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County's discussion on term limits turns into daylong spat

June 30, 2011

The El Paso County Commission spent nearly all day on the issue, but in the end no action was taken on a proposed ballot measure to ask voters if they want to reinstate a two-term limit for  elected officials.

They’re getting closer, however. Commission Chairwoman Amy Lathen said she expects ballot measure language to be finalized at next Thursday’s meeting.

The county has wrestled with a public outcry since November, when voters approved three measures that allow county commissioners and the district attorney,  clerk and recorder,  assessor and surveyor to serve three terms instead of only two.

The questions did not mention the two-term limit, asking only if those officials should be limited to three. That led some voters to believe there were no term limits, and so they voted in support of the measure.

In the aftermath, there was an uproar, and many residents called for a redo.

On Thursday, Lathen formally introduced a ballot initiative that would ask the same question — whether county officials can serve three terms — but in more straightforward language, she said.

As written, her measure would prohibit anyone elected after the 2012 general election from serving three terms. That would, in effect, exempt commissioners Sallie Clark and Dennis Hisey from the two-term limit.

Commissioner Darryl Glenn said that was “totally unacceptable,” and offered a substitute measure that would  prohibit Hisey and Clark from serving three terms. That became a sticking point, and led the commissioners to postpone a vote until next week.

Commissioners were assaulted Thursday from all sides by residents who had  bones to pick.

Some wanted an election immediately, despite an estimated $300,000 price tag for a special election. Others wanted to wait until next year. Some didn’t want another ballot question at all, and others said it was vital.

The day was tinged with political bitterness. While introducing her proposal, Lathen said the fight had involved “push polling, intimidation and direct threats” to try to force the commission to hold a special election.

Though Lathen didn’t name conservative radio show host Jeff Crank directly, she said he has been “disparaging” her and the commission for not pursuing a special election hard enough.

The hearing turned into a three-way catfight at one point, between Lathen, Clark and Crank, who also is the Colorado state director of Americans for Prosperity. Though Crank began the conversation by praising the commissioners as “good stewards” of the county, he suggested that there could be political repercussions if they didn’t handle the situation carefully.

“There would be the appearance that a deal was cut, and it was a special deal that helped a couple of commissioners,” he said. “I wouldn’t want my name associated with that, if I sat in your place.”

Lathen was livid. She asked each commissioner if she had “cut a deal” over the ballot language. They replied no, but Glenn, Clark and Peggy Littleton said they hadn’t seen her ballot language before Thursday’s meeting.

Lathen angrily defended her actions, and said Crank had said she had been “deceptive,” as well as advertising that she and other commissioners hadn’t committed to revisiting the ballot question.

“I have an email from you where I committed to the 2012 ballot. I also wrote that in The Gazette. That is absolutely factually incorrect,” Lathen said.

“Send it to me,” Crank replied, to which Lathen said, “I would be happy to. Things have been done to impugn our integrity.”

If the commission approves the measure, it would be on the November 2012 ballot.

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