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Colorado Rising volunteer Sandy Castillo (right) gets a petition signature from Carol Scowcroft, of Boulder, in 2018 at the Farmers Market in Boulder. (Daily Camera file photo)
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As a global pandemic stifled the chance for direct democracy to have success via petitions to put measures on this year’s ballot, Boulder City Council, fearing possible legal reprisal, declined Tuesday night to throw a life preserver to local political groups needing thousands of signatures.

The proposed emergency ordinance would have temporarily allowed signatures gathered electronically to count toward thresholds resident-led initiatives must hit to put proposed city code changes before voters. The decision to shoot it down came on a 5-4 split.

Mayor Sam Weaver was on the fence, but ultimately leaned to kill the idea to alter city practices around petition signature gathering efforts in light of the coronavirus and resulting prohibitions on congregating. Mayor Pro Tem Bob Yates and Council members Mark Wallach, Mirabai Nagle and Mary Young also voted against the proposition of changing how support can be garnered by petitioners.

“This is going to be very fraught and complicated and I’m afraid no matter what we do, we’ll get it wrong, or at least someone will think we got it wrong, and this is going to end up in litigation,” Yates said. “… We’re not inhibiting democracy, COVID is inhibiting democracy.”

Concern had been expressed by community members, including petitioners, with the city staff’s suggested parameters for how support gathered electronically for the option to vote on a certain measure in the fall would be checked for veracity. Both allowing a petition to move forward when electronic signatures were potentially obtained wrongfully, and having to invalidate petitions performed correctly because of the needed double-checking by the city were worries.

The City Clerk’s Office would have been required to contact at least 150 randomly selected signers of each petition either by email or phone, and if 10% do not have a valid phone number or email address, do not respond to the clerk or are not the voter named on the petition, the entire petition would have been invalidated, the memo said.

Plus, names and addresses of the signers would have been posted online, and if 10% had contacted the city to disavow their signatures, the petition will also be tossed. Petitioners were hoping for tweaks to the proposed system that would not lead to dismissals of their work if supporters did not respond to an unexpected email or phone call from the city to check on the legitimacy of a signature.

Providing petitions an alternative path to a citywide November election had been discussed and considered by officials since the outbreak struck in Colorado weeks ago. The conversation evolved from potentially crafting less lofty criteria for petitioners to meet, with an agreement that Council would use its own power to put new laws before voters when it could be safely assumed an effort would have met the normal legal standard under circumstances allowing signature gathering to take place on a crowded Pearl Street Mall and at bustling spring and summertime festivals.

Debate flared over the appropriateness of a Yates suggestion that petitioners still have a chance to make the November ballot amid stay-at-home orders and pending “safer at home” mandates by setting up a table in a park to collect signatures while keeping signatories and activists at a safe distance apart.

“I find Bob’s speech slightly irresponsible,” Councilwoman Junie Joseph said. “If we still have a stay-at-home order, I don’t think it’s right to say to people, go the park, have a table and have people congregate. I don’t agree with that.”

Leaders of the committees behind most of the four current municipal petitions approved for circulation were outraged by the decision, and put off by a Weaver comment that none of the resident-led initiatives are “imminent” and “do not have to get done this year.”

Political strategies for at least two of the petitions — one seeking to loosen Boulder’s residential occupancy limits and another that would mandate local government provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction court — hinged on having votes occur during a presidential election year, in which high turnout is expected.

“Our initiative is critical for a presidential election year. That’s when student turnout is very high,” said Eric Budd, an organizer of the Bedrooms are for People committee taking aim at occupancy limits that some in Boulder believe target college students and make rental housing less affordable.

One of the other two petitions seeks to redirect the city’s utility occupation tax away from funding Boulder’s controversial exploration of starting a municipal power provider to sever from Xcel Energy. The other, given the green light for signature collections on Tuesday, pushes to have the mayor elected by voters through ranked-choice balloting rather than selected by the Council, as currently.

Plus, the timing of the pandemic makes Ruy Arango’s No Eviction Without Representation initiative more crucial to take effect this year, he argues, as rent collections in the state are below their average since the outbreak shut down large sectors of the economy, per city staff remarks to Council, with the Colorado Sun reporting an analysis shows more than 450,000 Coloradans could face eviction when the moratorium on processing those court actions lifts.

“We think the Boulder Council is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a weapon against direct democracy in Boulder, which is awful,” said Arango, campaign chair for the No Evictions Without Representation committee. “There is no comparing the 2020 electorate for a presidential election with the electorate in 2021. Sam is wrong. It is imminent. Democracy is imminent.”

The city is still planning to roll out a voter-approved online petitioning system, with two-step authentication checks to ensure signatories are indeed registered Boulder electors, in time for the 2021 election.

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