How Manitou Springs – and democracy – lost this week

*Note: A slightly edited version of this essay was published in the Pikes Peak Bulletin print edition on December 12, 2019. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below. 

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Democracy lost, 4-3, in a Manitou Springs City Council vote Tuesday night. In closing discussion, Mayor Ken Jaray announced the motion had “died.” In a way, democracy did die a bit and something important was lost in Manitou this week.

Four city council members—Mr. Bob Todd, Ms. Becky Elder, Mr. Jay Rohrer, and Ms. Susan Wolbrueck—voted against the will of the citizens of Manitou Springs and denied ballot measure 2D’s success in the recent election. When the majority doesn’t win, our democracy doesn’t work. This failure shatters the integrity of our elections and upends the legitimacy of local government. Such a prescription for political chaos should upset every Manitou Springs citizen.

How did we get here? How did democracy fail here?

Ballot measure 2D, also known as the Manitou Springs Arts, Culture, and Heritage initiative (or “MACH,” more information available at ManitouACH.org), narrowly won last month’s election. The result was recounted and affirmed by both the county and state. For MACH supporters, this was a tough struggle but worth the effort.

Along the way, four city council members (Todd, Elder, Rohrer, and Wolbrueck) declared their opposition to 2D in two op-eds in these pages on Oct. 17 and 24. Setting aside the fact that their gathering outside the public eye to collaborate on these essays was almost certainly a violation of the state’s “Sunshine” laws, the important point is that the four were on the record as personally opposing 2D before the vote took place.

When a ballot measure initiative like 2D passes, one routine step remains. At a meeting on Oct. 15, the city attorney advised that a vote in favor of 2D would be an “authorization to impose a tax.” This means a city ordinance is needed to enact 2D into law. Like new license tabs from the DMV, this step is considered so automatic that the city administrator mentioned the city attorney had never heard of a council not putting the public’s wishes into law.

Yet it did set up a hard, but simple decision. For those four city council members, their choice was to affirm the community’s decision against their own preferences. While their choice may have been as distasteful as eating soap, as Mayor Jaray put it, it was the city council’s “obligation to follow the majority of the citizens of Manitou Springs” by enacting the measure. Even the mayor-elect to take office next month, Mr. John Graham, agreed.

Todd, Elder, Rohrer, and Wolbrueck may have seen flaws in 2D. They may have disliked the measure. They may have believed it pointed Manitou in the wrong direction. That’s the hard part.

But here’s the simple, straightforward skinny: Those personal assessments mean little compared to their duty to democratic principles. Democracy’s beating heart is the idea that the majority decides, the minority has certain inviolable rights, and the Golden Rule always applies. We are compelled to do onto others as we would like to be treated.

This choice was stark, and full of consequences, for Manitou and these four city council members. Unfortunately, they chose wrong.

These four nullified the wishes of 1,035 of their fellow citizens. These four cost the community approximately $200,000 (and maybe more) in revenue generated by the majority-voter-endorsed local sales tax initiative that could have gone to fixing the non-ADA compliant Carnegie library as well as many other arts, culture, and heritage efforts. These four missed an opportunity to take a stand for democracy instead of looking out for their personal preferences first. These four struck against the sanctity of our electoral system. If an election result can be so easily denied, then why would any citizen want to participate?

For those of the four that are soon to leave city council, can they truly say they are comfortable with the precedent they’ve just set? After all, when the Golden Rule breaks, it breaks hard.

Councilwoman Nancy Fortuin declared herself “embarrassed,” and Mayor Jaray and Councilman Gary Smith looked the same. They should be. So should all of Manitou.

Upset as citizens are certain to be at this dysfunction of democracy, there is a way forward. As 2D is considered “authorized” by the city’s voters, the next city council should be able to vote on 2D again in January. Four incoming members, including the mayor-elect, are on the record in favor of the measure, which means a solid 5-2 majority in support of 2D. The will of Manitou’s citizens may yet happen.

If so, the MACH Steering Committee and all its supporters look forward to working with the new city council to move forward in planning Manitou’s bright future and putting this sad episode in the rubbish bin of history, where it belongs.

 

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