The City of Denver elections in April are sucking up a lot of oxygen, but there is actually an election before then that deserves a little air in the public debate too.
In Littleton, voters will decide in a special election on March 7 whether it should be a lot easier for residents to petition questions onto the ballot and force a special election more often. Only one thing will be on the ballot in this special election: Question 300.
This election was called by residents collecting 3,628 valid signatures required under the current law, which is 10% of the number of voters registered to vote on the date the intent to circulate a petition was first filed.
The ballot question would reduce the required amount to 5% of voters who participated in the last municipal election (note many more people are registered to vote than actually participate in municipal elections). The question would also have the effect of requiring a special election (instead of waiting for the next scheduled election) more often because it requires the election be held within 150 days of the verification of signatures.
We fully support the ability of residents to circulate petitions to put questions to voters directly on the ballot. Taking matters directly to voters is an essential check on government. However, we have also seen, especially in Denver, how the initiative petition process can be abused by special interest groups. Denver voters have been inundated in recent years with special taxes for special projects circumventing the city’s budget and oversight process. Having a higher barrier to access the ballot would serve Denver voters better.
As such, we cannot, in good conscience, support the lowering of access to the ballot in Littleton.
The background of how Question 300 came to be is a bit hazy.
Littleton City Councilman Stephen Barr said the same folks who put Ballot Measure 301 before voters in November 2022 brought Question 300, sparking this special election. We’ve been unable to track down the folks behind Question 300 to ask them questions or to hear their side of the argument for why, despite getting their question on the ballot in 2022 they brought this question.
Ballot Measure 301 in 2022 would have prevented 2,000 homes from being built at Aspen Grove shopping center near Santa Fe Drive and Mineral Avenue. In November, voters rejected the plans to build such density at the site by a margin of 59% to 41%. However, that vote had no effect because the developer had already abandoned plans for such high density and instead proposed putting 500 homes on the lot.
We imagine their development concerns spread far beyond that single development to more of the fundamental changes occurring at the City Council with regard to density and land use.
“It’s very difficult to parse intent with just the language of the measure,” Barr said. “It has no clear tie in to housing, but I see that as the intent of the measure. Ultimately it could be used for any policymaking.”
Barr said that’s particularly problematic when it comes to a special election held at unusual times in the year when voters might not be engaged.
Could we see a future where a small number of residents opposed to increased density call a special election with as few as 700 signatures and where very few Littleton residents other than locally impacted residents care enough to cast their ballots? Yes, and we don’t think that would best serve the city or the region as a whole.
Colorado is in a pickle at the moment when it comes to development. Housing prices have skyrocketed beyond the means of most residents and workers on the Front Range. This could lead to a catastrophic decline of the middle class and erosion of a crucial wealth-building tool — homeownership. We support the efforts of elected officials across the state to add density to zoning and building codes strategically and in partnership with local communities — while keeping the interests of private developers at an arm’s length.
There is a time and a place for issues to be taken to the ballot – particularly when government fails to listen to the wants and needs of its residents.
But again, in those circumstances, the barrier to accessing the ballot must be reasonably high to prevent overuse of the tool. Special elections have been held in Littleton in 2020, 2022, and now in 2023.
This special election is estimated to cost about $165,000.
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