Mistakes made on entrance petitions | AspenTimes.com

Mistakes made on entrance petitions

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The petitioners who hope to force a vote on the Entrance to Aspen conceded some irregularities Monday in their citizens’ initiative, but argued the signatures they collected should not be tossed out on technicalities.

But if enough signatures are invalidated that the Citizens for a Small Town Entrance no longer have sufficient signatures to force action, the group should be allowed to hit the streets again to rectify the shortfall, argued attorney Mike Hoffman, representing the group.

Petitioners defended their efforts and admitted some mistakes in collecting signatures during a hearing yesterday before a specially appointed officer, Karen Goldman, secretary to the state Senate.

City Councilman Tony Hershey filed a protest that led to the hearing. He has questioned the validity of 259 signatures collected by the group on petitions aimed at halting the transfer of city property to the state for the Entrance to Aspen without a vote of the public.

Goldman said she would issue her ruling on Hershey’s complaints on Friday.

Hershey has alleged the petitioners violated various laws and procedures in collecting signatures – most notably in leaving a couple of petitions unattended, allowing people to sign their names outside the presence of the individual who was supposed to be circulating the document.

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“This is more than a technical violation. This goes to the heart of the integrity of this process,” he said.

The bulk of the signatures Hershey has called into question are being challenged on what Hoffman termed “technicalities” – names that were signed on the back of a petition sheet, for example. In a number of other cases, the individual who circulated the petition and signed an affidavit stating such failed to fill in the number of signatures on the petition, or filled in the wrong sum.

“The number is blank, which is a gross violation, or the number is inconsistent,” Hershey said. If the affidavit is invalid, then the associated petition should be invalid, as well, he argued.

“No one is calling anyone a liar,” he said. “People make mistakes.

“The integrity of the process is what I’m trying to protect here,” Hershey added in closing.

“The technicalities . do not affect the fact that the petitioners have substantially complied with the city charter,” Hoffman argued. “The law does not require strict compliance . the law requires only substantial compliance.”

At the outset of the 2 3/4-hour hearing, Hoffman conceded 14 signatures collected at Explore Booksellers “might be suspect.”

Though petition drive organizer Cliff Weiss signed the affidavit affixed to the petition that had been placed on the bookstore counter, he admitted not all of the 28 signatures were collected in his presence.

Hershey subpoenaed Katharine Thalberg, owner of the Main Street bookstore, who testified she signed the petition on the store counter but said she did not know if Weiss was present at the time or not.

“I don’t know if it was attended or not. It was on the counter. Many petitions have been placed on our counter,” she said. “Probably over the years, technical errors were committed.”

Hershey also subpoenaed Stacey Weiss, wife of Cliff Weiss, to testify regarding four signatures collected on a petition she took to Aspen Elementary School, where she is a part-time music teacher.

Stacey Weiss said she wasn’t sure which, if any, of the four names were signed in her presence. Cliff Weiss said he signed the affidavit indicating he obtained those signatures, along with two others on the petition that he did collect personally.

“I was not aware I was required to sign it,” Stacey Weiss said.

Lisa Hershey, also an employee at the school and Tony’s sister, testified that she saw the petition left unattended on a table in the teachers’ lounge after Stacey Weiss announced she would be bringing it in during a faculty meeting.

Also taking the stand were City Clerk Kathryn Koch and petition drive organizer Bert Myrin.

Myrin said the group’s initial effort to collect sufficient signatures for their initiative – they needed 797 names – was hampered by the city attorney’s opinion that their effort might fall under the definition of a referendum petition. There is a 30-day limit on the collection of signatures for a referendum petition, but none for a citizens’ initiative.

It was always the group’s intent to pursue an initiative, he said.

Hoffman argued that the group was “inappropriately rushed” by the city’s error, and that if signatures are invalidated, members should have another chance to circulate petitions.

He also said that, though Goldman may find cause to discount the 14 signatures collected at the bookstore, 22 other signatures that were collected but were not certified by Koch would more than offset the loss.

The 22 signatures were collected after the group’s initial batch of petitions had been submitted but before they were formally allowed to begin collecting additional names to reach their goal.

Koch rejected those signatures, but there is no provision of the city charter or the state code indicating they shouldn’t count, Hoffman argued.

He also noted the city charter has no provision authorizing a protest hearing on a citizens’ initiative and that his clients reserve the right to challenge the results of the proceedings in court even though they agreed to participate.

Koch ultimately certified the names of 806 registered city voters on the petitions, though the final tally could be affected by Hershey’s protest.

The petitioners have asked the City Council to rescind its decision to turn a piece of open space on the west side of town over to the Colorado Department of Transportation for the realignment of Highway 82. Or, the petition demands a public vote approving conveyance of the property.

“I think there is a whole group of people who collected signatures in good faith, and hundreds of people who signed in good faith,” said initiative supporter Yasmine de Pagter after the hearing. “To have this go on a technicality is an outrage.”

The council is scheduled to discuss a potential ballot question regarding the entrance at its July 9 work session. Members agreed to await the outcome of Hershey’s protest before taking up the petitions and the always-touchy entrance issue.

“More than 800 people tried to voice their opinion. By any sense of democracy, the City Council has an obligation to listen to the voters,” said Cliff Weiss after the hearing. “You’re disenfranchising anyone when you throw someone’s signature out. Throwing it out on a technicality is certainly petty.”

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com.]