The end of 2012 marks the completion of my first full year as a columnist for the Aspen Daily News. As with all new experiences, this one has taught me some things. Here are my observations on a few of the things that I learned over the past 12 months.
I learned that Carbondale really doesn’t want a new grocery store. Last January the town’s trustees asked Carbondale voters to approve a new commercial development, the Village at Crystal River, the anchor for which would be a new City Market. Approval hinged on persuading taxpayers, err, I mean “fee payers,” to cover the $5 million in public infrastructure improvements. Yes, an illegal tax, but I’m pretty sure that’s not why most of Carbondale’s voters turned it down. “VCR” was unimaginative and ugly, and it was roundly defeated at the ballot box.
I learned that I was one of Jack Johnson’s most popular subjects for his Aspen Daily News column. During 2012, Jack used my name in the first sentence of his column no less than three times, more than any other individual with the possible exception of Mitt Romney.
It was a new experience for me to have my professional integrity besmirched and my personal opinions mischaracterized and denigrated so deliberately and unashamedly, but as Naven R. Johnson (no relation) once exclaimed at the delivery of the new phone books:
“This is the kind of spontaneous publicity, your name in print, that MAKES people!”
So I’ve got that going for me.
I learned that Coloradans think the right to smoke marijuana is more important than the right to drive a car, or to be married, or to expect safe roads or adequate police protection, or safe drinking water, or clean air. Colorado voters, by approving Amendment 64 last November, assigned the right to smoke marijuana — which remains illegal under federal law — constitutional protection, or the same importance as the right to vote.
Speaking of the right to vote, I learned that you can fight city hall and win, sort of, as former Aspen mayoral candidate Marilyn Marks proved in her three year-long battle with Aspen City Hall over access to the city’s May 2009 instant runoff election ballots.
When last June the Colorado Supreme Court declined to take on the city’s appeal, the Colorado Court of Appeals’ 2011 ruling upholding Marks’ assertion that ballots are public records became law. So all ends well for Marilyn and for our right to independently confirm fair elections and secret ballots, right? Not so fast.
After six months, 9th Judicial District Court Judge James Boyd, whose 2009 summary judgment in favor of the city was overturned by the Court of Appeals, has yet to act on their order requiring the city to reimburse Marilyn for her attorney’s fees. Perhaps there is a good reason for this delay, but it seems unreasonable for our courts to deny individual citizens the benefits of their legally won rights — particularly the financial costs unfairly foisted upon them by their governments for merely seeking to defend their rights.
And it doesn’t end there. In July 2012, District Court Judge Gail Nichols ruled, in a separate lawsuit over Marks’ public records request to view Aspen’s 2011 election ballots, that a new city of Aspen ordinance adopted just prior to that election allows the city to prohibit citizen review of ballots. Yes, the same ballots that the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in the fall of 2011 are public records under state law.
Nichols’ ruling concludes that a local ordinance limiting the public’s access to ballots, enacted by the Aspen City Council in 2011, trumps the City Charter, approved by Aspen’s voters in 1970. Section 4.15 of that charter designates state law — the Colorado Open Records Act, not a ordinance — as the exclusive controlling authority for review of all city of Aspen public records.
To quote section 4.15: “All public records of the city of Aspen shall be open for inspection by any person at reasonable times in accordance with state statutes existing at the present time or hereafter enacted.”
So can Colorado local governments now take away our state constitutional rights simply by passing an ordinance? Marks’ attorney Robert McGuire thinks so, and provided the following comment regarding Nichols’ ruling.
“The trial court’s decision guts the Colorado Open Records Act by allowing a mere city council to override our almost 50-year-old state open records statute,” McGuire wrote. “Until this decision, the legislature’s decision that public records ought to be publicly accessible trumped the conflicting desires of local politicians. ... But now local officials, who invariably prefer to govern in private, have a court’s actual blessing to exempt themselves from complying with a major state open government law.”
So what is the most important thing I learned this last year? Fire it up fellow Coloradans, your state constitutional right to marijuana is safe only until your city council passes a local ordinance outlawing that right.
Your right to government transparency and to independently confirm that your ballots are counted accurately and that your votes remain secret from all, especially those who are already elected? Those rights may already be gone.
Email Paul Menter at Pmenter98388@gmail.com.