Aspen: Entrance lawsuit is misguided
July 21, 2006
Aspen officials maintain that a group hoping to force an election on the Entrance to Aspen is barking up the wrong legal tree in demanding a judge overrule the city clerk.That is the position of a document filed Friday in Pitkin County District Court, which is in response to a lawsuit by Jeffrey Evans and Curtis Vagneur, two area residents involved in the election issue.Aspen City Clerk Kathryn Koch in June rejected initiative petitions filed by Evans and Vagneur, who hoped to gather enough signatures to ask voters in November to choose between two alternative new routes linking Highway 82 to Main Street, and to require the city to see that a four-lane highway is built along the winning route.Koch concluded that the petitions technically sought to interfere with the city government’s “administrative” function, rather than call on voters to enact “legislation” directly, as Evans and Vagneur maintain. The city charter permits voter initiatives only in legislative matters, not administrative function, and Koch decided that the petition goals “constitute administrative matters that are not subject to the initiative process.”The suit argued that Koch misinterpreted state law and the city codes, and asked a judge to either hold a quick hearing on the lawsuit or grant an injunction directing Koch to approve the petitions for circulation among the city’s voters.The two election proponents, along with an issue committee known as Entrance Solution, say their proposal would provide a solution to Aspen’s traffic congestion problems, which have bedeviled city and state officials for decades.The voters last had a say on the matter in a November 2002 advisory question, when they endorsed the existing Highway 82 alignment along the existing “S-curves,” as opposed to a “straight shot” across the city-owned Marolt Open Space lands. Both voters and the Colorado Department of Transportation endorsed that straight-shot route in 1996. And while the voters seemed to change their minds in 2002, the advisory nature of the question left the straight-shot plans in place.City Attorney John Worcester drew up the response to the Evans-Vagneur lawsuit. The response maintains, among other things, that the petitions seek to rescind and amend a 2002 ordinance City Council passed, an ordinance that Worcester argues was an “administrative action.” Any attempt to repeal the ordinance, Worcester asserts, must also be administrative in nature, rather than legislative.Rescinding the ordinance would also require the consent of the Colorado Department of Transportation, Worcester said in the response, since the 2002 ordinance also led to a land exchange between the city and CDOT. The Evans-Vagneur initiative would essentially cancel that exchange.The city charter states that initiatives and referenda can apply only to legislative, policy-oriented actions, not day-to-day operations, Worcester argued. Citing a 1977 case, Worcester said courts have concluded that if normal administrative functions were subject to voter control by referendum, it “would result in chaos and bring the machinery of government to a halt.”Seeming to attempt to deflect charges that the city is somehow trifling with the will of the voters, Worcester wrote at one point in his response, “The City Clerk’s decision to not approve the Plaintiffs’ initiative ordinance was not made lightly, and was not made capriciously or arbitrarily,” and noted that part of Koch’s job is to “protect electors from voting on meaningless questions” as well as “to protect City Council’s legislative powers from the potential abuse of the initiative and referendum process.”Efforts to contact Evans for comment on the city’s response were not successful.The arguments in the case have been assigned to District Court Judge Daniel Petre.