Pueblo’s proposed Strong Mayor legislation may be in violation of the Charter and state law

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The proposed Strong Mayor legislation that City Council agreed to place on the November 2017 ballot may be in violation of both the Pueblo City Charter and state laws. Pueblo’s outdated 1954 home rule Charter clearly states that any change to our city manager-mayor form of government must be made through a “Charter convention.” While Colorado law does allow that a municipality may adopt and amend a charter for its government and may exercise under the charter all powers of local self government, there are procedures to be followed when changing a form of government. The citizen group led by Nick Gradisar, a local attorney, did not allow for public input through their drafting of the legislation.

Should the Strong Mayor initiative win in November, it’s possible that the measure could be completely deemed invalid in the the court of law if a suit is filed by a citizen group that says it will do so because of legal violations and alleged ethical misconduct involved in the drafting of the ballot item. The City of Pueblo’s attorney, Dan Kogosvek told us in an email, prior to Council approving the ballot item, that he didn’t even have “in his possession” a copy of Gradisar’s proposed Strong Mayor legislation. But this email came about a a week after City Council already discussed it in an workshop that wasn’t televised, indicating that ethical misconduct may have taken place.
In Colorado, ballot issues an be deemed unconstitutional even after voters pass the legislation, if a judge rules that they violate the Charter and/or state laws.
The City Council has been frequently voting at workshops when the televisions are off and usually only the Pueblo newspaper is present, always saying that the off the record voting is to “guide the city manager” Sam Azad. However we believe this practice is unethical, and furthermore that many of these meetings have been illegal as the City Clerk, Gina Dutcher for a long time wasn’t posting the agendas of the meetings in violation of sunshine laws.
Pueblo is one of only two cities in Colorado, including Steamboat Springs, where there is a president of Council, elected by Council members rather then the general public. The question of a mayor has been put to the ballot before multiple times and has repeatedly lost through the years. However the City has never had a through look at the Charter through the legal process that we believe should have been initiated by the Council, rather then their approval of a citizen initiative the City Attorney admitted himself didn’t have a proper legal review by his own department.
In this series of editorials we are going to explore the pros and cons of the two forms of government as well as the issue of the City’s possible violation of the Charter and state laws. We’ll take an in depth look at the proposed Strong Mayor proposal and compare the work with other progressive Charter’s throughout the US. But first let’s explore how the state of Colorado allows for a change of government, which requires great public input and a formal, elected Charter commission, with a long study, then a ballot item requesting an entirely new Charter or multiple questions to revise the current one. Typically city’s throughout the United States use consultants experienced and up to date on the latest in the field.
The lack of process by which Pueblo’s proposed Strong Mayor initiative was put on the ballot, without public forums, is a flat out violation of the public trust, and most likely local and state laws. The public debate shouldn’t be about a Strong Mayor verses a Weak Mayor (and Weak Mayor proponents pulled out of their attempt to get to the same ballot recently), it should be about how Pueblo can modernize it’s entire Charter to bring it to today’s standards with greater checks and balances and accountability.
Our Charter, which serves as our constitution, has gone through so many changes through the years, mostly by individual City initiatives, that it is now inconsistent with the initial intentions and meaning of the founders of the Charter. We have studied the changes that voters passed through the years and will provide the public with information about how most of those changes involved less accountability of our local government to our citizens. 
We as citizens should have the opportunity to provide input into an in depth study of the Charter and decide as a community what we want, as our founders wanted. However the local Strong Mayor group, led by local attorney Nick Gradisar, has met privately with some known and unknown members of the community, including elected officials, for over a year without any official public input whatsoever. We had people ask for meeting times and places and were refused. Unions weren’t involved. There were no public meetings in neighborhoods. No formal Council workshops advising the public of the ballot issue. Nothing.
Here’s how the process should work and what the City of Pueblo should be doing to make changes to our charter or create an entirely new charter, or what we as citizens can do, calling fora Charter Commission by collecting signatures and placing the item on the ballot with suggested local reputable citizens listed to run for the elected positions who would then chose a national consultant to do a formal study. 
If a Colorado community wants to a new form of government here’s the procedure:
1. There has to be first decided if there is community interest of whether or not a Charter commission should be formed to be placed on the ballot. This can be done by vote of the Council or via petition of fifteen percent of the electors.
2. Once such an ordinance has been passed by Council or put on the ballot through the citizen referendum process, the vote on whether or not to form a Charter commission should be formed is held in an election.
