Voter turnout out in advance of Election Day on Tuesday is “a little low, but on trend based on ballot content,” according to Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder Janice Vos Caudill.

That’s Vos Caudill’s way of saying that participation is about normal for an off-election year in which there is neither a presidential race nor a congressional race for local voters to consider.

“Last year, we had a great turnout,” she said Saturday, referring to the Nov. 3, 2020 election in which Democrat Joe Biden defeated Republican incumbent Donald Trump for the top job in our nation’s government. More than 12,000 county voters cast ballots in that election.

As of Saturday morning, the county Clerk and Recorder’s Office had received 2,955 ballots. The county has slightly more than 14,000 active registered voters, according to Vos Caudill.

Voters were able to cast ballots early and in person at the county’s administration building on Aspen’s Main Street last week. Vos Caudill said only 41 took advantage of that opportunity.

She expects around 30 more people to vote in-person on Monday, and perhaps another 150 to 200 to walk in on Election Day. Voting hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

Thus, the lion’s share of votes are being cast by mail or by dropping off ballots at the county’s boxes located in front of the administration building, Snowmass Village Town Hall and Basalt Town Hall.

“You can drop off your ballot at any county voting box in the state,” Vos Caudill said. “If it’s in by 7 p.m. Tuesday, it will count.”

She said it wouldn’t be fair to compare turnout in this election to the one 12 months ago.

“That’s like comparing grapes to oranges,” Vos Caudill said.

Still, she and her staff are prepared for whatever may come their way. During the weeks preceding an election, it’s all hands on deck at the Clerk and Recorder’s Office. Those who don’t want to vote in person but haven’t received a ballot by mail can still get a ballot at her office, take it home and then drop it off Tuesday.

“We can accommodate anybody with anything,” she said. “But we are encouraging people to vote early because of COVID-19.”

Vos Caudill said in an off-election year, a person’s individual vote is stronger since turnout isn’t as high.

“Your vote has more strength in an odd-year election,” she said. “It’s just as important as it is in a presidential election year.”

Masks are required for those voting in person at the county building (in the conference room next to the county commissioners’ meeting room). Election officials need to see identification, such as a driver’s license or passport. In lieu of that, voters may present a utility bill. More detailed information is available at pitkinvotes.com.

Vos Caudill said the public should be informed that, because of the election Tuesday, the county’s motor vehicle service will be closed.

Here are the highlights of the Aspen voter ballot. The information was culled from various sources, including candidate questionnaires, Aspen Daily News story coverage and the 2021 State Ballot Information Booklet, also known as the “blue book.”

Aspen ballot question 2A

If passed, this item would allow the Aspen City Council to redirect more revenue from the Wheeler Real Estate Transfer Tax fund toward arts and culture.

For several months this year, city of Aspen staff and council members had been discussing potential new purposes for WRETT funds, given the fact that millions of dollars had been flowing into it annually due to the recent real estate market boom. However, local citizens connected with the Aspen District Theatre and the Black Box Theatre also were eyeballing the money with the goal of securing some future funds for theater renovations and other purposes.

In July, the local citizens circulated a petition to place an initiative on the fall ballot. They wanted 50% of future WRETT revenue to go toward arts and culture purposes. They also sought to remove the annual cap of $100,000 that can be spent by the city on cultural and arts organizations from the Wheeler fund. However, the effort fell short, as there were not enough petition signatures for the item to be placed on the fall ballot.

Some council members and others in the community were critical of the citizen effort, saying it was rushed and that the 50% diversion figure had not been researched thoroughly. There also was concern that the citizen’s proposal did not go far enough in protecting the opera house, given that voters had initially passed the WRETT, and supported it at the polls subsequently, to dedicate the lion’s share of the monies for the historic facility’s preservation.

Following that failed petition effort — and though there was discussion about waiting until 2022 to move forward — the Aspen City Council came up with its own plan and voted Aug. 31 to place a WRETT item on the Nov. 2 ballot. The council’s proposal seeks to ensure continued funding for the Wheeler Opera House, while removing the $100,000 cap for arts and culture grants.

The ballot language makes specific mention of using the funds not only for the general “cultural, visual and performing arts,” but also the “capital and operational support of the Red Brick Center for the Arts,” an organization that is managed by the city.

The city currently has a balance of about $40 million in its Wheeler RETT fund, which is derived through a 0.5% tax on Aspen real estate transactions. Some in the community have expressed concern that the city council also rushed its proposal, and that the ballot language makes no mention of protecting the $40 million in reserve for opera house-only purposes. However, supporters of Ballot Question 2A say the reserve money is not an issue.

A group that calls itself Aspen for Arts, Arts for Aspen provided a letter to the editor to the Aspen Daily News last week in which it asked to clear up “misconceptions” relating to the initiative.

