*Note: This essay (a heavily-edited version of “How Manitou Springs – and democracy – lost this week”) was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on December 17, 2019. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
Democracy lost, 4-3, in a Manitou Springs City Council vote last Tuesday night. The vote rejected official enactment of an arts, culture, and heritage ballot measure that received a narrow majority in last month’s election. One of the four council members that defied the wishes of Manitou’s citizens, Jay Rohrer said, “Just because a majority of a group of people think you should go in a certain direction does not mean that that is a wise choice.”
Stunning. Read it again and it’s still stunning. Because when the majority doesn’t win, our democracy doesn’t work. Failures like this shatter the integrity of our elections and upend legitimacy in local government. Such a prescription for political chaos should upset everyone in Manitou Springs and beyond. Because if it happened here, it can happen anywhere.
So how did this happen?
Ballot measure 2D, also known as the Manitou Springs Arts, Culture, and Heritage (MACH) initiative, proposes a 0.3 percent increase in the local sales tax to support the city’s arts, culture, and heritage efforts. The measure’s victory (1,035 to 1,030) 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—Rohrer, Bob Todd, Becky Elder, and Susan Wolbrueck—declared their personal, public opposition to 2D in two op-eds in local press in the weeks leading up to the vote (likely violating the Colorado Open Meeting Law in the process).
When a measure 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 attorney has said he’d 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. This choice may have been as distasteful as eating soap, but, as Mayor Ken Jaray put it Tuesday night, it was the city council’s “obligation to follow the majority of the citizens of Manitou Springs” by enacting the measure.
Rohrer Todd, Elder, and Wolbrueck may have seen flaws in 2D. They may have disliked the measure. They may have believed it would point 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 votes 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 efforts like fixing the city’s crumbling and non-ADA compliant Carnegie library. 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 Rohrer and Elder, 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.
Council member Nancy Fortuin declared herself “embarrassed,” and Jaray and Council member Gary Smith looked the same. They should be. So should all of Manitou.
For those beyond Manitou’s border, let this story be a cautionary tale so your community never suffers such a setback.
That said, take heart. Democracy’s remarkably resilient. 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.
This story, like democracy, isn’t done.