City won’t reveal its vote on tax
As a downtown landowner, the city of Glenwood Springs gets a vote of its own on a tax measure designed to help boost the community’s core.But the public apparently won’t know which way it voted. City Council has decided to follow city attorney Karl Hanlon’s advice that laws protecting ballot secrecy trump those that seek to protect open government.”This is most unusual,” City Manager Jeff Hecksel said.Said Hanlon, “It’s unusual because you have a public body that has to cast a secret ballot.”Tom Kelley, a Denver attorney who has worked extensively in government open meeting and public records law, disagrees. He says Colorado’s open meetings law is more specific than laws governing elections. Where laws conflict, courts generally hold that the more specific law governs, he said.The five-mill tax levy would raise about $185,000 its first year. Funds would pay the salary of a full-time Downtown Development Authority director and provide money to market downtown.Voting on the measure is limited to property owners living within the DDA district. The city qualifies for a vote as owner of City Hall, a new fire station and other downtown property.”They get one vote just like any other entity downtown,” Hecksel said.Council discussed how it wanted to vote last week in a closed-door meeting, also referred to as an executive session. It gave Mayor Larry Emery direction at the meeting regarding what vote he should cast on behalf of the city.Colorado’s open meetings laws stipulate that no position should be adopted at a meeting closed to the public.But Hanlon said council gives him directions in closed-door meetings all the time regarding negotiations, and those directions aren’t made public. He believes council is similarly warranted in giving secret directions to Emery.Hecksel said, “Technically, the mayor voted. The council can’t vote, they can’t take action in executive session, but mayor did vote. The city will vote in that election. The public body casts the vote, the mayor actually votes.”Hanlon said he recommended that council discuss the issue privately based on an exclusion to open meetings laws for matters that state or federal law require be kept confidential.Kelley said the legal questions posed by council’s actions are new ones for him.He said the only thing election laws require be kept confidential is the ballots cast at the polling place. There is nothing to prohibit voters from revealing their position, he said.”The public entities can certainly choose to disclose how they’re going to vote on something like this,” he said.Said Hanlon, “I guess you have the option of telling the world, but you don’t have to tell the world.”Kelley believes that in this case, the state Legislature requires such disclosure by mandating that council’s position be revealed in a public meeting.City Council put the downtown tax on the ballot. Hanlon said council’s action is in keeping with its traditional desire not to take a public position on matters it puts to voters. Individual council members may campaign on behalf of an issue, but council as a whole doesn’t, he said.”Council has historically tried to avoid directly swaying voters on any particular issue that they put to the ballot,” he said.Hecksel said he would welcome a discussion between Kelley and the city about the matter, and the city would be happy to change its position if warranted.”I think what we’re trying to do is the right thing and if that’s the right thing then we’re going to do that,” he said.Hanlon said it can be hard to distinguish between the city’s property interests and public role, and in this case the city is voting as a property owner rather than a public body.”I very much don’t like the use of executive sessions except when you have to,” he said.Hecksel said DDA representatives weren’t invited to join in last week’s discussion. Bob Zanella, a DDA volunteer and former Glenwood Springs mayor, wasn’t aware that council had decided how to vote on the issue, and to keep its decision secret, until contacted by the Post Independent.He said he understands why council members would feel they have to follow Hanlon’s advice.”If they feel that they are comfortable that way that’s fine … we’d just have to live with it,” he said.It would be nice to know how the city voted, Zanella said. For that matter, he said, he’d love to see the votes being cast by other property owners as well, “but they don’t let me do that either.”Zanella said he “would hope” council voted in favor of the tax.”This basically came from them,” he said of the tax proposal.The council had recommended the tax as a means of being able to rehire a DDA director, a position currently vacant for lack of funds, Zanella said.Hanlon said council members have talked openly about the measure in the past, but any previous comments shouldn’t necessarily be taken as an indicator of how the city decided to vote as a property owner.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. email@example.com
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