Do ballot initiatives co-opt work of elected officials?

Colo. unusual for extending initiatives to cities

Before a discussion to limit synthetic pesticide in city parks, Durango Mayor Doug Lyon criticized the Colorado Constitution and City Charter for making it too easy for citizens to put policy issues on the ballot.

“Editorially, I will note that any time somebody goes out and gathers 500 or so signatures, they can force the city of Durango to a special election on anything they can gather 500 signatures for. Pick the one thing you think is absolutely heinous, if you get 500 signatures, you can force us to spend $20,000 on an election,” Lyon.

Beside cost, officials worry about citizens initiatives creating a badly written law that is not subject to the normal vetting and tweaking process for legislation. “That’s why we have elected officials,” Councilor Dick White said in an interview.

Others also fear that it opens the door for meddling by special interests with deep pockets, such as a wealthy philanthropist such as George Soros funding the legalization of medical marijuana in many states through initiatives.

But the citizens initiative is enshrined in Article 5 of the Colorado Constitution and Article 7 of the Durango City Charter, which giveresidents the right to bypass the City Council and pass an ordinance by popular vote, such as the current proposal to limit synthetic pesticides and encourage organic care for city property. Unless withdrawn by activists, it will appear on the November ballot.

Organically Managed Parks Team Durango has entered into negotiation with the city and a compromise could be announced at the Sept. 3 council meeting, said Katrina Blair, a group member.

Colorado is unusual as one of a few states that extends citizens initiatives to the municipal level, said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, but this same principle does not apply to county government, special-taxing districts or school districts.

As a home-rule city, Durango requires the maximum number of petition signatures for a ballot initiative allowed by the state Constitution, which is 15 percent of the last municipal election, which has been interpreted by city officials as the last election of councilors and not the municipal elections for franchises or to change the City Charter.

F, the state constitution requires 5 percent of the number of votes cast in the last election for secretary of state.

Historically, ballot initiatives were created during the Progressive Era of the early 1900s to provide an outlet for citizens who perceived government as unresponsive, although the concept dates back even further, to ancient Greece, a time when male citizens voted up or down on policy issues.

A nonresponsive government is how Tricia Gourley, a member of Organically Managed Parks Team Durango, justified the group’s ballot initiative.

“My experience is that we’ve been trying to talk to City Council and parks and rec. I have come here and spoke (before),” Gourley said at a council meeting.

“My experience is that we get shot down, that there’s not a lot of openness to the idea of organic parks, and there’s a lot of resistance to it,” she added. “There was a large group in the community that was feeling frustrated, not heard. I think that’s what brought us to this moment.”

If the initiative does not pass, the process will at least force a discussion and educate the public on the dangers of synthetic pesticides, members of the groupsaid.

While some city councilors are sympathetic to the cause, officials and others have criticized the citizens’ initiative process.

City Clerk Amy Phillips has estimated the cost of the ballot question about limiting pesticides at $19,000, which would cost $7,000 more than the special election in July to change the City Charter.

The organic initiative would be a ballot question included in the general election in November.

When asked for clarification, Phillips said the organic initiative would add to the city’s total cost for the election, which she then estimated at $19,000 or more. The citywill ask voters to ratify a franchise agreement for the La Plata Electric Association. Phillips said elections becomemore expensive as more issues are added to the ballot, especially in a presidential year in which more people are voting.

City officials also criticized the proposed organic ordinance as too ambiguous and unworkable, saying it would be creating legal liabilities, such as making the city pay the legal costs of a litigant who sued the city for not enforcing the organic regulations.

But Mamet said the purpose of an initiative is to decide broad policy issues. It’s then up to the city to decide how to implement the policy.

“It may be that it’s not written with great clarity, and it will be up to the city to figure it out,” Mamet said.

Determining the will of the voters is not always so easy.

What “I say about TABOR (the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights) is that ‘I know what it says, but I don’t know what it means,’” Mamet said.

Another example would be medical marijuana, which became legal through a statewide initiative.

“We have had no end to the heartburn to figure out at the municipal level the licensure, enforcement and oversight of medical marijuana dispensaries,” Mamet said. “In our judgment, the amendment was not written as clearly as it should have been written. When it’s not, issues happen.”

Durango, for example, has imposed a moratorium on new licenses for medical marijuana businesses as it re-drafts ordinances on the industry.

Mamet noted that Soros, one of the wealthiest men in the world, has helped fund ballot initiatives for medical marijuana in many states.

Colorado once tried to limit the influence of wealthy special interests by banning paid circulators, or those who gather signatures for petitions, but this was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court because it limited free speech.

Voters have been resistant to changing Colorado’s initiative process because they seem to appreciate having their say, Mamet said.

“Some of these things may not make a lot of sense, but we want the right to say it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Mamet said. “It’s an odd way of doing business, but it’s the way we do it.”

jhaug@durangoherald.com

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