Petition fever: Is it good or bad for Aspen?
January 4, 2016
In Aspen, the people not only have spoken — they keep speaking.
The Aspen City Council's abandonment of its lodging ordinance in August 2014, the electorate's May passage of a referendum designed to empower residents on downtown land-use decisions and the defeat of Base2 Lodge in the November elections share a common genesis: They each started with a petition drive.
Those were legally binding petitions, different from the current one underway seeking to form a citizens' committee that would influence the city's hiring process for its next director of community development as well as how the department is operated.
Development, however, is the shared theme of the recent petitions.
"That's a new one, development," said former Mayor Mick Ireland, who was subjected to three recall elections that came as a result of petitions during his time as a Pitkin County commissioner. He prevailed each time.
The current petition drives place the future of Aspen development in the form of direct democracy over representative democracy. Mayor Steve Skadron said he isn't sure if that's a good thing.
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"I really appreciate an engaged local citizenry that affects our community, and I think our democratic process is healthier because of citizen engagements," he said. "That said, I believe the fundamentals of representative democracy show a system that has worked so well for so many for so long."
Architects of some of the petitions say the residents' efforts are evidence of a community whose values and desires aren't reflected in the decisions made by the City Council or City Hall.
"I sense an undercurrent of that," Skadron said. "But if you don't like the decisions council is making, vote them out."
While petition fever might have gripped Aspen's political scene, it's not the same in nearby municipal governments.
There have been no petition drives over the past five years, from 2011 to 2015, in Vail.
Carbondale saw just one during the same period, when residents launched a petition effort to take the town's plastic-grocery-bag ban to voters. The ban held up at the polls in April 2012 by a slim margin.
An opposite scenario played out in Basalt that same April, when voters defeated the Town Council's bag ban after a resident collected enough signatures to put it on a ballot.
Currently in Basalt, a petition effort is aiming to influence future development in Basalt by having voters approve the town's purchase of 2.3 acres at the Pan and Fork site, which currently is owned by Roaring Fork Community Development Corp.
Aspen, meanwhile, saw five legally binding petition drives between 2011 and 2015, according to City Clerk Linda Manning:
• One unsuccessfully aimed to reverse the city's plastic-bag-ban ordinance in 2011.
• Foes of the hydroelectric plant achieved their mission to reverse Ordinance 30 at the polls in May 2012.
• In August 2014, the City Council rescinded its lodge-incentive program just two weeks after passing it. The culprit: Aspen attorneys Cavanaugh O'Leary and now-councilman Bert Myrin gathered about 500 of the 641 required signatures in two days to bring Ordinance 19 to a vote.
• In May, Aspen voters passed Referendum 1, which quashed the City Council's authority to grant variances on height, mass, parking and affordable housing on downtown commercial land-use applications without a public vote. A petition effort placed the referendum on the ballot.
• And in November, the electorate defeated the Base2 Lodge proposal following a petition drive that ultimately resulted in the City Council referring the matter to voters after it approved the project with multiple variances in June.
Aspen resident Ward Hauenstein, a key player behind the hydropower and Base2 petitions, said his motivation was simple: "What it boiled down to for me was that representative democracy wasn't working according to what I wanted from my elected officials."
Resident Maurice Emmer, who said that as of Sunday the director of community development petition had gathered 60 signatures, said there's no particular goal for the current drive — other than getting the attention of city officials and lawmakers. Because the petition has no legal teeth, the petition wields only symbolic power, Emmer said.
"It's just one element of an effort to get more public involvement in the selection process," he said. "It has no legal effect; it's just a group of citizens that think City Council ought to be doing these things."
The petition asks that the city "make no commitments" to promote anyone within the department to its director. It also asks the City Council to appoint a citizens' commission of at least five members who would work with City Manager Steve Barwick to establish criteria and a search process for the new director.
The petition comes after Chris Bendon announced his resignation as director of community development in December, along with Historic Preservation Commission officer Sara Adams. Both are leaving City Hall to start a planning firm together.
Referendum petitions like the one for Referendum 2 require authorized signatures of at least 10 percent of the number of electors registered to vote in the last general municipal election.
An initiative petition — which is what led to the passage of Amendment 64 legalizing recreational marijuana in Colorado in 2012 — requires 15 percent.
City Attorney Jim True was a county commissioner who was subjected to a failed recall petition in the 1990s. The recall was launched because True and others were "no-growth individuals," he said.
The current trend in Aspen politics is seemingly opposite — to slow development and growth.
"It fluctuates in ebbs and flows," True said of the current and past petition efforts. "When I was commissioner, the recall petitions were targeted at no-growth individuals."