3. Upon submission of the issues for consideration including a possible change to the form of government, those working in favor of the charter change of government, would need to identify members of the community willing to serve on the charter commission. To create revisions to the Pueblo charter that meets community need, there would need to be well balanced charter commissions represent all points of view within the community.
4. The ballot provides for voting on whether or not a charter commission should be formed, and also provides for the election of members of the charter commission. These members would be from the municipality at large.
5. Upon approval of a Charter commission, work must proceed to meet the timeline set by law. The work of the charter commission must be completed, and a new Charter in entirety, placed on the ballot for a decision and possible individual questions to voters. Questions might include about ten priority items such as does Pueblo want a new code of ethics, an ethics commission to review city ethics issues, an ombudsman for civilian oversight, term limits on the police chief, a weak or strong or hybrid mayor, changes to the way council functions and more.
6. At the first meeting of the commission, members should be sworn in. Officers should be elected (a chair, vice chair, etc) and a rules committee appointed to propose rules for the operation of the commission. A detailed work plan should be developed quickly and members should initially consider hire a national consultant that has worked with cities to improve their Charters.
7. The rules of the commission should address officers (chair, vice chair, secretary), appointment of any committees needed, establish regular meetings and procedures for calling special meetings (Colorado’s public meetings laws apply), and set procedures to be followed in conducting the commission meetings.
8. The commission would need to establish a date for the submission of the proposed Charter for citizen vote. It must set a budget for the work of the commission and seek funding to pay for any costs of the commission which may be split with the City and private funding. Reasonable costs that might be anticipated include secretarial services (or these may be provided by the municipality itself), postage, copying costs, office supplies, telephone and perhaps some travel, and outside consultants, if hired.
9. Research should take place to review and consider other Charters. Information meetings with outside speakers can be held. Commission members and elected officials in council-manager and strong mayor-council communities should be made available to speak in our city. Employee organizations, unions and outside experts should be called upon for input and advisement.
10. Deliberative sessions should be held to select the form of government and prepare a proposed Charter fro the public to then decide upon. Model City acharters are available from the National Civic League at www.ncl.org. ICMA (www.icma.org/formofgovt) provides information about the council manager form of government and their members as well as elected officials are available to speak to citizen groups about this form of government.
11. After extensive research and public input, there would be a formal submission the proposed Charter for legal review or of individual questions to revise the current Charter. 
12. The proposed Charter draft would then be shared with interested parties, presented at outside hearings with presentations to citizen groups. Comments would be gathered and considered.
13. If necessary, after considering all input, a revised draft of the Charter would be made. Repeat legal review would be necessary. Council would then pass an ordinance to provide for the election for the community to consider adoption of the proposed Charter.
14. They would certify the proposed Charter or Charter questions to the election authorities for inclusion on the ballot at the election established by the commission. 
15. The proposed Charter or list of changes/questions should then be distributed to voters well before the election date.
16. The voters would then decide whether or not the proposed charter should be adopted and and/or questions related to the charter. This election on the adoption of the proposed Charter should be held within a year or year and a half after the election of the charter commission.
If the Strong Mayor issue wins or loses on the November ballot, the community can still vote for a Charter commission and adjust anything that needs adjustment. This is the procedure by which we suggest that our City go through. This is part one of a series of editorials about the Charter and the issues involved in a change of government, outlining what may be outdated in our Charter, what could be updated and providing sample legislation that voters might approve of in an overall Charter change or individual questions.
Jenny Paulson is the publisher of the online Southern Colorado Independent magazine. She has lived in Pueblo for twelve years and formerly owned independent publications in Northwest Colorado for over a decade. 

Southern Colorado Independent Magazine publisher Jenny Paulson is a 20 year veteran niche magazine publisher, an independent journalist, photographer, publisher, blogger, activist, world traveler and a proud mom. She has worked as a political activist, for a lobbyist, a pr firm, the governor and for a representative in Washington DC. She has lived in her home of Pueblo, CO ten years.

About Jenny Paulson 83 Articles

Southern Colorado Independent Magazine publisher Jenny Paulson is a 20 year veteran niche magazine publisher, an independent journalist, photographer, publisher, blogger, activist, world traveler and a proud mom. She has worked as a political activist, for a lobbyist, a pr firm, the governor and for a representative in Washington DC. She has lived in her home of Pueblo, CO ten years.