Denver City Council sidesteps the ballot initiative process

City and County of Denver building (Photo/fusionpanda, Flickr)
City and County of Denver building (Photo/fusionpanda, Flickr)

Denver just became a bit more populist.

Last week, city voters approved a proposal to streamline the process by which citizens can place initiatives on the ballot. Referred Question 1A on the Denver ballot, which passed with 70 percent of the vote during last Tuesday’s primary, will rid the city charter of an awkward formality.

Beforehand, citizens initiatives had to first pass through City Council, which would either approve the measure to appear before voters, or adopt it as law (which hasn’t happened in recent memory).

But now, upstart citizens who collect enough valid signatures may bring their issues directly to Denver voters.

In addition to its power-to-the-people appeal, the new regulation allows City Council to wash its hands of a process that really belongs to the voters.

“It was like, why do we take the extra step of asking council to approve it?” says Lauri Dannemiller, executive director of Denver City Council staff. “It flew in the face of the idea that, wait, this is an initiative process and we don’t need to ask City Council.”

Though it may sound like a trivial adjustment, the new way of doing things represents a significant departure from Denver’s original process, which was likely instated 90 years ago. According to assistant city attorney David Broadwell, the city adopted a provision for initiatives and referendums in the nineteen teens, which may have included the cumbersome City Council vote.

That step was — and still is — very popular in localities all over the country. Broadwell says that it may have originated as a money saver for cash-strapped city governments. Rather than allow for a costly election to take place whenever a citizen had an initiative to bring forward, the city lawmakers could make the choice to adopt the proposal as law or put it to voters.

“There used to be a requirement for a special election that involved expenses,” says Broadwell. “This way, the City Council might forgo the cost of the election.”

City Council has not called a special election for a citizens initiative in recent years. Instead, council typically refers the initiative to the primary or general election ballot. But many on council saw that as a waste of time.

“We were rubber-stamping things,” says council president Jeanne Robb, who, along with council member Jeanne Faatz, took up the mantle for the new regulation.

Robb also says that City Council was weary of voting to put measures on the ballot that councilors disagreed with. For instance, City Council had to approve Initiative 100 to appear on last week’s ballot. The proposal, which passed handily, mandates police officers to impound vehicles of people driving without licenses. Many on council decried the measure, which was widely seen as a waste of police resources as well as a thinly veiled dig at undocumented immigrants. In fact, City Council adopted a proclamation against Initiative 100, even as it approved it for a vote of their constituents.

Robb also says she dreaded having to vote on a proposed initiative to create an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission that would set aside city resources to investigate alien life. The initiative’s main backer, Jeff Peckman, meant to place the measure on November’s ballot, but recently announced that he will shoot for the 2009 ballot instead.

“A big motivator for me was when the extraterrestrial piece came along,” says Robb. “I didn’t think it was a good use of council time … [Citizens initiatives] have come up many times. Sometimes there are public hearings, sometimes there are not. Then there are the discussions. Every time they come up, someone on council turns to the city attorney and says, ‘Do we really have to vote for this?'”

From now on, the answer will be no.

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