A couple hot issues underscore how impotent voters really are in county government.
Earlier this month, Great Parks-Great Communities, a citizen advocacy group, considered asking El Paso County commissioners to place a measure on the November ballot that would raise the sales tax by .15 of 1 percent to fund parks maintenance countywide, including in Colorado Springs. But despite surveys showing overwhelming support, the group decided against it.
Springs Mayor Steve Bach and county commissioners opposed the tax hike, leading parks advocates to believe they'd be doomed at the ballot box. After walking away from the commissioners' meeting, they acknowledged their need to stay in good standing with government if they ever hope to see parks funding recover from deep, recession-era budget cuts.
Meanwhile, a group of voters angry over last year's term-limit extension for county officials want a second crack at a ballot question this fall. But they, too, must persuade commissioners — some of the very people who stand to gain from that term. They'll be deciding the matter Thursday (see csindy.com for updates).
Had either of those issues arisen in a city or town, voters could have collected signatures of registered voters to force the issue onto the ballot. Not so at the county level.
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Petition rights are a long-standing provision at the city and state level, and voters have petitioned hundreds of measures onto ballots through the years. In 2009, Colorado Springs voters pushed Issue 300 onto the ballot, which led to the city's Stormwater Enterprise being abolished.
It's not an easy process, because rules dictate who may circulate petitions, the required number of registered voters who need to sign the petitions, and how the petitions are written. But the process gives power to the people.
With county government, the people are comparably powerless. County Attorney Bill Louis says state law does allow citizens to petition the county for a sales tax increase if they collect signatures from 5 percent of registered voters, or 19,170 people, based on the county's most recent figures.
But Susan Davies with the Trails and Open Space Coalition says her group's legal counsel believes the law doesn't allow a tax hike petition to specify how the new money would be spent, unless it's for transit, water rights, health care or mental health. That means the parks measure, if petitioned on, would have fed money into the county's general fund without being reserved for parks.
"There's no doubt," she says, "that if that [petition] option had been open to us, we'd be in the middle of that kind of effort right now. But we were told the only gatekeepers were the commissioners."
Louis says extending the right to petition county government could be authorized by the General Assembly, but Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, who also is a lawyer, disagrees. He says the right to petition must be embedded in the Constitution, and constitutional changes require a vote of the people, whether initiated by petition or referred by the Legislature.
If by initiative, proponents would have to collect roughly 75,000 signatures of registered voters statewide. If by referendum, two-thirds of both the House and Senate must approve it. Gardner says he's not optimistic the two chambers would do so, because county commissioners would be working to squelch the proposal.
"As soon as something like that gets introduced, the county commissioners — Republican and Democrat alike, across the state — would start lobbying their legislators pretty hard," Gardner says. "It's not something commissioners want to see happen."
Which brings us to the term-limits issue. Last year, commissioners submitted ballot measures asking voters whether county elected officials (commissioners, clerk and recorder, treasurer, assessor and district attorney) should be "limited" to three four-year terms, rather than asking to extend term limits from two to three terms. Voters approved the measures by a wide margin.
Dozens of citizens, though, later accused commissioners of deception in ballot language that Louis acknowledges was crafted "to be successful."
On Monday night, only about 60 people showed up for a public meeting, but those angling for a do-over outnumbered others about 10 to 1, based on a show of hands.
Commissioner Sallie Clark, who with Dennis Hisey is eligible to run for a third term next year, has said the voters' decision last November should be honored. Commissioners also note they can't afford to spend $300,000 on an election this year.
Agitators say they can't afford not to.
"What dollar figure can you put on public trust?" local libertarian activist and former Springs Councilor Sean Paige asked commissioners. "Elections are the lifeblood of the system that we have."
One man even expected an apology from commissioners.
But take heart. Depending on what happens on the term-limits measures, and how vengeful voters feel about it, there is one petition avenue open to voters, albeit a difficult one: recall. Murmurs are circulating about a recall of Clark, though it's worth noting that no commissioner has been recalled in at least 30 years.
To recall Clark, activists would need 14,369 signatures; to recall Hisey, 8,479; Amy Lathen, 12,854; Darryl Glenn, 11,799; and Peggy Littleton, 8,234.