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Term-limit excuse vanishes

Between the Lines



When the two stories came out separately a few weeks ago, nobody jumped to connect them to what happened earlier this summer.

First, on Aug. 23, Colorado Springs City Council put a measure on the November ballot about Memorial Health System.

Then, the next day, Secretary of State Scott Gessler confirmed enough petition signatures for a statewide question, asking for a tiny tax increase to help fund education for the next five years.

Those headlines, despite having no relation, reopened some unhealed wounds from June and July that had been inflicted by a majority of El Paso County commissioners. They refused to consider a re-vote this year on term limits for county elected officials, after a deceptively worded question last November gave them an increase from two to three four-year terms and a chance for a bigger pension afterward, prompting conflict-of-interest concerns.

Taking part in this election would cost the county too much, they insisted.

It felt wrong then. It feels more wrong now.

The strategy emerged in January, as just-elected commissioner Darryl Glenn began pushing for another term-limit vote. The new county clerk, Wayne Williams, produced a slideshow showing worst-case scenarios for the election expense. It looks to be a thin ballot, Williams insisted, and that would hit the county hard, with fewer municipalities and school districts sharing in the estimated $500,000 cost.

Commissioners Sallie Clark, Dennis Hisey and Amy Lathen jumped on that. They embraced the cost factor, saying the county couldn't afford paying $300,000 or more. Never mind the idea of doing what's right.

They used it repeatedly against the term-limits question, finally "agreeing" in July to put it on the 2012 ballot. They also used it in June against the parks maintenance initiative, which reportedly had 59 percent public support in a poll.

It worked. The three commissioners got their way, and many people didn't.

But the people haven't forgotten. Now they see how they were misled.

First, the timing. We have to commit by late July, commissioners insisted, on whether to participate in the election.

Really? Then why did the city have until Aug. 23? Council waited until that last possible moment to put its issue on the ballot.

Second, the money. It'll be a huge expense, the county kept saying.

Really? Now, with the city and state having added measures, the county could have joined in for much less than $300,000. More like $148,000, according to Williams' own estimate.

That's not unreasonable — $148,000 comes to about 24 cents per county resident. So I sent a message to Glenn, offering him the chance to weigh in. His reply, dripping with frustration: "My opinion hasn't changed. I think it's pretty self-explanatory."

The next question went to Rick Wehner, a leader of the re-vote effort. What does he think now?

"I felt the numbers presented to the public on the cost of placing term limits on the ballot were disingenuous and designed to deceive the public," he says by e-mail. "Now that we know the number of issues coming on the ballot, and reduced county costs, our suspicions have been confirmed."

Wehner adds another point: "It is fortunate this information has come out, so that we will know how to vote in 2012 when these commissioners will ask for our vote to keep them in office. Will we?"

It probably won't matter. We've heard of possible Republican primary challenges for Clark and Hisey, who can seek third terms even if voters go back to two terms in the same election. But defeating them would be far more difficult than simply reducing term limits this year would've been.

It's worth recycling a quote Glenn made in this space last February, when he said, "On this issue, the community feels that something underhanded happened. ... I believe there is a clear conflict of interest to vote against placing this issue on the ballot under its current scrutiny, and then run for re-election for a disputed third term." He even offered at the time to help raise money to offset the county's expense. Nobody listened.

So the bad feelings over term limits still smolder throughout El Paso County. And when that question returns next year, we'll see what happens.

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