Commissioners try to extend term limits

Move ignores 1998 landslide vote reaffirming county term limits

By Steve Immer, SFP Oct 2000

Summit County voters will again face a term limits ballot question this November.

The Board of County Commissioners, at its Sept. 11 regular meeting, voted unanimously to ask county voters to decide on whether or not to extend the current two-term, eight-year limit on county elective office to three terms, 12 years. A Yes vote would mean a potential three-term, 12-year stint in office for a county elected official, while a No vote would preserve the current two-term, eight-year maximum time in office.

Colorado state voters approved term limits for local officials in 1994. In 1998, the BOCC tried to overturn county term limits, referring two ballot questions to the voters: (1) should term limits be rescinded for the BOCC, and (2) should term limits be rescinded for the other county elected officials (sheriff, treasurer, clerk, assessor, coroner and surveyor).

The 1998 vote was a landslide in favor of county term limits. The margins to preserve term limits were 65 percent to 35 percent for the BOCC and 58 percent to 42 percent for the other county elected officials. Clearly, the voters of Summit County wanted citizen officials serving a limited amount of time rather than professional career politicians running county government. It was a great victory for the people, much to the dismay of the existing county office holders.

However, to no one's surprise, the BOCC has refused to abide by the clear decision of the voters two years ago. After all, their careers are at stake, and they have no intention of giving up their considerable power, salaries and perks. The BOCC now wants to "modify" term limits from a two-term to a three-term maximum.

Unlike the term limits questions two years ago, which had two separate ballots - one for the BOCC and one for the other county elected positions - this time there is only one question covering all county elected offices.

This self-serving hypocrisy would be comic except for the fact that the stakes are so high. If this measure passes, it is goodbye to citizen government in Summit County. The existing county officials will continue to get free rides whenever their terms come up for re-election. The huge advantages that incumbents already have in terms of name recognition, publicity and fund-raising will continue unchecked. In the last two election cycles, before term limits have kicked in, all county incumbents have been re-elected, all but the position of coroner, without opposition.

Excluding coroner, there has only been one candidate for each office. In 1998 and again in 2000, all but one county elected position has been filled with no choice whatsoever on the ballot. Whatever else this system is, it certainly is not democracy. No wonder voting percentages in Summit County are so low (35 percent of registered voters in the 1998 general election).

Term limits are essential for all policy-making offices such as the BOCC.

Unlike 1998, the issue before the voters this election covers all elected positions, both policy-making and administrative. Since it is a "blanket" question, we must give a "blanket" response, preserving the current two-term limit for all county officials.

Eight years in office is the right length of time, especially for policy-setting offices like the BOCC, where "burn-out" from constant battles with the special interests takes a significant toll over time. Term limits adds vitality and innovation to government. It disciplines the mind on the task at hand. A newly elected office holder must focus immediately on the agenda for which he/she was elected, knowing that there is only a limited amount of time to complete the work.

Since at least every eight years the offices will be contested in open (non-incumbent) elections, term limits will allow more "third parties," minorities and women a real chance at holding office.

The Summit County Green Party would become much more of a major player in future contests for open seats. Additionally, voter participation would rise dramatically, as citizens would take a real interest in competitive races with real choices.

For all these reasons, all voters in Summit County should vote a resounding NO on the November ballot question of extending term limits for all county elected offices.

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