You can, as Yogi Berra once said, observe a lot by just watching.
For connoisseurs of political hypocrisy, inside power plays, and naked displays of power, there was a lot to observe on Monday evening at the Pikes Peak Regional Development Center.
The event: a hearing for county commissioners to receive public comments about proposals to re-submit last November's term-limits measure. The crowd: about 60, including political activists, former elected officials, cold-eyed power brokers, wannabe power brokers, irritated citizens and cynical journalists. The issue: Last year, commissioners referred a term-limits measure to county voters. It was cunningly, even deceitfully, worded.
"Shall persons elected to the office of El Paso County Commissioner be limited to serving three consecutive terms, a modification of the current terms permitted?" Sounds fine, except that commissioners were already limited to two terms, so the measure may not have been fully understood by voters, who approved it by a 62-38 margin.
Opponents want a do-over. Some claimed it was a crass, self-interested maneuver by a handful of elected officials, who correctly guessed that the voters were too dumb to figure out their scam. Of the five sitting commissioners, three (Amy Lathen, Dennis Hisey and Sallie Clark) supported referring the issue last November. They had a dog in the fight — a big, valuable dog.
County commissioners are paid $87,300 annually. That's a lot for a position that involves little more than meetings. For any aspiring pol, it's a dream job: no supervisors, no required hours, no work product, no sales quotas, no reports to write, and long, lazy weekends away from the office.
Four more years? Why not? $87,300 x 4 + absurdly generous county benefits = >$400,000!
Newly elected commissioners Darryl Glenn and Peggy Littleton support the do-over, while the "three-term three" (Lathen, Hisey and Clark) apparently oppose any such nonsense. Unless one of them changes his/her mind, there will be no revote — not this year, and not in 2012.
And why should they commit political seppuku? Even if the re-vote folks come up with credible opponents in the 2012 Republican primary, why should commissioners deal themselves out of the game?
Well, given the seething anger Monday night, there may be a storm brewing. It was one thing when folks seeking a re-vote were a handful of rag-tag lib'ruls led by Lee Milner; it's another when Sean Paige and Jeff Crank enter the fray, along with Ed Jones, Ed Bircham and other GOP activists.
Nearly 20 county residents spoke for and against a re-vote. They were polite and controlled, and at least pretended to believe that the commissioners value public trust and integrity in government far more than their measly salaries. Only small-businessman Michael Schlierf dared call a spade a spade.
"Your plan worked," he said. "We were manipulated. Why are you not asking for our forgiveness? Why should we ask for your permission?"
Stephannie Finley, Mayor Steve Bach's de facto communications director, spoke against a re-vote, saying, "I ask you not to put it on the ballot. Spend the $300,000 to create jobs."
Finley said later that she was speaking as a private citizen.
"The mayor doesn't even know I'm here," she said.
Disingenuous? Maybe. But the pols in attendance took it as a clear sign that Bach wouldn't favor a recount.
So how can opponents prevail? They'll have to peel off one of the three-term three. Can they make a deal? Threats and promises won't work with Lathen or Clark; the Iron Lady and the Redhead are invulnerable in their districts. But Hisey doesn't have that kind of power base.
"Throw Sallie and Amy under the bus with a last-minute vote switch," the Americans for Prosperity boys could suggest, "and we'll support you for Marsha Looper's seat in the House when she's termed out. And if you don't go along, we'll primary you in 2012, and you'll be S.O.L."
Would Hisey play? Serving in the Legislature involves hard work, travel and low pay — anathema to any incumbent commissioner.
Today, the spectacle resumes, with yet another hearing. Will it be Kabuki theater or cage fighting? Schlierf thinks he knows.
"Did you see the way Amy Lathen looked at me?" he asked after Monday's hearing. "Her eyes just drilled right through me."