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Let me see if I understand this.

1. County voters reject, by a 2-to-1 margin, a bond issue that would have financed an expanded county jail.

2. One week after the election, the county commissioners -- including two lame duck officials who will be out of office in January -- vote to issue debt to finance an expanded county jail.

3. And while they're at it, they authorize issuing another $20-odd million in debt to expand the courthouse, even though ...

4. There has been absolutely no public process to identify the need for such a facility, or to choose a site -- nope, the commissioners just decided to ...

5. Build some ugly-ass, hulking monstrosity athwart one of downtown's premier view corridors.

I was born here 62 years ago. For much of that time, I've been involved in local government; as a student, critic, neighborhood activist, elected official, and newspaper columnist. I thought I'd seen it all.

But I've never seen such arrogant, sleazy and fundamentally dishonest maneuvering by any Colorado government body. It just defies belief. I mean, just what the hell is going on here??! Let's think about it for a moment.

Every local government, every entity that has the power to levy and collect taxes, is itself subject to the rule of law. And virtually without exception, the law forbids Colorado governments to contract long-term debt without the consent of the voters.

That's why School District 11 won't be renovating/improving their buildings this year; the voters, by a narrow margin, refused to authorize the funding. And that's why the County can't use long-term debt to build a jail annex; we turned 'em down.

The reason that the law, be it a city charter or the state constitution, forbids politicians from contracting debt without voter approval is rooted in the long wisdom of our Republic.

We've learned that elected officials are often spendthrift, foolishly optimistic, and happy to spend other people's money. We've learned that governments that eagerly take on debt soon find themselves so far in hock that they can barely provide essential services.

And we've also learned that voters are, especially compared to the pols they elect, cautious, prudent and conservative. And if they aren't? Well, they have only themselves to blame.

So how can the commissioners get away with flouting the law? They're using so-called Certificates of Purchase (COPS), arcane financial instruments intended to mask indebtedness (Hi, Enron! Hello, Qwest! How're you doin', WorldCom?).

See, it's not long-term debt at all -- it's just a lease/purchase! And see, the commissioners can vote to terminate the lease any time! It's just like leasing a car, only this time it's a jail and a courthouse!

Bullshit. If it walks like a duck, acts like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck. And this, my friends, is the $6 million duck, an albatross of debt that's going to cripple county government for a generation.

Moreover, there's no realistic possibility that the County can get out of the deal; once they sign on the dotted line, we're screwed.

Representative government is not all that difficult. It means exactly that. You represent your constituents. You vote your conscience most of the time, but when your constituents tell you, by an overwhelming margin, not to do something, you don't do it. And if they tell you to do something, you do it.

Two weeks ago, we told 'em not to borrow tens of millions to build a jail.

For that matter, two years ago, we voted 2 to 1 for the governor's transportation bonds. And El Paso County residents, by supporting both TOPS and GOCO, voted to preserve open space.

So what are the commissioners doing? They're borrowing tens of millions to build a jail without voter permission, and stripping money from transportation and parks funding to support their fantasy lockup.

They're basically saying that they don't give a good goddamn about the clearly expressed will of their constituents. They're going to defund what they don't like, and use the money for what they do like.

And if you or I don't like it, tough; there's nothing we can do about it.

Or is there? It seems to me that there are two avenues: a lawsuit and a recall. A lawsuit would ask the courts to declare that COPS are in fact long-term debt, and forbid the County to issue them without voter approval.

And a recall would seek to remove some of the commissioners from office. I don't know about you, but I'm ready to go.

So here's a message to an old foe: Doug Bruce, call me! I think we can work together on this ...

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com

  • John Hazlehurst on waddling down the green mile

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