Beyond ballots: Looking at how COVID-19 has impacted local democracy

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 5/19/20

Since March of this year, the COVID-19 virus has turned our world upside down. We all know that given the impacts, constraints and consequences of the initial “Stay at Home” mandates and even now …

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Beyond ballots: Looking at how COVID-19 has impacted local democracy

Posted

Since March of this year, the COVID-19 virus has turned our world upside down. We all know that given the impacts, constraints and consequences of the initial “Stay at Home” mandates and even now with the “Safer at Home” policies and requirements.

One aspect which you may or may not have thought about is the impact on our democracy and our expectations of business as usual regarding various democratic processes.

Of course, the issue of how we Americans vote pops up on the radar given the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election. For us in Colorado, that issue was previously settled when we went to a statewide mail-in ballot. So we get to check that one off the list while we watch Congress and other states wrestle with it.

As far as a nation-wide Congressional mandate to implement a mail-in ballot, I bet that the status quo will prevail. With off-setting positions between the U.S. House and Senate plus President Trump adamantly against a national mail-in ballot, my bet is a safe one.

But the two issues that I want to address under this umbrella topic are citizen petitions to place issues on the statewide ballot and quasi-judicial procedures at the local level involving public hearings.

Petition initiated statewide ballot issues

Colorado has a reputation of deciding state-wide legislative issues which are initiated by petition. This has applied to establishing laws as well as constitutional amendments.

While in recent time, Colorado voters tightened-up requirements on getting either on the ballot, the option still is alive and well for special interest groups. Having said that, remember that the practice of garnering signatures on petitions is a hefty effort. Currently, 124,632 valid signatures are required to place a proposition on the November ballot.

And now, the COVID-19 restrictions make it extremely difficult to accomplish the required number of signatures within the allowed timeline. Thus, the question comes up if there could be some lesser requirement to put a proposed law or constitutional amendment before the voters.

To me, the answer is simple: The law is the law and if you cannot achieve the required number of valid signatures, then the ballot proposal is dead. If the legislature or the governor can somehow alter the existing requirements, then it simply creates a hot mess.

So, all of you state legislators and Governor Polis, spend your time and effort on the 2020-2021 state budget and fighting the virus.

It should be noted that the constrained petition process has put more pressure on individual state legislators to champion special interest causes. One example of trying to get the legislature to place issues on the ballot from special interests is Speaker of the House KC Becker’s saying she is considering asking the legislature to put a referendum on the ballot that would delegate the control of gaming limits to local communities.

Public hearing process impacted by social distancing

The second issue has to do with maintaining the public hearing process on proposed land use changes and detailed development plans.

A fundamental right of those processes is to assure the public’s input and their attempt to sway city council members one way or the other on the proposal.

It is not a question of if local governments will try to get that input while social distancing requirements are in place, but one of how they can carry it out.

Formal city council meetings across the state have had to change from face-to-face meetings with an audience in the council chambers to either conference calls or video conferencing such as Zoom.

The technology does not lend itself for citizens to provide live comments during the public hearings, however. Some municipalities created rules on their web sites which instruct the public on how to provide their comments via email or written communique prior to the meeting.

Such an approach falls short of the effectiveness of public testimony in a live setting. It fails to capture the emotion, body language and eye-to-eye contact between council members and the constituents. Other cities have simply postponed processing development-related applications. Such has been the case with the City of Westminster. At the same time, there is a flip side to this quandary.

The perspective by landowners and developers

Landowners and developers are entitled to their rights to a fair opportunity to convince city council that their development or zoning change should be approved. From their perspective, time is money and the meter is ticking on funds invested in land options or purchases as well as planning, engineering and architectural services expenditures.

While interested residents may not care how long before city council would consider action on the developer’s plans, developers are anxious to get a time-sensitive decision. Often, they will have spent $100,000s to more than $1 million just getting their development to the point where their plans are ready for Planning Commission and City Council public hearings.

Public hearings without compromising citizens’ input

So, regardless of where staff and city council stands on their personal views on the issue of more development, they have a responsibility to process plans and communicate with the developer and the public in preparation for the quasi-judicial public hearing process. At the same time, staff, the city attorney and the city council have a responsibility to provide for a public hearing process which is open, fair and allows for full communications by the public and the developer which proceeds in a timely fashion.

However, with the COVID-19 virus and the constraints from the state and public health agencies regulations, there has not been a way to achieve all the expectations and requirements involving public input. Certainly, cities like Westminster cannot meet social distancing requirements in the remodeled council chambers. Plus, the current maximum of 10 people gathering in a common place shoots down the idea of holding public hearings in a large facility like gymnasiums, large banquet/meeting rooms like at City Park Recreation Center or churches.

It’s a real dilemma and probably cannot be resolved until the governor and/or public health agencies would be willing to adjust the 10-person meeting maximum.

Special congratulations to our graduating seniors

I want to add my congratulations to all the seniors who are graduating from high school and college. You have had to adapt to a “new world” with the impacts from the COVID-19 virus.

Moving out of college dormitories/apartments, transitioning to on-line learning, not being with your friends all of the time and being robbed of a memorable graduation ceremony might just be an early dose of real life. Best wishes in your future endeavors and God bless you.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media. You can contact him at bcjayhawk68@gmail.com.

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