Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
Find more columns by Douglas here.
Steamboat Springs Most Tuesday evenings, the 7 p.m. public comment period during Steamboat Springs City Council meetings passes with little consequence. Often, no one steps to the podium to address the council. This week, Steve Aigner provided a notable exception.
Aigner is the community organizer for the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley. Before retiring to Steamboat two years ago, Dr. Aigner attained Bachelor of Arts, Masters of Social Work and Ph.D. degrees and taught for 30 years at Iowa State University, where he remains Professor Emeritus of Sociology. Aigner's current position, his background and his opinion pieces in the Steamboat Pilot & Today have afforded him access and influence throughout the Yampa Valley. Our elected representatives listen when he speaks.
Aigner's presence at the microphone also was noteworthy for the minor bombshell he dropped. While at the podium, Aigner delivered an ultimatum - some would say a threat - by announcing, "If you don't decide this evening to instruct the city attorney to prepare an ordinance that would put on the fall ballot a proposal to amend the Home Rule Charter so that there will be a public vote on all substantial annexation, then starting tomorrow, the Community Alliance will initiate a petition drive to amend the Home Rule Charter."
When not a single member of the council buckled, Aigner told the Steamboat Pilot & Today that the Community Alliance "should be in the streets with petitions by this weekend."
But on Thursday, Aigner told the Pilot & Today that the Community Alliance would not seek to immediately petition for an amendment to the Home Rule Charter. Instead, Aigner now claims the Community Alliance will await the council's decision on Steamboat 700 and combine a potential challenge to Steamboat 700 and an amendment to the charter in one effort. If that's the case, it's worth questioning whether an amendment to the city charter is prudent.
At its core, the on-again, off-again question presented by Aigner is this: Should all annexations to Steamboat Springs automatically be voted upon by the full electorate?
Admittedly, the proposition sounds tempting. After all, most folks have an opinion on annexations. But it may be wise to consider a few facts before jumping to emotion-driven conclusions.
The citizens of Steamboat already have the power to vote on any annexation. The Home Rule Charter empowers citizens to vote on any annexation by presenting a petition signed by 20 percent of registered voters. Additionally, this November's election contains a ballot measure that would reduce the petition requirement from 20 to 10 percent.
Significantly, with or without any changes to the charter, voters will have the opportunity to vote on the annexation of Steamboat 700. The City Council and Steamboat 700 already have agreed to place 700 before voters if 10 percent of the electorate sign a petition to do so.
Given the above facts, mandating an automatic citywide vote on all annexations is unnecessary because voters can vote on any annexation by collecting as few as 10 percent of registered voters' signatures on a petition.
Further, amending the charter is not merely unnecessary, it would be unwise. By mandating automatic annexation votes by the electorate - without overcoming even a 10 percent petition threshold - the city government's direct authority and leverage with the annexation developer will be severely diminished.
The city's leverage over the developer is derived from the power the City Council currently has to accept or reject any annexation and for that decision to be automatically upheld unless a subsequent referendum overturns the council's decision. In other words, a developer seeking annexation knows they may never get to a citywide vote where they can unduly influence the electorate's decision with misleading advertising about the facts of the annexation.
As it stands now, developers seeking annexation understand they must satisfy all the combined demands of the city's planners, attorneys, management team and council, who are all well-versed in the annexation plans from collectively spending thousands of hours immersed in the details of the project. Fortified with that depth of knowledge, the city's management team and elected representatives are far less likely to be swayed by a developer's misleading arguments than a citizen who may not be as steeped in the details.
Additionally, if annexations are automatically subject to a vote by the entire electorate, the motivation on the part of city staff and the council to be diligent in their deliberations with the developer - knowing their reputations will be forever tied to the long-term success or failure of the annexation - will be diminished as they know the voters will carry the final responsibility.
Bottom line: Any attempt to mandate that all annexations be automatically subject to a citywide vote would be unwise. Automatic elections will create a nonstop political campaign on the part of annexation developers seeking to win votes from every city resident, instead of negotiating in good faith with city staff and the elected representatives of the city.
To reach Rob Douglas, e-mail Rob.Douglas@Comcast.net