Do term limits shackle voters?
Imagine a state where as many as two-thirds of the sheriff’s departments are run by rookies, and you’ll see what Colorado may look like on Jan. 1, 2003.
A crisis of experience is coming to Pitkin County and as many as 39 other counties around the state because of a provision in the state constitution that sets term limits on local offices.
For Pitkin County, one of two home-rule counties in the state, that means the forced retirement of the three elected officials – assessor, clerk and sheriff – who run the only departments in county government not managed by an appointed bureaucrat. For the other counties, it means new men and women in as many as seven separate elected offices, including coroner, surveyor and treasurer.
Term limits have already ousted former County Commissioner Bill Tuite, who was barred from running in last year’s election, and turned Mick Ireland, who is in his second four-year term, into a lame-duck commissioner. And they prohibit Assessor Tom Isaac, County Clerk Sylvia Davis and Sheriff Bob Braudis from seeking re-election in 2002.
Whether that’s considered a good thing or a bad thing depends on whom you ask – even when the people you’re asking are directly affected by term limits.
“Personally, I oppose term limits,” said Sheriff Braudis. “I think they handcuff the voters, and I support posing a question to them asking if they want to get rid of term limits in Pitkin County.”
“I’m not necessarily opposed to term limits,” said County Clerk Davis. “Maybe we should allow as many as four terms instead of just two. That permits a lot of knowledge to be gained and used [by elected officials], which is beneficial to the community.” State an early leader Term limits have been a source of controversy around the nation for most of the last decade, except perhaps in Colorado. This state has, in fact, been a leader in setting limits on the amount of time federal, state and local elected officials can stay in office.
In 1990, voters here joined voters in California and Oklahoma to enact term limits on federal and state offices for the first time in the nation’s history, according to a special report by the Washington Post, setting off a wave of citizen’s initiatives around the country that resulted in the enactment of term limits in 16 other states.
In 1994, Colorado voters amended the section of the state constitution on term limits to include elected officials from every local jurisdiction – city, county, school district, sewer district – but they also gave the voters in each of those jurisdictions the power to opt out. Pitkin County voters were in the minority that year, rejecting the amendment by an eight percent margin, according to reports in The Aspen Times.
Voters in 23 counties were asked in November 1996 to rescind local term limits. Only five of those counties – Custer, Dolores, Fremont, San Juan and Washington – did away with some or all term limits. The limits remained in effect in 17 counties. Including the original five counties, 23 of Colorado’s 63 counties have rescinded term limits for at least some of their elected officials; voters in 32 other counties have come out in favor of keeping term limits in place, according to records from Colorado Counties, Inc., an association that represents county commissioners on state and federal issues.
“I definitely wouldn’t call it a trend,” said the association’s director of legislative affairs, Chris Castilian. “Some smaller, rural counties have tested the waters.”
Castilian noted that it’s not always easy to find people willing to become sheriff or county commissioner in some of Colorado’s more isolated counties, so the idea of forcing out those who are willing is not practical for some communities. In more populous jurisdictions, like the city of Denver, efforts to rescind term limits have been resoundingly rejected by the voters. Garco dumps term limits Among the counties that have rescinded term limits for all elected officials, Garfield County is the most populous, according to the county association’s research analyst. Voters in Grand County – where Grand Junction is located – voted in 1998 to exempt the county coroner, but impose limits on the rest of their elected officials.
“Personally, I agreed that we should have done away with term limits for county officials,” said Garfield County Clerk Mildred Alsdorf, who has been in office since 1978. “It takes four years to learn the job well, then with term limits you only have four more years to actually do the work.”
Alsdorf said the idea for rescinding term limits in Garfield County came from elected officials. The Garfield Board of County Commissioners agreed to a referendum on the issue, and in November 1998, the county’s electorate voted to rescind them by a 6 percent margin – 53 percent if favor, 47 percent against.
Neither Sheriff Braudis nor County Clerk Davis is willing to say whether they would propose a similar referendum to the county commissioners here. So far, county voters have remained silent on the issue as well.
Because Pitkin County is a home-rule county, voters here are able to put questions on the ballot through a citizen’s initiative.
Colorado’s only other home-rule county is Weld County, where Greeley is located, but voters there enacted local term limits in the late 1970s, according to Colorado Counties’ Castilian.
If voters here feel compelled to rescind some or all of the term limits on local offices, a ballot question can be authorized either through a citizen’s initiative or a majority vote by the Board of County Commissioners. Whether that has to happen during the general election in 2000, or can occur in an off year – 1999 or 2001 – is up for debate.
Castilian said that an opinion from the state attorney general indicates referendums about term limits must occur during statewide elections on even-numbered years.
Locally, Davis said County Attorney John Ely has issued his own opinion on the question. He believes that because Pitkin County is a home-rule county, it can hold an election any year.
Braudis said he’d like to see the voters have a chance to rescind term limits sometime in the future, because he believes they are perfectly capable of “throwing the bums out” whenever necessary.
“The voters don’t make the wrong choice more than once,” he said. “If they make a mistake in one election, they correct it in the next.”
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