By Jenny Paulson/Publisher/Southern Colorado Independent Magazine
Residents of Pueblo, Colorado are protesting and filing more legal complaints with the City of Pueblo in what appears to be a war about who maintains power and control of our local government. On one side stands citizen activists trying to change their government by citizen initiatives. On the other side is the government, which would rather have its constituents take a knee than exert their rights.
Perhaps the most pure expression of citizen involvement is petitioning government by initiative. It so happens that Pueblo Reform, a local group of citizens has taken several ideas and is attempting to introduce them as local initiatives to the voters.
One idea is to term limit the Chief of Police and perhaps other City officials. The idea originally came from the LAPD and spread throughout smaller communities in California. Because the Chief in Pueblo now is confirmed by the Union to have a 95% vote of no confidence in his leadership by his own officers, the group sees a bigger red light in moving forward. If pass, the Chief would have to answer to a Public Safety Accountability Panel made up of mostly citizens, checking in at year two, and then reapplying for his job at year five to prove what he/her has done for our community. The Panel would decide if the Chief’s application meets the cut and would have public hearings to get citizen input and would factor in employee surveys. The City Manager would no longer have the ultimate power to hire and fire the Chief and he would be more accountable to our community.
Another idea to to put residency requirements on the Chief of Police, requiring him to live in Pueblo. Right now our Chief lives in Colorado Springs, and that is a source of contention for police officers who already feel that he is not in touch and that his leadership style doesn’t reflect our community. In researching the subject, Pueblo Reform found that almost every City in the US has this requirement in ordinance or charter form already and that most Chief’s must reside in their city, and if they do not the contentions are usually high. Chief Luis Velez was the Police Chief in Colorado Springs prior to taking the job in Pueblo about four years ago. The City leaders had the knowledge that he was given a vote of no confidence already in the Springs shortly after he was reportedly found with a stolen gun from evidence by warrant in his home. He was also reportedly involved in the misfiling of thousands of items of evidence and the ACLU and US Department of Justice sued him for alleged false targeting of activists and for promoting the wrong people, showing favoritism and passing over good employees. He is said to be using the same techniques in Pueblo, and morale is at an all time high.
The other idea is to implement an Independent Auditor who will oversee entire City of Pueblo complaints and who will periodically review police complaints. The Police Department has Internal Affairs in place but the City of Pueblo has no complaint system whatsoever and activists and some members of the media complain that the City Manager and Chief simply refuse to return calls when they are questioned. There are no complaint forms in print or online and the City Manager is the head of department leaders per our Charter. The City of Pueblo would be put on turnaround status, with hired consultants to help create “Pueblo improvement plan” for both the City and the Police Department. Officers say they too want to go to community style policing, with more police officers. The Union says they are way under the state average of 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents, that Pueblo only has 1.7. The Chief in his four years shut down substations mandated by voters, shut police beats from six to two which allowed police to better understand neighborhoods, cut narcs to one and cut the gang unity completely. Police officers in the recent study released in January say they don’t feel safe and the citizen group is responding saying they support the views of officers that change must take place from the top down.
Qualifying initiatives for the ballot isn’t easy. Pueblo Reform got a late start in 2014 and tried to collect 6800 signatures for an Ombudsman which has since been modified to the above package with greater citizen, union and police input. Over 100 locals spent about a month doorbelling and standing in front of stores to to gather more than 5,000 signatures. But really about 8,000 signatures were needed to qualify each an initiative. It’s not an easy task, nor should it be. That time and effort, along with the support of 10 percent of the registered voters is a high bar. It’s difficult, yet achievable.
It’s necessary to maintain the signature-gathering bar just high enough so not everyone can do it, and also to ensure many citizens in the local district support the petitioner’s ideas. Once an initiative petitioner has the requisite number of valid signatures, the law becomes very clear. The city must take one of two actions. It must either adopt the ordinances directly or send the ideas to the ballot.
But that’s assuming the city acts like adults and follows the law.
Unfortunately, government today wields enormous power and has an uncontrollable ego. Governments seem to have forgotten they have limited power derived by the consent of the governed. They now believe they have unlimited powers granted by themselves to themselves.
