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Could term limit measures be 'reconsidered'?

November 17, 2010

More than two weeks after the Nov. 2 election, the voter-approved term limit extensions for county officials remains far from settled.

El Paso County Attorney Bill Louis confirmed Wednesday that his office is researching whether county commissioners could legally “reconsider” the term limit ballot measures that voters passed by more than 60 percent, thereby essentially overturning the vote by a resolution of the commissioners.

Specifically, Louis said he is looking into “the lawful authority to legislate a term limit reduction from three terms back to two.” He made the comment in response to an e-mail from The Gazette.

Legislating a term-limit reduction without voter approval would be unprecedented among county leadership, said Chip Taylor, executive director of Colorado Counties Inc., a nonprofit membership organization that assists county commissioners.

“That’s a brand new one on me,” he said. “It’s a novel situation. I’ve never heard of commissioners being able to say ‘never mind.’”

Decreasing term limits from three to two would be another first for a Colorado county, Taylor said. Of Colorado’s 64 counties, 56 have approved term limit extensions for various elected county officials, more than half of which cover county commissioners, according to Taylor’s organization.

The Nov. 2 ballot measures asked voters to increase the number of terms an official can serve in office from eight to 12 years for most elected county officials, including commissioners.

But since the election, some voters have said they were deceived by the ballot questions, which did not use the word “extend” and did not mention that the current limit is two terms. A “yes” vote meant extending the limit to three terms.

Public outcry has led two citizens’ activist groups to circulate online petitions to encourage the commissioners to refer a less ambiguous term limit measure to a future ballot.

Rick Wehner, who is organizing one drive, said he has received nearly 700 emails from angry voters. Radio talk show host Jeff Crank, also of Americans for Prosperity Colorado, said some commissioners each received more than 400 e-mails this week after he launched his initiative. And commissioner-elect Darryl Glenn has pledged to hold a town hall meeting on the matter.

Commissioner Sallie Clark led the effort to refer the measures to the ballot and has staunchly defended the ballot language. On  Wednesday, she said she asked Louis to explore all options, including commissioner reconsideration of the ballot measures.

“I’ve heard from a lot of folks who want to know what the options are,” she said, “and I think we need to look at all of the remedies that exist as it relates to the clarity of the ballot issue. It’s evident that not everyone understood the question.”

Louis said if it’s legal, commissioners would look at returning term limits to their pre-election status by a resolution, instead of again putting the issue to voters.

“If lawful, this would be a simple and less costly solution than referring a term limit reduction question on the November 2011 ballot,” he wrote in the e-mail.

But that course of action would not sit well with some voters.

“It seems like it would be kind of presumptuous to assume that all voters made a mistake in their voting,” said Colorado Springs resident Nancy Strong. She said, in general, she doesn’t favor term limits because “I believe every election is a term limit, and if someone’s doing a good job, you should be able to elect them again.”

Another possible method would be for the commissioners to get a court order to stop the approved votes from becoming law, Taylor said, most likely having to do with the question not describing what it was intended to say.

Commissioners have said they mimicked the language used by other Colorado counties in which voters approved term limit extensions.

Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College, said it’s hard to know the commissioners’ intent in approving the ballot language, which was drafted by the county attorney’s office.

“People tend to put things on the ballot because they want them to pass,” he said. “It’s perfectly normal for people to try to word a ballot title so it will be attractive.”

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