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Combining clerks and elections

Between the Lines


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Wayne Williams, in his first year as El Paso County clerk and recorder, admits that he has a recurring nightmare.

In it, Williams finds out that the Colorado Springs city government is "stealing" the county elections department head, Liz Olson, hiring her to become the next city clerk.

"And Liz is one person we would never want to lose," Williams says.

Williams and I might disagree on other issues, political or whatever, but not on this subject. It's safe to say that all local media outlets, including the Independent, respect Olson's professionalism. Williams already felt the same before he was elected last November, and he makes it clear that he knew better than to meddle in Olson's operation after he took office.

Realizing that the city has not yet replaced its recently retired clerk, Kathryn Young, Williams has turned proactive. If the city is serious about tightening its financial belt, why not use the county clerk's staff?

So, Williams published a slick presentation for City Council, outlining ways the city could compress its clerk-related functions. The most extreme idea, merging the city and county clerk offices, would require considerable effort, including a broad revision of the City Charter. County commissioners would want to have input as well.

Most likely, we'll see that proposal and others combined into a sweeping charter review, already pushed by Mayor Steve Bach and likely supported by City Council. But as Colorado Springs found out with its last charter review, which ended in early 2005, those recommendations aren't guaranteed for Council or voter approval, no matter how sensible they might be.

And regardless, some of Williams' more modest ideas don't have to wait.

First, the city could "hire" the county to run all municipal elections. As we saw during Young's tenure, the city has struggled to conduct its biennial elections. The city clerk's office has a full load with its other duties, and trying to oversee a complex election every two years has become a recipe for trouble.

Meanwhile, the county already has an elections office and has shown its dexterity in handling elections for every other municipality (from Fountain and Monument to Calhan and Manitou Springs), school district and water/special district in the county. Adding Colorado Springs would not be traumatic, since it's already done for all November elections.

That takes us to the next point. As long as the county might supervise city elections, why continue having them in April of odd-numbered years? Why not move them to November? It would save money, perhaps as much as $200,000 each time, because the city would share costs with those other towns and districts. And since all of them run nonpartisan elections (in which candidates don't divulge any political party affiliations), that wouldn't be an issue.

There's another factor, as we saw in the recent city election. With a filing deadline in January, and mail ballots going out in March, campaigns are squeezed. Moving elections to November would allow candidates more time to make an impression, since nonpartisan campaigns (except for mayor) usually are low-budget.

Turnout also should be better. In November 2009, when the city had only two measures on the ballot, Issue 300 (effectively ending the Stormwater Enterprise) pulled 97,692 voters and 2C (a tax increase), 99,524. Yet, in the April 2011 election with the huge, first strong-mayor race as well as seven City Council positions, the turnout was only 90,558. (Of course, it's also true that 187,085 ballots went out to city voters in 2009, compared to just 151,412 last April, perhaps adding to the argument that all registered voters should receive mail ballots, active or inactive.)

The sensible solution: City Council should decide quickly on "hiring" the county to run all municipal elections, and start the ball rolling toward a simple City Charter amendment (not part of a charter review), moving city elections from April to November of odd-numbered years, starting in 2013. As for consolidating clerk offices, both sides can address that later. But this way, Liz Olson's office would handle every election in El Paso County. Period.

Sometimes, common sense can go a long way toward improving local government.

And this way, Wayne Williams wouldn't have any more of those nightmares.


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