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Advice worth giving?

Dear Editor:

Lawyer: “Want my honest opinion?”

Client: “No. I want professional advice.”

According to the Jan. 15 paper, the city attorney opined that time served as mayor does not count toward term limits when running for Aspen City Council. I read the Jan. 14 opinion. It provides a rare, documented peek into the secrecy and spin of City Hall.

I had already read the Colorado Constitution and Aspen Home Rule Charter provisions affecting term limits. I had already concluded it is at best ambiguous whether the mayor’s six years as mayor count toward the two-term City Council limit. Some reasons why he might be term limited out of running for council are:

1. The city charter says in Section 3.3 that the mayor “shall have all of the powers, rights, privileges and obligations of a member of Council.” This arguably makes him a member of council during his term as mayor, so term limits on council apply to him, as well.

2. Although the city attorney argues the charter separates council from mayor, the charter groups both mayor and council under one article, Article III, titled “Council,” not “Council and Mayor.”

3. The Colorado Constitution limiting terms says a person serving under a two-year term (as does the mayor) shall not serve “more than three consecutive terms in office.” It does not say “such office” or “that office.”

There are additional legitimate issues contradicting the “opinion” of the city attorney, none of which has been tested in a court and none of which is mentioned in his “opinion.” But this is not about whether term limits prevent the mayor from serving on council without sitting it out for a term. It is about the inappropriate control one or more elected officials in City Hall exercise over our government professionals. This control prevents them from providing honest advice to council and the people. It is about the secrecy that is standard City Hall procedure and leads the city to waste time and money on inadvisable endeavors.

The city attorney’s “opinion” is only a recent example. Members of council have said their decisions are informed by legal advice from the city attorney (Jim True now and John Worcester before him). Is the public allowed to know what that advice is so they can evaluate whether it is sensible? Never. It is always shrouded by “attorney-client privilege.” Well, now we have an example of such advice, and it ain’t a pretty picture.

When one has to decide about an issue, he needs to know the pros and cons. This “opinion” is all pro and no con. It is an argument supporting the mayor’s political aspirations parading as a legal “opinion.” Reliance on that “opinion” would be idiotic because it fails even to acknowledge issues that could prove it utterly wrong. Is it possible someone in City Hall asked for “professional advice” rather than an honest opinion?

It keeps happening. Some on council wanted a plastic-bag ban or tax. They were warned it might be illegal if not put to a public vote. The city attorney “opined” it isn’t a tax, so it doesn’t need a public vote. Now the city is in litigation over it with a public-interest group. The mayor gets into a dispute with a former mayoral candidate over ballot access and drags the city into a long and costly battle that the city keeps losing in courts. We don’t know whether the city attorneys were advising council to keep spending our money on the case because the advice is “privileged.” Did elected officials insist on honest opinions from the city’s lawyers or “professional advice” to justify a political agenda? Who knows? It’s all done in secrecy.

We have professionals staffing city departments, people who are supposed to understand the pros and cons of issues. They should be free to give the council and the public honest advice, not “professional advice.” And the public should know what that advice is.

Maurice Emmer

Aspen


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