And when private citizens exert their power by filing initiatives, government’s ego won’t permit it to respond like an adult. Instead, government turns red-faced and throws a tantrum.
And the City of Pueblo has been throwing tantrums the past few years. The City Clerk and City Attorney and whomever their collaborators have included in 2015 purposefully and willfully provided different information to Pueblo Reform from 2014 to 2015 shortly after writers of the revised Charter amendment asked for more details. In a long paper trail of emails put in a suit at District Court, the Clerk tells group members that they are too late to subject by July of 2014 with the new revisions, however emails from the previous year provided that the group had until the first week of August to submit signatures to the Clerk. The Charter of Pueblo confirmed that the group had 90 days back from the election date and that the City was just throwing an illegal fit. The group submitted then at an even later date after consulting with attorneys and outside advisers and the Clerk accepted the document and continued to approve it for the November ballot with a few changes.
Pueblo Reform complained to various city officials including the City Manager, Sam Azad. In fact, the city of Sequim did nothing. The city council members just sat in a corner and pouted.
The initiative backers have had to attempt to drag the city into court and ask a judge to order them to do their job. But due process per the Charter of Pueblo that the Municipal Judge, then William Martinez, who is now on over two weeks of ordered paid leave for reportedly misconduct, refused due process to the group.
Sadly, there is a pile of case law that enables the bad behavior displayed by Pueblo. It’s so bad, that the statute that governs local citizen initiatives should start with a warning that says: “Please don’t attempt a local citizen initiative unless you are super rich and can afford to bring a lawsuit against the city.”
In these modern times, citizens should expect to litigate if they want their ideas to reach the ballot. The City Attorney for Pueblo even told Pueblo Reform that they might as well give up without an attorney in July of 2015. And the leaders of the trash hauling initiative said the same, not to go to the City without an attorney. However the leaders of the group were confident in their research and work, because they used national consultants and studied the best of the best in the US and modified legislation for Pueblo.
In December of 2015 the City of Pueblo, knowing that Pueblo Reform was garnering even more support through social media and throughout the community, attempted to pull a fast one. They submitted to the outgoing Council an allegedly illegal ordinance, knowing that Pueblo Reform was going to head towards the next possible ballot with their preapproved legislation with just minor changes. They attempted to submit to the vote of Council an ordinance further limiting the ways in which citizens would collect signatures, restricting the subject matter despite that the Charter founding fathers clearly stated that they wanted citizens to as easy as possible submit ordinances, Charter changes and referendums to the voters of Pueblo – and that it is the people not the City who is to control the policies of this town.
However citizens protested at the meeting, the agenda of which wasn’t put online with the usual notice days before apparently because they didn’t want members of Pueblo Reform to make note of the unconstitutional ordinance. Three protestors spoke in the five minute slots with public input and hammered on the City for trying to pull this Christmas weekend and Councilman Chris Nicholl suggested the ordinance be stalled until January 25th, and stated that there should be a workshop on the matter, that the ordinance might limit the rights of citizens and that such an item shouldn’t be just presented to a Council that appears to not even known much if anything about the item on the agenda.
Pueblo Reform is going to submit not just one lawsuit this time but an injunction asking for relief asking for a Court ordered restraining order against the City as well as a complaint to the Colorado Bar Association against City Attorney Dan Kogovsek and any other City Attorney involved in the illegal work, a lawsuit at Municipal Court of the attempted violation of the Charter of Pueblo and a complaint to the City about the complete ethical violation – because the City Attorney is now the authority that reviews ethical complaints the group will also file a complaint with the Colorado Ethics Commission.
On Monday night, the next City Council meeting, and the following regular meeting on January 25th, we’ll will find out if the Council decides to do what is right and turn down the proposed ordinance. The City of Pueblo’s citizen initiative powers were designed by Pueblo’s founding fathers to make people feel like they can participate in government and we will find out if the people still remain in control of government in 2016 as Pueblo Reform and the growing number of citizen supporters intend to move forward one way or another to get to the ballot with meaningful legislation.
– Jenny Paulson, Publisher/Editor Southern Colorado Independent Magazine / Founder of Pueblo Reform