City off to the bar (association)
September 16, 2009
ASPEN – Aspen’s elected leaders reflected Tuesday on a heated political debate it had with two members of the city’s election commission, who were ultimately shot down Monday on their monetary request for an outside attorney to determine what their authority is.
Instead of hiring an independent counsel, all five Aspen City Council members agreed to send the matter to the Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee.
The committee will be asked to determine the commission’s authority and jurisdiction, as well as give an opinion on whether the city attorney’s office has a conflict of interest in advising the citizen board, as two of its members, Elizabeth Milias and Chris Bryan, suggest.
They argue the city attorney’s office is conflicted in giving an opinion since it gives advice to the council and the commission’s position may go against the city’s in the future. They also argue that the attorney’s office helped form procedures and methodologies in Aspen’s first Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) election, and therefore has a conflict of interest in advising a public body that is charged with overseeing Aspen’s municipal elections.
But the council disagrees with that position, and the election commission is like all other advisory boards, which City Attorney John Worcester provides advice to.
Worcester stated in a memo to council that under the city charter, the city attorney is the legal representative of the city, and represents the public organization, which includes the election commission.
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Worcester said Tuesday that although he is confident in his position, he has no problem getting a second opinion.
Councilman Torre on Tuesday recanted his stated position made Monday night that the issue be brought before the state bar. After further consideration, he said he saw no conflict with the city attorney advising the election commission.
The tone between the council, Milias and Bryan on Monday night was at times heated, political and accusatory over the integrity of the May election, in which Torre, Mayor Mick Ireland and Councilman Derek Johnson were elected.
Torre recognized that because of that tone, and the impression that there may have wrongdoing, it muddied the conflict of interest issue and made it confusing.
Ireland said Tuesday that he took umbrage to the two commission members’ presumption that they wouldn’t agree with Worcester’s advice if they asked him what their authority is, as well as their presumption that there was wrongdoing in the election.
Ireland said the complaints that are “flooding” Bryan’s e-mail box over the election, as Bryan described Monday night, are frivolous and an attempt to discredit the election and the city government.
The commission must deal with several issues relating to May’s election, including:
• A citizen complaint filed on Aug. 30 by Aspen resident Millard Zimet claiming that his voting rights were violated in the May election because he was deprived his right under Colorado law to have a secret ballot in the IRV election. Zimet says his ballot can be identified.
• Former mayoral candidate Marilyn Marks’ pending Colorado Open Record Act request for a portion of the ballot images cast by Aspen voters so they can be checked against how the scanning machines interpreted them as part of an independent review to be conducted by an outside group.
• A pending independent review of the election and the IRV method by Eagle County resident Harvie Branscomb.
• Security, voting procedures, voting privacy and stewardship of the precinct 5a ballot box. Marks’ poll watcher, Jim Perry, on election night formally challenged the absentee ballots by the 800 or so people who walked into the City Clerk’s Office between April 20 and May 1 to cast their votes. Perry claims they were not properly handled according to state statute.
• The commission’s main role up until now was to oversee election night results and the IRV procedures. Because it is charged with oversight of Aspen’s municipal elections, it will likely examine in the future the IRV process and procedures, and ways to improve upon them.
City Clerk Kathryn Koch, who helped create Aspen’s IRV election method, also serves on the commission but has not voiced the same opinions that Milias or Bryan have expressed.
Ireland said at some point the political game engaged by a few individuals must end.
“There is a time to say it’s over, let’s move on,” he said, adding Marks’ request for ballot images is another way of asking to do a recount.
Marks’ position is that she wants the ballot images that can’t be identified or traced back to an individual so they can be used as part of Branscomb’s review, which would ultimately lead to election reforms and improving the system.
Councilman Dwayne Romero said Tuesday that the best way to handle the issues surrounding the May election and the IRV system is to move away from believing the individuals involved are sinister in their motivations. Instead, the approach should be to deal with the issues in a positive manner and get away from the politics surrounding them, he added.
“Some of this is good intent and process improvement,” Romero said.
Still, Ireland said he won’t tolerate the “political football” being tossed around, or the “misbehavior” shown by Milias and Bryan in making accusatory remarks and interrupting the mayor during a formal meeting.
“What was done last night was wrong but I’m willing to let go,” he said.