Although Mayor Mike Coffman’s spurious attempt at a power grab via the ballot box is rife with deceit, the mayor has unintentionally shone a light on critical problems with Aurora election law.
Coffman, ending his first term, at some time concluded that he disliked the current role of the mayor. The job was limited in scope and power several years ago by citizen commissions that designed Aurora’s current city-council-manager government.
The mayor is the only member of City Council paid full-time. But in Aurora, like dozens of large cities across the country, the city council creates policy, and a professional city manager implements it.
Mayor-council systems, such as that in Denver, have strengths and weaknesses, just like council-manager governments do.
The issue is certainly worth community review and discussion. There was none of that with Coffman’s scheme.
Instead, legislation that would not just create a so-called “strong mayor” system of government, but one that goes far beyond the type of mayor imposed on Denver, was cooked up without the public or even the City Council ever reviewing, or even seeing, Coffman’s plan.
He solicited more than $130,000 from a Colorado Springs dark-money committee, which has previously funded only right-wing Republican candidates and causes. The cash and services went toward hiring a Colorado Springs petition canvassing operation in an effort to force Coffman’s plan onto the fall ballot, hoping voters would fall for the scheme.
The ploy was a flagrant end run around the referendum process, which is how above board elected officials pose ballot questions to the public. The initiative process is reserved for the citizenry to legislate changes in government. It doesn’t meant that public efforts can’t be led by elected officials, but it’s outlandish that in this case the public was misled.
Therein lies the deficiency in Aurora. The city’s creators never conceived of a clandestine effort by someone on the city council to deceptively act to load the ballot with questions.
Throughout this debacle, it’s become clear that city lawmakers need to address a bevy of problems. Already, council members have addressed a problem with so-called single-subject issues, but there’s much more to be done.
First, current law allowed for the mayor to furtively begin the initiative process without having to identify to the city clerk, and the public, who was part of or heading the “committee” behind Coffman’s “Term Limits for a Better Aurora,” which is what he originally named the ruse.
City lawmakers should revise the law to ensure future city officials, or members of the public, be precluded from hiding their involvement in initiative campaigns from the beginning of the process. Only after numerous complaints by the public did Coffman recently change the name of the committee to “Term Limits and Empowering the Mayor For a Better Aurora,” and after the petitions were signed.
Second, Coffman’s original dishonest moniker, “Term Limits for a Better Aurora,” illustrates how easy it is for a nefarious effort to deceive the public about initiated legislation in the city.
At the state level, the title, form and summary of initiated ballot questions are closely scrutinized by the secretary of state and a title board for the sole purpose of clarity, honesty and fairness to voters. Coffman’s measure has little to do with term limits, a bait-and-switch feature patently illegal at the state level — and the city level, too.
The Sentinel repeatedly asked why the city ignored current Aurora law, requiring the city clerk’s office to provide the “summary” of the proposal on petitions and the ballot. Instead the city allowed Coffman, or his lawyer, to write and use a wholly misleading summary. No one in the city clerk’s office has, or should be required to have, the expertise needed to carry out what is clearly the work of lawyers. What’s unclear is why the clerk’s office didn’t have access to legal expertise, or if they did, why they didn’t oblige their responsibility and the law.
That highlights the third problem Coffman’s plan brought to light. There are no checks and balances to ensure transparency and accountability when it comes to ensuring the public fully understands who is proposing an initiative and who’s funding it.
Given that the city clerk, responsible for the integrity of the process, is at the mercy of lawyers that do not report to the clerk, the current system is ripe to be troubled by either malfeasance or intent.
The city should create an independent board of citizens to review such measures, and the clerk and the board should be provided with independent counsel to ensure the integrity of the law and process.
Because none of this is currently part of the system, the public was cheated from knowing not only who was actually behind Coffman’s proposal, petition signers were cheated from honestly knowing what the measure is about.
All Aurora voters have been scammed by this effort to entertain a possible seismic change in government that in no way complies with the spirit nor the letter of the law.
Regardless of what becomes of Coffman’s racket, city lawmakers have a responsibility to do more to ensure this can’t ever happen again.