“…There will be no unlimited access to Wheeler funds if the $100K grant cap is lifted. Passage of the ballot measure would not permit access to the Wheeler’s present RETT balance of approximately $40 million. That is dedicated to the exclusive use of the opera house. In fact, 2A will allow the Wheeler to use its own earned revenues (approximately $300,000 annually that were previously allocated to arts grants) for its own programming.

“The ballot question does not mention the existing Wheeler fund because there is unanimous consensus (by city staff, city council and this campaign) that its purpose for the Wheeler cannot be changed, even by voters. It has been collected for a designated purpose, which remains in effect,” the letter continued.

The group added that approval of Ballot Question 2A “is in fact within striking distance based on current voter turnout. This is still going to be an incredibly close vote, and every vote really does count, so please vote ‘yes’ on 2A.”

The ballot question needs support from at least 60% of the city residents voting in the election to pass.

Aspen Board of Education

Local voters also will decide the fate of three Aspen School District Board of Education seats currently held by Suzy Zimet, Dwayne Romero and Susan Marolt. Marolt and Romero are term-limited, but Zimet is seeking re-election. The other candidates are: Larry Butler, John Galambos, Dr. Christa Gieszl, Stacey Weiss and Anna Zane.

Through a questionnaire this newspaper provided to the candidates, Butler, a self-employed investor, said he was running for a board seat “to give back to the community I love. … I have three children attending Aspen public schools and want to be aware of and involved in policy decisions affecting my children and all the children in Aspen public schools.”

Butler went on to say that the district did “as well as anyone could have done” in navigating through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The amount of continually changing information (and misinformation!) and circumstances made it an impossible task. … I believe in science and have faith in our public health officials. If the medical community urges (or demands) vaccinations and mask wearing, I support that. Community health comes first.”

When asked his reasons for running in 2021, Galambos, who previously ran unsuccessfully for the school board, said he didn’t see this election as particularly issues-based, but that didn’t make it any less important.

“I think I can provide some leadership to the board and some stability to the board. That’s one of the reasons I decided to give it a go a second time,” he said. “… I just feel like there are some rifts, and there’s some healing that needs to happen [in the school district and on the board].

“To me, it’s not about math grades and hot-button issues, it’s about how do we build a better community and how do we reflect our community in the schools?”

Gieszl, a primary care physician, wrote of how the past 18 months have been as challenging as anything faced in the history of Aspen’s schools.

“Our children are at varying levels of education, due to COVID disruptions. Teachers have been working under great stress. And divisions have opened between health care workers and citizens, and between parents, administrators and teachers. I offer a unique skill set and perspective to help heal these divisions,” she said.

Gieszl said research shows that children flourish and thrive, in terms of academic achievement, social development and mental health, when they can attend school in person.

“My No. 1 priority is to keep schools open while pursuing measures to keep its members healthy and safe,” she said. “Our teachers and students alike deserve strong and consistent policies — such as masking in indoor settings, vaccination and rapid sharing of information — so that they can do their work safely and with confidence.”

Weiss, a retired public school teacher, wrote that she believes the board would benefit from a career teacher’s perspective — “a viewpoint that has been lacking on the board for too long.”

Asked what role the school board should play in ensuring the mental health of staff and students in the school district, Weiss responded that children learn best and teachers are most effective when they’re mentally healthy.

“And therefore school boards play a vital role in supporting the comprehensive health needs of students and staff,” she said. “… Given the many challenges that young people face today, including the pressures of social media, bullying and the stress brought on by the COVID pandemic, we should prioritize our students’ mental health and do all we can to help our students cope and thrive.”

Teachers should be included in the discussion about mental health, she added.

“The pressures of teaching during COVID, along with an ever-increasing workload and inadequate pay has led to burnout, resignations and staff shortages across the nation, and Aspen is not immune to this problem. I believe the remedy lies in a focus on improving climate and culture, realistic expectations for teacher workloads and salaries sufficient to enable our teachers to meet their material needs without a second or third job,” she said.

The Aspen Daily News also asked the candidates whether they would like to see the district handle questions surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion differently. Zane, a small business owner, stated that she supports efforts “to identify areas in our school that might impede a student’s success or deny them access to opportunities.”

“Achieving true equity and inclusivity requires lifting each student to their fullest potential, regardless of race, religion, disability, language, body type, political orientation, social class or financial resources,” Zane continued. “Not only do we need a ‘COVID Recovery Plan’ for students whose growth has been stymied during the pandemic, we need to channel resources toward identifying the causes for student underperformance and intervene to help them advance.”

