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Still pushing the limits 

Here we go again.

After a deceptively written ballot measure in 2010 gave Sallie Clark and Dennis Hisey a chance to seek third terms this year on the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners, a new measure on the Nov. 6 general election ballot will give voters a chance to undo it.

Problem is, the wording of this measure seems to be illegal.

In a June 20 e-mail, County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams tells commissioners that by state law, ballots must point out that a "yes/for" vote on any ballot is a vote in favor of changing current law, and a "no/against" vote is against changing current law — in order to "minimize voter confusion."

The measure that commissioners certified to Williams' office last year calls for just the opposite. A "yes" vote would preserve the status quo — the voter-approved, three consecutive four-year terms — while a "no" vote would change the law back to two terms.

Commissioners haven't decided whether to make a change, but Hisey says in an e-mail that he's open to it.

Yes means no

In 2010, commissioners voted 4-1, with then-Commissioner Jim Bensberg in opposition, to submit questions to voters allowing county elected officials to serve up to three, four-year terms. But the wording asked if terms should be limited to three, rather than extended to three.

That prompted many voters to complain, saying they'd been confused. Several public meetings later, commissioners refused to give voters a second chance in 2011, instead adopting a question for this year's ballot. Thus, Clark and Hisey could be elected to a third term in this year's election, and Chair Amy Lathen (running for a second term in 2012) would be able to serve until 2020.

The new measure asks if voters should allow county officials elected after Nov. 6, 2012, to serve three terms, "with the understanding that a vote of 'no' will reduce the existing three-term limit to two consecutive four-year terms and a vote of 'yes' will preserve the current voter-approved limit of three consecutive four-year terms."

Former commissioner and longtime anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce, who's back to targeting local governments following his Denver County Jail stay on tax-cheat charges, says such a question would have "no legal effect."

"You cannot have a ballot issue that, if defeated, changes anything," Bruce told commissioners last week. He suggested a measure ask simply whether voters want terms limited to two — yes or no.

Williams has urged commissioners to change the language, noting in his e-mail that the statute-mandated explanation printed on ballots that "yes" means a change and "no" means status quo will appear on this year's ballot. They have until Sept. 7 to certify a revised question to his office.

Asked on Monday about Williams' request, Clark says, "I think we'll just make sure it's as clear as possible. I think we're open to discussing how it's worded."

Pressed about the claim that the issue doesn't comply with state law, Clark changes the subject.

"I really don't want to talk about this right now," she says. "This is not the highest priority for me. I have a fire burning in my district and need to get back to that."

Three on one

A change is probably needed anyway, because the question now includes the district attorney. The DA serves both Teller and El Paso counties, and Teller officials have told Williams they have no intention of repeating the term-limits question for the DA, as El Paso does.

Which brings up another issue. In 2010, there were three term-limits measures: one for the DA, one for commissioners and one that included the treasurer, assessor, clerk and recorder, and surveyor. (The sheriff was given a third term by voters in 2006, and the coroner is under a separate requirement.)

Sherri Brunzel, a regular critic of the county, told commissioners last week that the questions should get the same treatment this year. "Now that this is lumped together in one ballot wording, we are not readdressing the issue as it was originally, where each office was considered in its own question," she said.

Commissioner Darryl Glenn, who took office in January 2011, lobbied last year to let voters revisit the measure in November 2011 and even proposed language that would disqualify Hisey and Clark from third terms.

"I still think that's the proper way to go," he says in an interview, adding that he supports changing the language, because the new measure is confusing.

"In my opinion, the clerk has put us on notice that something has to happen," Glenn says. "I still maintain that the language that was approved [for the 2012 measure] is confusing. I still believe the reason why we're putting the question on the ballot is to clarify the last issue."

Asked why the commissioners would approve a measure that was worded in contradiction of state law, Glenn says, "People can draw their own conclusion with regard to that."

zubeck@csindy.com

  • Ballot language on terms for county officials could violate state law and confuse voters.

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