Did county ignore voters’ mandate?
When Jeffrey Evans launched his campaign to recall four of the five Pitkin County commissioners, he said the reason for the recall was the commissioners’ refusal to hold an election on valleywide rail financing this fall.
According to Evans, the voters “mandated” an election this fall when they approved a ballot question on rail studies he sponsored last fall. That question literally stated that if the voters had not approved financing for a rail system by Nov. 3, 1999, the county could not spend any more money on rail studies.
Evans told the Times last month that “everybody knew” the question on last fall’s ballot actually was a call for a financing question this fall, and that point of view seems to hold true in the language he drafted for the recall petitions against Dorothea Farris, Shellie Roy Harper, Mick Ireland and Leslie Lamont.
“The timing of a vote on rail funding was mandated by the voters of Pitkin County in an election held November 3, 1998, and a petition initiated in the City of Aspen,” the petition reads.
A review of Evans’ own ballot question, along with statements, letters to the editor and paid advertising leading up to last year’s election seems to tell a different story.
The question Evans and his colleagues put to the voters didn’t mention rail funding at all. It read as follows: “If all financing necessary for the construction of the Roaring Fork Valley Rail Project has not been approved through public referendum, whether at the City of Aspen or the Pitkin County level, prior to November 3, 1999, shall Pitkin County refrain from making further expenditures for rail studies until such time as the expansion of Highway 82 between Basalt and Aspen is completed?”
The “Rail Ain’t Real” advertising campaign orchestrated last fall by the Common Sense Alliance, the anti-rail group on which Evans serves as treasurer, seemed to make it clear the question was about rail studies. At least three full-page ads, one in The Aspen Times and two in the Aspen Daily News, said, “Vote Yes On Ballot Question 100 (sets time limit on current rail studies).”
In an Aug. 31, 1998 letter responding to concerns raised by County Attorney John Ely, Evans went on the record saying the ballot question was limited to the question of rail studies. Ely was worried that Evans’ countywide question could cause problems with the creation of a transportation taxing district that encompassed the Roaring Fork Valley, but excluded some parts of the county, such as Redstone and Thomasville.
“Evans maintained, however, that the formation of a district would be `distinct’ from a `rail study,’ and prohibition against spending money on such studies should not interfere with the formation of a district,” the Times reported on Sept. 8, 1998.
The county attorney was also concerned about the phrase “all financing necessary,” which he said could include just local money, or local money plus state and federal money.
Evans replied that without federal and state funding in place, “voter approval or disapproval would be irrelevant, as the rail proposal would not be viable.”
Evans hung up during an interview yesterday, before the reporter he accused of being “obtuse” (lacking sharpness, dull) could ask why he was insisting on a rail financing question when critical state funding for the final leg of Highway 82, and the proposed light-rail system, is anything but secure.
In letters to the editor sent by Evans to both local papers last fall, he never said that Question 100 was anything but a vote on rail studies. In fact, there is no record he ever said much at all about his question or the one asking voters, “Do you support the concept of valleywide rail?” Nor did he say that if voters go his way on both questions, then it is a mandate for a rail financing question in November 1999.
The crux of Evans’ argument for recall, however, isn’t any one transgression. Instead, it’s what he sees as a pattern of willful defiance by the commissioners.
Question 100 passed in the county, 56 percent to 44 percent. The question asking voters if they “support the concept of valleywide rail” failed with just over 49 percent saying yes and just under 51 percent saying no.
More recently, Evans maintains, the commissioners “willfully defied the wishes of the electorate” by refusing to put a light rail financing question on the county ballot to accompany the one placed on the city ballot with a citizens’ initiative petition. Evans points out that 840 Aspen voters – who are also Pitkin County voters – signed the petition in the city and therefore expected a companion question from the county.
Asked why he didn’t go ahead and run a citizens’ initiative in the county, Evans said, “I didn’t want to make people have to sign twice.” Besides, he added, the city initiative specifically depends on passage of an identical financing scheme in the county.
What he doesn’t point out is that it may be 20 years before the Colorado Department of Transportation can afford the final leg of Highway 82 expansion, which includes new bridges across Castle Creek and Maroon Creek that are needed to carry the train people are being asked to vote on. As Evans says in his August 1998 correspondence with the county attorney, without state funding in place, “voter approval or disapproval would be irrelevant, as the rail proposal would not be viable.”
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