AURORA | All signs point to Aurora’s mayor, Mike Coffman, being the instigator of an oblique campaign to place a question on the ballot this fall that would give the mayor the power to veto legislation and replace the city manager as top administrator and the hirer and firer of city staff.
While most of the people associated with the ballot proposal avoided answering questions about its origins and the funding behind the campaign to collect 12,017 signatures from Aurora voters, two of the three “petition representatives” registered with the city clerk’s office now say Coffman asked them to sign on.
Elizabeth Hamilton and Paul Mitchell live just a few doors down from Coffman in south Aurora. When contacted by the Sentinel, they said the mayor proposed the idea to them over lunch. Mitchell said he had not been aware of the initiative until the mayor spoke to them about it, though Hamilton hesitated on whether Mitchell should have disclosed that.
Hamilton, who works for the City and County of Denver, said she thinks that the council-manager form of government is no longer appropriate for Aurora at its current size.
“We’re no longer a bedroom community of Denver,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of big city issues now and we need to deal with them.”
The third petition representative — Garrett Walls, an Aurora planning commissioner and board president of the Havana Business Improvement District — declined to talk with the Sentinel about his involvement but told the Denver Gazette that the idea for the item came out of conversations with Coffman.
Walls directed questions to Tyler Sandberg, who formerly managed Coffman’s campaign for U.S. Congress. Sandberg sent a statement on behalf of the issue committee sponsoring the item, Term Limits for a Better Aurora, that primarily characterizes the item as reforming term limits, which numerous city leaders have criticized as deceptive:
“We are seeking voter support on the ballot to reform term limits for the city council and bring real accountability to city government. Aurora voters pick mayors and city council members, but too much power resides with a mostly unknown, unelected City Manager who can appoint police and other department heads with no accountability to the voters. It is time to give the power back to the voters and deliver real accountability to the people of Aurora — through term limits and letting voters hold city leaders accountable at the ballot box.”
On the petition, Walls listed a business address next to his signature. Hamilton and Mitchell are listed at separate addresses, with one of the addresses belonging to their next door neighbor, which Hamilton said she was not aware of and must have been an error.
Steve Ward was named as treasurer in the registration for Term Limits for a Better Aurora filed with the Aurora City Clerk’s office. Ward is an Englewood City Council member and paralegal listed as the treasurer for the issue committee. He declined to talk about his involvement on record.
Ward and conservative advocacy group Advance Colorado also previously sued to try to block a state ballot item that would reduce refunds received via the Colorado Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, according to reporting last month by Colorado Public Radio.
It is currently unclear how much money is being spent on the campaign and by whom. City spokesman Michael Brannen wrote in an email that a person or group spending more than $1,000 must register as an issue committee and that an initial report would be due from Ward’s group by Aug. 5.
While the proposal would reduce the number of consecutive terms that a council member or mayor could serve from three to two, limiting terms is a small part of what the proposal would do to structurally change Aurora’s government.
Sandberg did not respond to a list of follow-up questions.
Coffman has so far refused to answer repeated questions about his involvement with the item, saying in emails that he would comment on the initiative only if and when it makes the ballot. When a Sentinel reporter approached him last month after a city council meeting to talk about the campaign, he refused to answer questions and walked away.
Councilmember Juan Marcano, a candidate this fall for Aurora mayor, also said previously that Coffman mentioned during an unrelated, earlier executive session that he planned to send a strong-mayor amendment to voters, after which the mayor backtracked and said that he planned to support a citizen-led amendment.
Accusations of deception
Members of the public have complained on social media, on TV news and in messages to city council members about the individuals collecting signatures on behalf of the campaign misrepresenting the item as primarily or exclusively having to do with term limits.
Cassie LaBelle, an Aurora resident, said she encountered a canvasser outside of the Post Office at Alameda Parkway and Buckley Road a few weeks ago who described the proposal as adding term limits to the council.
After she did more research and learned about the other provisions of the proposal, she said she went back last week and confronted another canvasser who had a sign advertising the petition drive as a term limit question.
“I said, ‘Aurora has term limits. This is not what this petition is about,’” LaBelle said. “He got very mad at me, and told me to get out, and said I was wrong.”
She said she talked with Post Office employees who said the canvassers presented themselves as part of a campaign to register voters.
