Home rule efforts typically fail

Tamara Miller

EAGLE COUNTY – It was a resounding defeat, to say the least.In 2002, 84 percent of Mesa County voters said no to the idea of becoming what’s called a “home-rule” government. The idea didn’t even pass the first step – forming a commission to start writing a new county charter. “Home rule in and of itself is a fairly neutral topic,” said Jon Peacock, Mesa County’s administrator. “It’s who is driving it and for what reason that became controversial.”Two Colorado counties have made the switch to home-rule governments. The distinction allows counties to reorganize how their government is run. It also is the only way for counties with populations under 70,000 to have anything other than a three-member county commission.But more often than not, attempts to change counties to home rule fail. Efforts to switch in Mesa County flopped because a small minority was pushing the idea, Peacock said. A group of citizens with the Save Palisade Fruitlands activist group wanted the county to put a development to a vote of the people. Only home-rule counties can do that.”Home rule really is more of a direct democracy,” he said. “But what was really driving it here was a single issue.”Good for a resort? On the other side of Vail Pass, Summit County at least got past the starting line in the process of converting to home rule. Summit County voters approved forming a commission to write a charter in 1996. Jeffrey Huntley, Summit County attorney and chairman of the charter commission, said supporters of the idea simply wanted more flexibility in how their county government worked. They wanted to convert some elected positions, such as treasurer and sheriff, to appointed positions. And some people wanted to combine the jobs of county assessor and treasurer into one office that would deal with tax collections. Still others wanted to create a separate finance office for Summit County with an appointed budget officer, Huntley said. “(Home rule counties) have more ability to address modern problems,” Huntley said. Having a little more authority would be particularly good for resort communities, he added. “There’s a large population that lives outside of the incorporated areas,” he said. “That creates a certain stressor which gives rise for the demand for greater services.”Nevertheless, a majority of Summit Countians voted down the charter in 1997 – 67 percent to 33 percent. Huntley said he thinks voters didn’t like some of the proposed changes to the county’s structure. In particular, they didn’t like the idea of expanding the board to five, full-time commissioners. Vail Resorts – which owns Keystone and Breckenridge ski resorts along with Vail and Beaver Creek – and the development community come out against the charter, Huntley said. “That came up largely in the context of land-use measures,” he said, “the fact that when the commissioners would pass certain land-use actions they could be subject to a vote up and down by the citizenry, rather than the elected officials.” Just takes twoLastly, the Summit County Board of Commissioners didn’t support the charter, either. If it had passed, commissioners would be subject to $1,000 fines for missing a certain amount of meetings, Huntley said. Frisco Mayor Bernie Zurbriggen helped work on the charter as well. He said he understands why voters didn’t approve the document. The charter would have allowed any citizen-sponsored initiative to pass as long as at least 5 percent of the electorate participates in the election.”That’s a pretty low number,” Zurbriggen said. Still, he supports the concept of home rule, he said. “I was very much in favor of the concept of expanding the Board of County Commissioners,” he said. “Five or seven would be a much better way to represent the community. With three guys, it just takes two to agree to approve anything.”Summit County citizens got a lot out of the process, and so would Eagle County, said J. Bauer, who also served on the Summit County charter commission.”The county home rule charter process involved a tremendous amount of citizen analysis of the way their government operates,” Bauer said. “It will result in a lot of people in Eagle County having a much better idea of how their government works, regardless of the outcome.”Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or, Colorado

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