Several times in the two months before the recent election, we raised a specific red flag for Independent readers.
First, this column on Sept. 9 ("Longer term limits? Really?") condemned the El Paso County commissioners' clandestine move to add three term-limit extension questions to the 2010 ballot. The alarms went off for several reasons, starting with the fact that commissioners hadn't given constituents a chance to offer their input on the idea.
Then, as soon as the actual ballot language emerged, a few voters raised hell — and we followed suit. First on our blog at csindy.com, then in a story by Pam Zubeck that was part of our final pre-election package in the Oct. 28 issue.
But term-limit talk got lost in the drama of the marquee races for governor and U.S. Senate, plus Amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101, and the strong-mayor question from the city. The typical less-than-fully informed voter in Colorado Springs apparently saw those questions about limiting county officials to three terms, assumed that meant no change — or tighter limits than we already had — and simply voted yes.
Just as we feared, and warned.
Unfortunately, market research shows that the Indy has 125,000 regular readers in El Paso County, out of about 450,000 residents who are of voting age. From that "other" 325,000 or so apparently came many of the "yes" votes for extending term limits.
The reaction in these two weeks since the election has been loud. People are demanding that commissioners bring the same questions back as soon as possible, which would be November 2011 — and before the just-approved extra term would come into play for the first time in 2012.
Already, current Commissioner Amy Lathen and incoming members Darryl Glenn and Peggy Littleton have indicated they would give voters another chance (see Noted, here). Even if they're being opportunistic or simply trying to put out this brush fire before it reaches the forest, that's worthy of applause.
The county commissioners don't need this cloud hanging over them. Forget the call for discussion. They simply should pass a resolution, at the new group's first meeting in January, that brings back the term-limit questions again in 2011 with ballot language clearly specifying that the question is between two or three terms, not just "limiting" officials to three.
Take that step now, and the controversy goes away.
Some still might insist that everything was handled properly and voters were adequately informed. Actually, Commissioner Sallie Clark is saying just that. But we're not seeing or hearing any groundswell of reaction from offended voters insisting that they knew exactly what they were doing, and that they wanted those term-limit extensions.
As recently as 2006, the last time commissioners tried this tactic, voters said no except for the sheriff. It's safe to say the public's confidence in local officials is lower now than in 2006. Also, most of the same local electorate, on this same ballot, decided by a similar margin of 60-40 percent to embrace the strong-mayor concept of city government, a clear indication of dissatisfaction with current elected officials.
Then there was the conflict of interest. If the commissioners had written the ballot measure to make themselves ineligible, fine. But they didn't.
In fact, why put this off? The new board of commissioners could end this nonsense now, at any upcoming meeting of the current group. Dennis Hisey, Clark and Lathen already would be there. Glenn and Littleton could also attend, and as soon as the regular meeting adjourns, the "new group" could promise publicly to put term limits on the ballot again in 2011.
Then they could focus on the other problems facing county government, starting with how to deal with falling property-tax assessments and how they will impact county services.
But here's one last suggestion: Instead of a yes-no question, why not word the ballot issue another way:
El Paso County commissioners (or other officials, in different questions) henceforth shall be limited to (choose one)
o Two terms in office, four years each
o Three terms in office, four years each
If voters are given those choices (and if it's legal ballot language, which we haven't been able to determine), the outcome would not be in question.
And that's really what everyone wants, right?