Mayor Mike Coffman speaking to 9News reporter Marshall Zelinger in August about his ballot initiative for a strong mayor government change in the city. SCREEN GRAB FROM 9News

AURORA | Aurora voters this fall won’t decide a controversial ballot proposal prompted by Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman to change the city’s form of government.

Because of when petition ballots were turned over the city clerk officials, protests filed against the measure and a deadline today to certifying the November ballot, Coffman’s so-called term limits and strong mayor proposal was likely to be ruled off the ballot, according to city officials last week.

The story today was first reported today by the Colorado Sun.

Last week, the backers of the campaign to boost the power of Aurora’s mayor declared making the ballot this year a lost cause.

Despite that, proponents argued with with opponents at a hearing Aug. 30 over whether a petition used to collect signatures from registered voters complied with city code.

Aurora’s city clerk reported at the end of July that the campaign had collected 12,198 valid signatures from registered voters, which would be enough for the proposed city charter amendment to be placed on a regular election ballot.

However, the signatures and the petitions used to collect those signatures were eligible to be scrutinized within a 20-day protest period.

Plan opponent Charlie Richardson filed a formal protest during that period, and even though strong-mayor advocates announced last week they had called off their 2023 campaign, saying challenges from opponents caused them to miss a procedural deadline. Proponents have floated the possibility that supporters will fight to resume the campaign in 2025. That meant both sides were armed with legal arguments last week.

In his protest, Richardson, a former city councilmember and city attorney, argued that the petitions should be thrown out because, among other problems, the pages signed by voters did not include a summary of the proposal or a warning identifying who was eligible to sign and directing voters to read the language of the amendment or the summary before considering signing.

“The fact that this petition didn’t comply with the city’s code makes it invalid up and down, through and through,” said Mark Grueskin, an attorney representing Richardson.

He said the only warning included in the petition packets was between 15 and 19 pages away from the pages voters actually signed. Grueskin compared the placement to setting up a road sign warning drivers about a hazard “the functional equivalent of five miles away.”

“It wasn’t a matter of flipping a single page or two. It was flipping through the bulk of the packet,” he said. “The extent of noncompliance was complete and total.”

Although the packets were created by the clerk’s office working in concert with the city attorney’s office and outside legal counsel — the city attorney’s office signed off on the documents as to form, according to city spokesman Ryan Luby — Grueskin said it was up to the strong-mayor campaign to comply with the law.

However, Suzanne Taheri, an attorney for the strong-mayor campaign, said Grueskin was oversimplifying and that the campaign had met the relevant burden of substantial compliance established by the Colorado Supreme Court.

While Grueskin brought up how some people signed the petition only to say later that they had been misled — Aurora City Clerk Kadee Rodriguez granted the requests of four such people to have their signatures removed from the petition on Aug. 25 — Taheri noted that Grueskin had not called anyone who had that experience to testify as a witness Wednesday.

She said she had heard from members of the public who said petition circulators gave them the chance to read the language of the amendment and answered their questions about what it would do.

“We did substantially comply. We did act in good faith. And to the extent that some people weren’t advised because they didn’t look at it, we don’t know if that is true or not true,” Tatheri said. “I don’t think they have enough evidence to show the extent of that noncompliance.”

Rodriguez presided over the hearing last week even though it concerned whether the petitions generated by her office and the city attorney’s office complied or failed to comply with city code.

When asked how the city would mitigate potential conflicts of interest in the case, Luby wrote in an email that the city had hired outside legal counsel to assist during the hearings but that “we are bound by city code which states that the city clerk is the hearing officer who must issue written decisions on the hearings.”

City code requires Rodriguez to rule on Richardson’s protest within 10 days, which pushed a deadline for her decision to next week, past the deadline to make the 2023 ballot.

In total, the city received 22 protests of the clerk’s initial finding of sufficiency, which were shared in response to an open records request. Most of the protests stemmed from complaints that signature collectors misrepresented the amendment as primarily or exclusively having to do with term limits rather than changing the structure of the city’s government.

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