The results of the “equity survey” administered to high school students revealed a healthy school environment, Zane noted, “which is a credit to [school district] staff who must be encouraged to continue promoting the dignity of difference, fairness and equality for all while promoting free inquiry, civil discourse and the accumulation of knowledge.”

Zimet said she was proud to run on her record.

“I feel like I’ve worked hard and we’ve accomplished a lot during the past four years,” she said, pointing out that, during her recent term, the board hired a new superintendent, increased teacher pay and conducted a curriculum audit and made curricular changes in response.

The board also conducted a facilities/plant audit and began deferred maintenance, including safety and security measures; commenced buying additional teacher housing stock; and provided responsible leadership during COVID-19.

“I hope the voters give me another four years to see through to completion the work I’ve started,” she wrote.

Galambos, Butler and Weiss have been endorsed by the Aspen Education Association, the local teacher’s union. The Aspen Daily News editorial board has endorsed Weiss and Gieszl, but did not reach consensus on a third choice.

However, the newspaper’s endorsement pointed out that “Butler seems to fill a hole. With Dwayne Romero’s departure, the editorial board was concerned that a voice of reason would be lost. In too many school board meetings, reporters found themselves patiently waiting for Romero’s input. His focus on resources was appreciated — and it’s our (cautious) hope that Butler could serve that role.”

Statewide issues

The Nov. 2 election features three statewide questions for consideration — all of them placed through citizen initiatives.

“Amendment 78: Legislative Authority for Spending State Money” is a constitutional change that would pass with support from 55% of the state’s voters, according to the aforementioned 2021 Colorado Ballot Information Booklet, commonly known as the “blue book.”

A “yes” vote on Amendment 78 seeks to require that all state spending be allocated by the Colorado General Assembly and that custodial money be deposited in and spent from a new fund. A “no” vote allows state agencies to continue spending custodial money and certain other monies without appropriation from the legislature.

“Custodial money” is defined as money received by the state that must be used for a particular purpose. It is not part of the annual budget process.

“This includes money received from the federal government, as a legal settlement from a lawsuit, or as a donation from a private individual or organization,” the blue book says.

Implementation of the measure, if it passes, could require the legislature to establish a new process to allow spending of custodial money outside of the regular legislative session, or to meet for a special session, according to the blue book.

Other examples of custodial money include transportation funding, which is allocated by an independent commission, and grants, which typically come from the federal government or private organizations.

Should the proposed amendment pass, “These changes may affect the timing of certain spending decisions, potentially resulting in delayed or interrupted operations until spending is directly allocated” by the legislature, the blue book states.

An argument for the amendment is that it would increase transparency and accountability in state government. Arguments against it are that it adds unnecessary and expensive bureaucracy, while risking significant unintended consequences, and shifts decision-making from program experts to the political process.

“Proposition 119: Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress Program,” would pass with a simple majority vote. A “yes” vote provides ­financial aid for tutoring and other out-of-school enrichment and instruction. The monies would come from an increase in retail marijuana taxes and transfers from existing state funds, the blue book states. A “no” vote means the program would not be created and funded.

Children between the ages of 5 and 17 would be eligible to apply for inclusion in the program. It would be funded by a 5% increase in marijuana taxes over three years, plus an estimated $20 million annually from the state’s general fund. Additionally, the measure would divert around $20 million annually from the State Land Trust, which helps to fund public schools, to the State Public School Fund.

“The financial aid provided by the program cannot be used for school tuition or for instruction or materials that are part of the student’s regular school curriculum,” the blue book states.

Additionally, the measure would establish a new state agency, the “Colorado Learning Authority,” which would be independent from oversight by the State Board of Education and the Colorado Department of Education. Its nine members would be appointed by the governor.

An argument for Proposition 119: “School closures caused by COVID-19 have urgently increased the need for outside instructional support, especially among low-income students,” the blue book says. An argument against it is that increasing the sales tax on marijuana will further increase the gap between legal marijuana and black-market marijuana, “pushing more individuals into the black market.”

The third statewide question is “Proposition 120: Property Tax Assessment Rate Reduction,” which aims to lower the property tax assessment for multifamily housing and lodging properties. A “yes” vote would not impact assessment rates for other types of residential and nonresidential properties. A “no” vote retains the current assessment system.

The actual impact on a property owner will depend on several factors, according to the blue book, including the jurisdiction where the property is located, changes in future mill levies and the value of a property, the blue book says.

“The measure provides targeted tax relief for important sectors of Colorado’s economy,” says one argument for the measure. Also, “Reducing property taxes for most multifamily properties may ease pressure on rents and encourage investment to address Colorado’s housing shortage.”

A primary argument against Proposition 120: “Permanently reducing property tax revenue to local governments may result in cuts to important government services,” the blue book adds.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.