New Era Colorado filed a formal complaint Monday challenging the validity of many of the signatures on an Xcel-backed charter amendment that would require a new debt limit election and place other constraints on a future municipal electric utility.

The complaint alleges that some of the signatures were altered or forged and that paid petition gatherers gave incorrect information to voters about the impact of the charter amendment.

The charter amendment says that voters would have to approve the total debt limit of a municipal utility, that affected customers in unincorporated Boulder County would need to vote in that debt limit election if the city serves outside its boundaries, and that those elections can only occur in odd years.

Members of New Era Colorado observe Steve Fenberg, left, pointing out specific grievances to Boulder City Clerk Alisa Lewis, right, at the Boulder
Members of New Era Colorado observe Steve Fenberg, left, pointing out specific grievances to Boulder City Clerk Alisa Lewis, right, at the Boulder Municipal Building on Monday, July 29, 2013. New Era Colorado filed a formal complaint to contest signatures gathered for the Voter Approval of Debt Limits charter amendment. (Michael Wilson / For the Camera)

Xcel Energy has formed an issue committee to support the charter amendment and polled the language before it was submitted to the city earlier this year.

Steve Fenberg, executive director of New Era Colorado, which has formed an issue committee to oppose the charter amendment, said he hopes the charter amendment is removed from the ballot as a result of the challenge, but that isn't the only reason his group filed the complaint.

"I also want people to understand that this group is not what it claims to be," he said. "The community that is against money in politics should do everything in their power to keep this off the ballot. It's not about people not getting a say. This amendment is very misleading and has the potential to stop municipalization in its tracks."

Katy Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the Voter Approval of Debt Limits group, said the filing from New Era amounts to "sour grapes."

"The city clerk checked and validated 5,100 signatures as good and valid," she said. "I think it's kind of sour grapes on their part. It's very standard for people who don't like a particular ballot measure and don't like people stating their position to argue that people were misled."

The complaint describes a petition circulator telling voters that the vote was on "whether or not to create a municipal utility because the previous year's election was too close" and that the previous vote was "not valid" because it was too close.

Voters in 2011 narrowly approved two measures, one raising the utility occupation tax to pay for the study of municipalization and the other authorizing the City Council to create a utility.

In support of the complaint, New Era submitted a video purporting to show the petition circulator making those comments.

The complaint also alleges that petition circulators altered or forged some lines of the petitions.

Atkinson said it appears that opponents are trying to slow down the process, while organizers of the initiative tried to expedite it by turning in their signatures earlier than required.

"They're trying to get us off the ballot, and it won't work," she said. "If they get us off in 2013, we'll be on in 2015."

City Clerk Alisa Lewis said she will set a hearing date between five and 20 days from the filing of the complaint, and both sides will be able to present testimony. The burden of disproving the validity of the signatures lies with the challenging party.

Lewis will be the hearing officer, as the city clerk. She said she is unlikely to issue a ruling at the hearing, but she will expedite the process as much as possible.

The clerk's office already has verified that enough signatures match with registered voters in Boulder. If necessary, the challenged signatures can be checked against the signatures on file with the Boulder County clerk's office.

The City Council voted to place the measure on the ballot on first reading, a required formality. A second reading is scheduled for Aug. 6.

The City Council also is considering its own charter amendment to compete with the one presented through the initiative process.