AURORA | Opponents of a pending ballot initiative that would restructure Aurora’s city government by creating a “strong-mayor” system have filed a lawsuit against three Aurora residents who were asked by Mayor Mike Coffman to sign paperwork initiating the proposal.
The lawsuit, filed Aug. 5 in Arapahoe County District Court, claims that the ballot initiative violates state and city election laws because of unclear and misleading ballot and petition language.
It asks the court to force proponents to rewrite much of the proposal title and summary. If opponents prevail, the ballot proposal may go forward, but only using new language for the title and the summary.
The lawsuit was filed by Colorado attorney Mark Grueskin on behalf of sole listed plaintiff Charlie Richardson.
Richardson, a vocal opponent of the amendment, who previously served as an Aurora City Council member as well as the city attorney and city manager, said the lawsuit was being funded by a “broad-based group” that includes members of the business community as well as more than 100 individual donors.
As written, the measure seeks to scrap Aurora’s council-manager form of government and instead change it to a so-called “strong-mayor” system. Although many of the details are unclear, if voters passed the measure, the victor of this fall’s election would assume the new, empowered position in January.
The lawsuit names Elizabeth Hamilton, Paul Mitchell and Garrett Walls, each of whom signed the original petition in May to start the initiative process for the bill.
Each of the signatories has said they were asked by Mayor Mike Coffman to sign the original, activating petition. Coffman would not publicly admit he was the originator of the proposal until two weeks ago, after the clerk tentatively approved the measure for the November ballot.
“I believe, prospectively, that the residents of Aurora would be better served by reducing the term limits for our city’s elected officials to eight years instead of twelve,” Coffman said at the time.
“I also believe that the city of Aurora has dramatically changed, and it’s time for our structure of government to change with it. Aurora is no longer a sleepy suburb but it’s now the 51st largest city in the United States with the urban challenges of race, poverty and crime that are better suited for a mayor/council form of government where the mayor, who is directly accountable to the people, is responsible for the operations of the government to include everything from the conduct of our police officers to providing the leadership necessary to achieve an aspirational vision for our city.”
Coffman, Walls and pro-amendment spokesman Tyler Sandberg did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Suzanne Taheri, a lawyer involved in the effort who submitted the proposal to the clerk’s office on behalf of Walls, said in a statement that supporters believed the title of the item was “properly set in the discretion of the clerk,” but said they would have preferred the city use language lifted from the petition itself
“With respect to payment of legal fees, we have not determined yet if we will intervene as parties to the matter,” she said in response to the question of whether sponsors of the amendment would pay the legal fees of petition representatives. “Under the statute the City is required to file an answer on behalf of the clerk and proponents.”
The Richardson lawsuit claims that the strong-mayor proposal violates parts of the state and city election law requiring the ballot title and summary of the measure to accurately reflect the contents of the ordinance.
From the time the measure was first offered to voters by paid petition canvassers, some signers have complained that canvassers misrepresented the measure, telling them it pertained primarily or exclusively to increasing city council term limitations.
The lawsuit points out that the measure mostly focuses on creating a new type of “strong-mayor” government; increasing the salary of the office; detailing powers assigned to the mayor, removed from the city council; and terminating the current city-manager system.
“The Title and Submission Clause are deficient in that they are misleading and fail to inform voters of several central features of the Proposed Charter Amendment,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit asks that original petitioners resubmit the query with an alternative ballot title and summary.
At the same time, city council members have proposed two bills to be heard Monday at a city council study session addressing the measure.
The measure has drawn unusual bipartisan criticism from across the city council and the region, in a large part because it was unclear who was behind the measure.
After months of pressure by reporters to comment on speculation, Coffman admitted two weeks ago to 9News reporter Marshall Zelinger during a TV interview that he initiated the proposal and was behind its push to make it to the November ballot.
He declined at the time to detail his financial involvement in hiring lawyers, petition canvassers or others to garner about 12,000 voter signatures needed to force the question of a strong-mayor onto the ballot.
While Richardson said Monday that the opposition group would not commit to sharing donor information beyond what was required by the city clerk’s office, he described the move as justified, unlike Coffman’s choice to withhold the fact of his own involvement in the strong-mayor campaign.
Richardson said donors were justifiably afraid of retaliation in the event that Coffman wins his re-election bid and is granted new powers by voters.
“If this passes, and you’re on the wrong side of the mayor, you’re not even toast, you’re a burnt crumb in terms of ever doing anything in the city of Aurora,” Richardson said. “There is a tremendous fear of retaliation among these individuals. Therefore, I cannot commit to revealing who these people are, because they have a very legitimate concern.”
He invited anyone with questions about the opposition campaign to contact them at AuroraProtest@gmail.com.
The first deadline for campaign finance details is today.
On July 25, petition sponsors were told they had collected 12,198 valid signatures out of a total of 20,409 signatures submitted to the clerk’s office, according to a city news release, 181 signatures above the required threshold.
Opponents of the measure last week sent a team of about six analysts to the city clerk’s office in what they say is an effort to remove at least enough valid signatures from the petitions submitted to sink the initiative.
One measure on the city council’s study session Monday night would outright oppose the measure, insisting that it was presented to voters by paid petition gatherers who “utilized deceptive practices to obtain signatures from the public.”
The proposed resolution, sponsored by Councilmember and mayoral candidate Juan Marcano, offers a bevy of arguments against the controversial measure.
The second measure scheduled for tonight’s city council meeting would ensure future ballot initiatives be held to the same so-called “single-subject” requirements as state initiatives, referenda and city ordinances.
Critics of Coffman’s measure say it violates the so-called single-subject requirement by combining enhanced term limits with the power of the mayor and structure of city government in the same measure.
As introduced to the public in May, the measure and campaign behind it were called Term Limits for Better Aurora. Critics say the measure addresses relatively little regarding city council term limits and focuses on the role and powers of the mayor.
The name of the campaign was apparently changed in late July, and the group is now called Term Limits and Empowering the Mayor for a Better Aurora.
While supporters of so-called “strong-mayor” governments generally argue that folding the responsibilities of a city manager and mayor into a single position encourages leaner, more efficient city governments, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from across the region and on city council has been vocal in its opposition to the proposal, describing it as an attempt by Coffman to singularly direct the city.
“Citizens in Aurora, local business leaders and elected officials from both sides of the aisle are ready to fight Coffman’s power grab at every step, including by challenging the petition process which, we are strongly convinced, did not submit enough legal signatures,” Charlie Richardson, a former city official representing an advocacy group opposed to the amendment, said on July 27.
“Many signers were misled to believe this was a term limits measure for city council, when in truth all the other language is an elaborate misdirection so that Mike Coffman can populate city government with some of the political friends he has accumulated over his 40 years in politics.”
Voters who believe their signatures were solicited improperly have until 5 p.m. Aug. 14 to submit a written protest to the clerk’s office.
A copy of any protest will be sent to the petition representatives, and a hearing will be scheduled between 10 and 20 days after the protest is mailed. Hearings will be open to the public, and the clerk will make her decision no later than 10 days after the end of the hearing, according to city clerk officials.
The city said in its press release that the “burden of proof is on the protestants to prove that the petition is insufficient.”
A protest form is available at auroragov.org/2023Elections and can be emailed to Aurora.Elections@auroragov.org or else mailed physically or dropped off in person at the City Clerk’s Office, First Floor, 15151 E. Alameda Parkway, Aurora, CO, 80012.
City spokesman Ryan Luby said the date when the clerk’s office makes its final determination of sufficiency would depend on the outcome of protests and any litigation that could arise from the process.
City council meets in study session tonight at 6:30 p.m. in a televised meeting.