Frank Lancaster Town Administrator

The right to petition the government has been a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy since its inception. The first amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right of the people to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This cornerstone has been carried forward in state constitutions down to local government, where citizens have the right of petition in many areas.

At the local level, not every action of an elected body is subject to direct action by citizen petition, and the rules associated with petitions differ under State law. As a statutory town, what is allowed by petition and how each petition is handled by the Town and petitioner is specified by State Statute. Currently, we have three active petitions in our community, so I want to share some basic information about the processes.

The first petition deals with allowing the establishment of marijuana businesses. We have received several emails from people asking, “Why is the Town trying to allow marijuana?” or “Why is the Town Board pushing the sale of marijuana in town?” It’s important to first understand that the Town and its elected officials have not brought this issue forward. Possession and use of marijuana are allowed in Colorado by the Colorado Constitution, with state limitations of use and possession. The Colorado Constitution allows individual towns to choose if they want to allow marijuana businesses or not, and to adopt regulations on those businesses. Estes Park, through past public hearings and Town Board actions, has chosen not to allow marijuana businesses.

Under Colorado law, a citizen can petition the Town Board to adopt an ordinance, in this case, to allow marijuana businesses. The petitioner must be a registered voter in the State of Colorado, but they are not required to live in the Town limits. The right to petition only applies to legislative actions, not administrative actions. Since this would be an ordinance, this falls under the legislative category. To proceed with this, the petition must be in a specific format that must be checked and approved by the Town Clerk. Once approved, the petition must be signed by at least five percent of the registered electors of the Town. Only the signatures of registered voters in the Town can be counted.

If the petition has enough valid signatures, the Town Clerk is required to forward the petition to the Town Board. The Town Board has only two choices. First, the Town Board could simply adopt the ordinance as stated in the petition. Second, if the Town Board doesn't adopt it outright, the Town Board is required to put the issue on the ballot for an election and let the voters decide. Depending on when the complete, signed petition is filed, this would probably go to a mail ballot sometime in early summer.

The initiated ordinance would permit the operation of a limited number of marijuana facilities within Town limits only in the Commercial Outlying and Commercial Heavy zoning districts with a 1,000-foot setback from schools. It provides that the Town would establish administrative rules outlining the application and licensing process. The complete petition and approval packet is available at www.estes.org/petitions.

What the Town Board cannot do is simply vote a measure down and end it there. It must go to the voters. Even if all Town Board members were opposed to a measure, all they can do is send it to the electorate. If it passes in an election, the Town Board must uphold the wishes of the electorate. The Town may have some regulatory powers as stated in the initiated ordinance.

Also, as provided in the petition, the Town Board may determine to impose a sales and excise tax on the sale of marijuana at a later date subject to voter approval. Due to the restrictions of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR,) a tax question cannot be on a special election ballot. Tax questions can only be on the ballots of a General Election or a regular Municipal Election, so the soonest the Town Board could put the tax question on the ballot would be this November.

If anyone wants to oppose or support this ordinance, they would be most effective directing their efforts to campaigning to fellow voters in the days and weeks before the election. The electorate will be the decision-making body, and the Town must uphold its decision.

The other active petition effort includes recall petitions for the Mayor and a Trustee. Specific limitations exist for recalls, including that the official must have been in office for at least six months, and the recall petition must be initiated by a committee of at least three individuals. These individuals do not have to be registered voters and do not have to live in Town limits. The petition must state, in no more than 200 words, why the official should be recalled. The current recall petitions and format approval letter from the Town Clerk are available at www.estes.org/petitions.

To be successful, the number of valid signatures must be at least 25 percent of the total votes cast for the particular office in the last preceding Municipal Election. Since the last mayoral election was in 2016, and the last trustee election was in 2018, the required number of signatures differs slightly for the Mayor and for the Trustee. It is possible for a registered voter to protest the recall petition within 15 days of the filing of the petition and then, the Town Clerk must hold a hearing regarding the validity of the petition. The protest process must be completed within 30 days.

For both types of petitions, there are a number of time restrictions regarding how long the petitioners have to gather signatures, how long the Town Clerk has to review the signatures, how long the petitioner has to cure any deficiencies and how soon the election can be held. If you are interested in the specifics, please contact the Town Clerk’s office at 970-577-4777 or townclerk@estes.org and they will be glad to assist. (This article is already long, so I shouldn’t try to list out all these requirements!)

Following a successfully completed recall petition, there must also be an election at the same time to fill the positions, should the recall election be successful. Once the election date is set, individuals interested in filling the positions may pick up petitions from the Town Clerk’s office, and depending on whether it is a poll or mail-in election, potential candidates have a specific amount of time to collect 10 signatures to get on the ballot. If an official is recalled, the candidate with the highest number of votes cast will be elected for the remainder of the term. In this case, until the next Municipal Election in April of 2020.

In addition to the specific petition requirements, all other election rules and laws apply. These include issues such as timelines for mailing ballots to overseas voters, verifying voter status and others. There are also restrictions on how close special elections can be to each other and how close a special election can be to a General Election (November and April.) The cost to the Town for a special election is roughly $20,000 to $25,000. If all the timing falls together, the recall election and marijuana ordinance could be on the same ballot. More likely, due to the differing required time frames, these may be two separate special elections.

Petitioning the government for action is one of the most direct forms of democracy, but the details and nuances can be confusing. I hope this helps to clarify some of the issues. If you have any other questions, please reach out to the Town Clerk or to me and we will do our best to help.

As citizens, it’s up to us to make these democratic processes work. If any of these issues successfully reach the ballot, it’s important to make your voice heard by voting.

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