Home rule’s hard road
EAGLE COUNTY – The answer is almost always no.Since 1993, four Colorado counties have asked voters about home rule, which requires a commission to write a new county charter. All four efforts have failed.The closest home-rule advocates have come to success since 1993 was in Summit County. In 1996, 56 percent of voters there passed a measure to form a home rule commission, a measure similar to what will be before Eagle County voters in November. After Summit County’s commission had written a proposed new county charter, more than 67 percent of voters rejected it.So what happened?”I think two things derailed it,” former Summit County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom said. “First, it didn’t go far enough, in my opinion. It should have eliminated a lot of elected officials, but elected officials were on the commission, so that didn’t get in.”Second, under home rule you’re required to have an initiative process. In effect, that could force any approved development onto the ballot. The home builders and developers fought that.”‘Failed rather miserably’It was the right to bring issues to the ballot that prompted a home-rule drive in Mesa County, the area around Grand Junction.According to Mesa County Commissioner Tillie Bishop, that county’s home-rule effort began when a group of orchard owners tried to launch a petition drive that would have restricted building new homes on pieces of property smaller than 10 acres.The county commissioners refused to put the matter on the ballot, and the orchard owners had no legal right to get a place on the ballot by petition. That’s when they launched an effort to create a charter commission.Similar to what’s happening in Eagle County this year, Mesa County voters were asked to approve forming a charter commission and in the same election elect the members of that commission.”That drew practically every activist from every side of the spectrum,” Bishop said. The end result was that the question “failed rather miserably,” Bishop said. “I’m not sure there are enough issues that people want to petition about,” he said.Bishop counts himself among those opposed to home rule. “If you don’t like the commissioners, vote them out, or use the recall process,” Bishop said.And, while a group of farmers in Palisade was fighting for its interests, Bishop said the ability to launch ballot initiatives by petition could backfire, especially if people in Grand Junction decide to support or oppose it.Five commissioners popularSouth of Grand Junction in Ouray County, voters turned down a proposal to form a home-rule commission in 2001.”A lot of voters didn’t understand it,” Commissioner Don Batchelder said. “A lot of people thought the first ballot question was approving home rule.”Batchelder said he believes Ouray County should have at least looked into the prospect of home rule. “County government can very easily become dysfunctional,” he said. That’s especially true if county departments run by different elected officials start duplicating services.”Then you end up spending a huge amount of money you don’t have,” he said.Besides the questions about what exactly the first home-rule vote would do, Batchelder said the Ouray County vote also came on the heels of scandals in the sheriff’s and assessor’s offices.”There’s a huge distrust of government by some people,” Batchelder said. “A lot of citizens want to severely limit the powers and discretion of local government. But if you put them in a box, you’re not going to get very much.”
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