Gavel, scales of justice and law books

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Reasonable people should be able to differ over politics without coming to blows; that’s a given of civil society. In that same vein, Coloradans should be able to challenge city hall — without facing retribution. That also should be regarded as a given, but it appears to have eluded municipal officials in Estes Park.

They want a court to award them and their attorneys more than $28,000 in legal fees, to be paid by a group of residents who had unsuccessfully challenged the city in District Court over the funding of a local road project. Mind you, the city already had prevailed in court on the merits of the case, but it now evidently wanted to do a victory dance at the plaintiffs’ expense.

The citizens group’s legal foray certainly seems to have been well-intended and substantive. The group — which included a former mayor and was represented by the Lakewood-based Public Trust Institute — had contended in their court challenge filed last December that the project’s funding violated the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in the state constitution. They argued city taxpayers should have had a say because they would be on the hook for $4.2 million of the project’s tab that wasn’t covered by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The state constitutional amendment, enacted by state voters in 1992 and popularly known as TABOR, requires among other things that “any multiple-fiscal year ... debt or other financial obligation” be put to a popular vote.

The plaintiffs maintained that the local share of the project constituted such a multiple-fiscal year obligation and should have been presented to voters. They asked for Estes Park to refund the nonfederal revenue because voters didn’t weigh in.

Their quest was halted last month when Larimer County District Court Judge Juan G. Villaseñor found the plaintiffs had lacked standing to sue because the tax dollars in question weren’t local, strictly speaking. The $4.2 million balance in fact had come from the Colorado Department of Transportation, and the judge said plaintiffs thus should have sued the state.

Agree or disagree with the ruling, can we agree it’s downright punitive — and vindictive — to seek legal fees from locals who simply were trying to serve as a watchdog over their city hall? They were essentially performing a public service.

The city claimed in its motion to recover legal fees that the plaintiffs’ action “was not well grounded in fact or warranted by law.” But Public Trust Institute Legal Director Dan Burrows called the motion, “mendacious and vindictive.”

Said Burrows, ”It serves no purpose but to send a message that any citizen who dares to challenge the government will get slapped down as hard as possible, so as to discourage anyone else who thinks about asserting his rights.”

The Gazette Editorial Board

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