, and civic knowledge.

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