It's like a bad rash that keeps coming back. The issue of term limits, that is. And El Paso County commissioners aren't doing anything to stifle the itch.
A citizens group is pushing for a do-over with an online petition, while a 7,500-member conservative group is poised to pressure commissioners to allow voters another shot at three ballot measures approved last fall, which some say were deceptively worded to encourage passage.
But from the looks of things, commissioners — the only ones who can refer measures to the ballot — don't seem friendly to a re-vote. After all, by allowing the third-term extensions to stand, they could each pocket an additional $350,000 in salary over a four-year term, plus benefits, for which they otherwise would be ineligible.
Four of five commissioners wouldn't even answer questions on the issue. Only Commissioner Dennis Hisey responded to an Independent query, and all he said was that two public meetings are planned for June or July. Even Darryl Glenn, who previously said he would make revisiting term limits his first priority upon taking office in January, didn't respond to questions, though he tells others he'll back a measure for commissioner term limits for this year's ballot; the others should wait till 2012, he says.
The argument against a new ballot question is getting help from Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams, a former commissioner. He says the county could save up to $300,000 by bypassing the November 2011 election, and that he'd support giving voters another crack in November only if 39,000 to 47,000 people say they were mistaken in their votes. That's the difference between the yes and no votes on the three questions last fall — even though only half of that difference, plus one, would have to switch for the measures to fail.
It's hard to know how Williams would envision people communicating that they were mistaken. If he's referring to a public meeting, there's no indoor facility in the county that holds 47,000 people. If he's referring to an advisory-only petition, 39,000 to 47,000 signatures sure seems a lot to ask — even a commissioner recall only requires around 8,000 to 14,000, depending on the district.
The petition, launched March 24 and found at voteagain.epetitions.net, has so far drawn 68 signatures.
In 2006, voters were asked whether they should "have the right" to elect commissioners, clerk and recorder, assessor, treasurer and sheriff "to a third consecutive term beyond the current limitation of two consecutive terms."
All questions failed, except the one for sheriff.
"Accordingly," County Attorney Bill Louis told the Independent last October, "my office considered examples from other counties that had been successful and we incorporated those into the 2010 question."
So last fall's ballot asked whether officials should be "limited to serving three consecutive terms..." The measures — for commissioners, district attorney and other elected officials including the assessor, treasurer and clerk and recorder — passed nearly 2 to 1.
When the crafty wording was widely reported, voters cried foul on media websites and in letters to the editor. Some are still.
"Why were you deceitful on this issue? Can we trust you on other issues?" one person writes in the online petition.
"We were duped," writes another.
Another public vote is being pushed by local government watchdog Rick Wehner, Democratic activist Lee Milner and radio personality Jeff Crank, who heads Americans for Prosperity, which is prepared to pressure commissioners. Crank says the issue boils down to whether commissioners value their credibility with voters; he's confident they'll resubmit the measures.
Crank quotes Commissioner Amy Lathen from an appearance on his radio show as saying, "We messed up," and "If it should have passed, it will pass again; if it shouldn't have passed, it won't."
Wehner isn't confident, noting Commissioner Peggy Littleton initially favored a re-vote but since has told a town hall meeting that the voters have already spoken. He notes that Commissioner Sallie Clark "has remained silent, which for her is totally uncharacteristic."
Bottom line, Wehner tells the Independent, is trust in government: "This is a showcase for why the public so thoroughly distrusts the county." And what makes the issue tantamount, he says, is that without trust, the public won't support any county requests for additional funding in the future — likely necessary given a backlog of unfunded capital needs and declining property tax revenues.
Assessor Mark Lowderman and Treasurer Bob Balink say they didn't lobby for term extensions for themselves. "In my opinion," Lowderman says, "we already have term limits, in every office — elections."
Williams notes several district attorneys have been defeated after one term, as was Betty Beedy in commissioner District 2 in 2000. He also notes that by staying off the November ballot, the county would save money that "would be better used to provide needed services for our citizens."
But Milner says that's a bogus argument. "The reality is, the cost for the election overall is basically the same," he says, noting that people will pay for it whether through school district taxes, special district taxes or county taxes.
He also notes that delaying the vote until 2012 would entitle Clark and Hisey to run for third terms, because the law at the time of the election would allow it. Clark made all three motions to place the term-limits measures on the November 2010 ballot, Lathen seconded, and Hisey and Williams voted "aye."