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Home rule in Colorado

Rohn Robbins

As Gilda might have said “What’s this I hear about home rule?”Well, lately, you’ve likely heard a lot. I’m probably telling you nothing new when I point out that the issue of home rule is on the county mail-in ballot, due November 1st. The way the ballot measure proceeds is this; first the question is put to the voters as to whether they do or do not want to form a home rule charter commission. If the voters want to form the commission, then the voters elect 11 members whose names also appear on the ballot – 3 from each of 3 of the county districts and 2 at large.The commission will be charged with studying county policies and making recommendations which, in the commission’s studied judgment, will improve county operations. In so doing, the commission will recommend a county charter which may take any of nearly limitless forms. The commission will then, at the next election, present the proposed charter to the voters and the voters will then decide either to adopt the charter or reject it. In other words, consideration of a home rule charter is a two step dance: first a commission is elected, second the commission recommends a proposed charter which the voters can approve or reject at the next election.All that is simple enough but what, exactly, is a home rule charter?Well, glad you asked.Essentially, a home rule charter would, if adopted, establish Eagle County as a home rule municipality thus investing it with greater autonomy and self-determination. This, at least in significant part, could permit the number of commissioners to expand from the current three to five (or, theoretically, even more). Beside being eminently logical in consideration of our swelling population, our swelling budget, and the geographical disenfranchisement of the Basalt/El Jebel wing of our county (which accounts for more than 20% of Eagle County population), a home rule charter could be tailored to accommodate the unique and special needs of our diverse county.Among some who have considered the matter the thinking is that with five instead of three commissioners, stronger coalitions could be formed, preventing, or at least somewhat ameliorating, some of the recent quagmires, polarization and internecine strife which have stalled the functioning of effective governance. Additionally, 5 instead of 3, especially if elected wholly within their own districts, would provide fairer representation to our Roaring Fork brethren and would give each district its own strong voice regarding its unique concerns.Okay, but before casting your lot either in favor or against the concept, you should understand the basics of what a home rule municipality is and what may be at least some of the promises and implications of adopting a home rule charter and becoming a “home rule” municipality.Generally speaking, the Colorado legislature has recognized four classes of municipalities: cities, towns, territorial charter cities, and home rule municipalities (which may be either cities or towns). Here’s the easy part; a city has a population of more than 2,000, and town has a population of 2,000 or less. Home rule municipalities are cities and towns which have adopted a home rule charter pursuant to Colorado Constitution, Article XX. Territorial charter cities are those cities incorporated prior to July 3, 1877 which have retained their territorial charters and have not reorganized under the general statutes. Statutory (non-home rule) cities and towns possess only those powers which are expressly granted to them by the state legislature or which may be implied from, or incidental to, the expressly granted powers. In other words, “statutory cities and towns, are accorded only those powers which they are expressly granted by the state.”In contrast, “home rule” municipalities have all the statutory powers granted to cities and towns and, in addition, are invested with all the powers granted by Colorado Constitution, Article XX. In essence, regarding matters of local concern, home rule municipalities are granted the same powers over local affairs as that possessed by the legislature as to statewide matters. This amounts to a fundamental change in the basic relationship between the State and these municipalities, spelling greater local autonomy and self-determination.Certain enumerated powers are granted to home rule municipalities in Article XX, particularly in sections 1 and 6. In addition, section 6 grants to every home rule municipality “all other powers necessary, requisite or proper for the government and administration of its local and municipal matters” and “the full right of self- government in both local and municipal matters … and any right or power essential or proper to the full exercise of such right.”In simple terms, home rule municipalities are invested with greater powers of self-determination in local matters than non-home rule municipalities.Section 6 of Article XX also provides that the state statutes continue to apply to a home rule municipality until superseded by the charter or ordinances of the home rule municipality and that, in local and municipal matters, the charter and ordinances of a home rule municipality supersede conflicting state statutes. Accordingly, even though no enumerated statutory or constitutional grant of power exists, a home rule municipality may still act and, by charter or ordinance, may supersede conflicting state statutes in “local and municipal matters.” Because of the promise of potentially greater self-determination, home rule may well be worth a look, and investing in the talents of a charter commission may be just what the doctor ordered in these changing times.Whether you are for it or against it, let your voice be heard. Mail in those ballots by November 1st and let the best plan win. Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. Robbins lectures for Continuing Legal Education for attorneys in the areas of real estate, business law and legal ethics. He can be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins can be reached at 926-4461 or at robbins@colorado.net.Vail, Colorado


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