“It just hurts to see. Like there were a lot of older voters who I saw talking to them who thought term limits were a good idea,” LaBelle said. “I guarantee you some of them wouldn’t have wanted to sign if they had known what the actual petition was.”
When a Sentinel reporter approached one of the canvassers outside of the same post office May 31, the man refused to identify himself, but he said that he was telling people about both the strong mayor and term limit components of the item.
He provided contact information of Daniel Fenlason, the chief operating officer of Victor’s Canvassing, a Colorado Springs-based canvassing firm that has conducted advertising and consulting work for a number of Colorado Republican candidates and committees over the past several years, according to filings with the Secretary of State’s office. Fenlason did not respond to multiple messages via phone and email.
David Rupert, a spokesman for the United States Postal Service, later said that canvassers are not permitted to gather petition signatures outside of the post office and that they left after being told to do so by USPS employees.
With the exception of the statement from Sandberg, those admitting involvement with the initiative have said virtually nothing about the benefits of the proposal, and they have not responded to criticisms that the campaign is an attempt by Coffman to increase his power as mayor.
Suzanne Taheri, an attorney and former Republican candidate for the Colorado Senate, submitted the text of the proposal to the city clerk’s office, on behalf of Walls. She also refused to speak with the Sentinel, saying professional rules of conduct prevented her from doing so.
Mitchell and Hamilton said they were upset by insinuations and claims that the initiative is a power grab by Coffman, whom Hamilton described as “the most selfless person I know.”
“He’s not an egomaniac that wants to be king like Trump,” she said. “He’s a good guy.”
Councilmember Curtis Gardner, who led a group of current and former city officials that came out publicly against the item last month, said he opposed initiatives being brought forward that affect current elected officials but that he thought installing a strong mayor was a bad idea regardless of who held the title.
He questioned alleged deception by petition canvassers when interacting with residents, and whether the idea of a strong mayor enjoys popular support.
“Perhaps what you’re trying to do isn’t very popular if you have to lie about it,” Gardner said. “The council already has term limits. This proposal, four lines of it do change our total term limits from from three to two. So that’s a small component, but it’s a drop in the bucket of the overall changes.”
He said he wanted to bring forward ordinances that would require proposals like the strong mayor item to adhere to a single subject similar to the state constitution’s restriction on bills and also create a mechanism for members of the public to complain to the clerk’s office if they encounter signature collectors who behave dishonestly.
Brannen said that, currently, if someone who signed the petition wants to remove their name, assuming the petition is found to have a sufficient number of signatures, the person would have to file a written protest with the clerk’s office including a written explanation for the protest and the specific signatures they want removed.
The item summary included at the top of the petition describes it first and foremost as a term-limit item. Brannen said the summary was submitted by the item sponsors and that the clerk’s office and the city attorney’s office had reviewed the language and signed off. The city’s charter requires that the summary “shall be prepared by the city clerk.”
Charlie Richardson, a representative of Aurora’s firefighter union and former council member and city attorney, said the city has typically avoided weighing in on the content of ballot item language submitted by petitioners. But he said the item was unusual because of the uncertainty surrounding who is funding and sponsoring it.
“This is exceptional non-transparency based on my own experience that goes back to the early 1980s,” Richardson said. “The initiators, wanting to be successful, would broadcast who they were and, usually in conjunction with the petition signature gathering, would come out and say, ‘Here’s what we’re trying to do. Contact us if you’d like to sign this petition.’ So this is an extraordinarily non-historical approach.”
He said it was also unusual for the item not to have been reviewed by any city committee before being presented by the mayor to voters. Previous changes in the role of the mayor underwent months of community scrutiny before voters were asked to make the job full-time, a change made in 1995.
Aurora enacted a commission to study the role of mayor in 2006. After two years of study and hearings, the notion of a powerful mayor was rejected.
Two members of the current Aurora Citizens Charter Review Task Force, Becky Hogan and Anne Keke, said the bill was included in a collection of proposed charter amendments earlier this year but that no presentation was made and that the group was not given enough time to evaluate the amendments they were shown.
The Sentinel has submitted an open records request to the city of Aurora for emails sent to and from Mayor Mike Coffman containing terms related to the ballot item.
While Brannen said the group had submitted signatures to the clerk’s office, they had not been counted or verified as of press time.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included incorrect information about the deadline for canvassers to submit signatures to be considered by the clerk’s office.
— Sentinel reporter Carina Julig contributed to this report.