Strong mayor initiative tests single-subject ordinance

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The proposed ballot amendment that would establish a “strong mayor” system in Colorado Springs would change eight sections of the city charter, in apparent violation of the single-subject ordinance.

That measure, adopted by the City Council in 1995, was written in hopes of ending “log rolling,” in which “diverse and unrelated matters” are bundled together in a single ballot measure, clouding voters’ ability to understand what might be at stake.

This year, two charter amendments which would change the city’s form of government from council-manager to “strong mayor” have been submitted to the city clerk.

The first was submitted by a group of business and community leaders and would make changes to virtually every page of the 39-page charter.

The second consists of just 81 words and was authored by Douglas Bruce, the author of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, whose initiatives over the years have generally attempted to limit, if not handcuff, government.

The city’s Initiative Review Board has already determined the first amendment to be in compliance with the city’s single-subject ordinance. The measure could appear on the November ballot, so long as its supporters can gather more than 30,000 signatures from registered voters in Colorado Springs.

Not only does that proposed measure substantially amend eight sections of the charter, it also makes changes that appear to be unrelated to the city’s form of government.

Backers don’t see a problem.

“The Initiative Review Board met, and suggested a couple of changes,” said Kevin Walker of Citizens for Accountable Government. “We agreed to the changes, and the board agreed that it was a single subject, the subject being the change in the city’s form of government.”

Not everyone feels that way.

“I don’t see how it could be a single-subject,” said Vice Mayor Larry Small. “They go into areas that have nothing to do with the form of government, or which ought to be the subject of a separate amendment.”

The fairness of the city’s review process will be tested on Monday, when the IRB will decide whether Bruce’s initiative meets the single-subject test.

Over the past decade, the committee has regularly rejected Bruce-authored measures.

In response to a Business Jounral Colorado Open Records Act request, the City Clerk’s office provided copies of 18 initiatives proposed since 2002 by Bruce that were rejected for failure to conform to the single-subject ordinance.

Bruce believes that the ordinance has been unfairly applied, and that the review process is illegal.

“They want to restrict, smother and strangle (the right to petition),” he said. “The state cannot destroy that right, nor can the city.”

Bruce has filed multiple lawsuits after rejection of various petitions that he has attempted to put on the local ballot, with mixed success.

But a Business Journal examination of the rejected initiatives indicates that the board acted correctly in rejecting them, because each proposed modifications to more than one section of the charter.

A letter from the City Clerk to Bruce dated April 30, 2007 explained why one measure regarding city enterprises was deficient.

“The three-sentence paragraph which comprises the proposed ordinance does not meet the single-subject requirements. … Each of these proposed sentences is a separate and distinct subject containing diverse and unrelated matters; and while the proposal contains an umbrella of “city enterprise charges,” it does not alter the fact that the measures contain unrelated subjects.”

The same reasoning killed another petition submitted on May 14, 2002 that specified that “all non-recall ballot elections shall be held in November only.” It included language that called for strict enforcement and said that “all ballot measures violating it are void.”

Another Bruce measure called for title-setting by district court judges, and forbade such titles from exceeding 30 words. It, too, was denied, based on multiple subjects.

At 81 words, Bruce’s “strong mayor” initiative also appears to violate the single-subject law.

“The office of mayor shall replace the positions of city manager, assistant city manager, chief financial officer, economic development director and manager, community development director and the public communications division. Legal references to ‘city manager’ shall now read ‘mayor.’ The mayor may also veto ordinances, resolutions, appointments, and spending and budget line items within 20 days after council passage; prepay debts, pay claims, impound funds, refund charges and lower taxes and fees; excuse code violators and penalties; and direct enterprises and authorities.”

The proposed initiative would amend Articles I through VII of the charter.

The initiative already approved goes much further, containing more than 40 alterations to the city’s charter. Substantive changes are proposed in Articles I through VII and in Article XIII.

Its proposed changes include:

  • The addition of a fifth at-large councilmember.
  • The creation of a new municipal office, the council president
  • The removal of the mayor from the governing board of Colorado Springs Utilities.
  • A requirement that the mayor be elected by a majority, not a plurality of voters.
  • The mayor may veto Council-approved ordinances, and also has a line-item budget veto.

Bruce hopes to place his initiative on the April ballot, during the regularly scheduled city election.

But he said he doubts that the review committee will approve his initiative. Small, for one, is skeptical.

“He files a lot of lawsuits,” Small said, “and he’s been turned back quite a few times.”.