Dennis Maes

So, how many politicians does it take to change a lightbulb? Twenty five — one to hold the bulb and 24 to turn the ladder. There will never be a shortage of comedians so long as politicians exist to provide material that makes us scratch our heads. Such is the situation playing out in Pueblo with the effort by some to rid the city of a strong mayor form of government.

On Nov. 7, 2017, the citizens of Pueblo amended the city's charter to create a mayor/city council form of government with 12,244 yes votes against 11,426 no votes.

According to newspaper reports, Susan Carr, former vice president of the local Republican Party, Judalon Smyth and Dave DeCenzo (referred to as "petitioners") were primary proponents for placing a charter amendment on the ballot to reverse the results of the 2017 election. DeCenzo was also actively involved in the statewide petition drives to recall Gov. Jared Polis which failed miserably.

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Petitioners relied on information from City Clerk Marisa Stoller that they needed at least 3,678 valid signatures, the signature threshold amounting to 10% of the voters in the most recent municipal election necessary to amend a specific ordinance, to place the issue on the ballot. Stoller relied on that number pursuant to the legal advice of City Attorney Dan Kogovsek. Unfortunately, Kogovsek was erroneous in interpreting what process needed to be followed to amend the city charter. The number of signatures necessary for such a petition to be approved was, in fact, 7,260 or 10% of all registered voters to amend a city charter as required by state statute. Petitioners were also advised the signatures were required to be submitted to the clerk’s office by Dec. 1, 2022 but were previously erroneously advised they had until March 1 of this year to submit the signed petitions, causing them to be late in their filing.

Petitioners and others are calling foul now and threatening legal action against the city. Petitioners admit they did not seek independent legal advice to guide them through the process because of money constraints and reliance on the city to provide them with accurate information. Maybe so, but prudence would have suggested the petitioners should have undertaken a complete review and understanding of the requirements necessary to accomplish their goal prior to initiating the process.

City Councilor Lori Winner has indicated she has paid a substantial retainer, $4,000, to an attorney to review what legal action might be taken against the city. Perhaps said retainer might have been put to better use in seeking advice at the outset of the petition drive. Winner has indicated she is involved in securing a change in the form of government because Mayor Gradisar and Kogovsek are corrupt, which she claims is confirmed by the city’s dissemination of incorrect information. Carr believes the “strong mayor system is just ripe for corruption” and “it is not about who you put in office." No specific allegations of corruption have been leveled against Gradisar or Kogovsek. Gradisar is opposed to a return to the former city council/manager form of government and was a leader in the change to the strong mayor form of government.

The city clerk also disqualified other signatures because they did not comply with the process including attachments required for submission. Carr complained they were gathering signatures “in wind, rain and snow” and notary pages became detached from the signature sheets. Weather conditions do not provide an exception to the process and petitioners were certainly aware of the need to verify the validity of each signature. This is not a blemish that can be visited on the city.

That said, Gradisar’s statement concerning the snafu, “well, I don’t think it looks good for the residents of the city of Pueblo,” vastly understates the significance of providing accurate and trustworthy information to the public regardless of the responsibility of the citizenry to undertake its own due diligence in such matters. Rather, it underscores the need to provide accurate information to avoid allegations such as corruption within city government.

Kogovsek had to be aware of the volatility of the issue based on his past interactions with Winner and others. He should have clearly researched the difference between placing an ordinance on the ballot and replacing the form of government through a change to the city charter. Instead, the city was forced to seek an opinion from an expert in state and local government at the financial expense of the city. The expert determined the clerk’s office, on the advice of Kogovsek, gave petitioners the incorrect dates and number of signatures necessary to place the issue on the ballot. The expert’s legal fee for such advice is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $4,000, the amount Winner is investing for a potential lawsuit against the city.   

In addition to a citizen-initiated process, a charter amendment can be submitted to the voters at the direction of the city council. City Council President Heather Graham has indicated she will ask the council to place the matter on the agenda to approve a special election this summer. Interestingly, Graham and Councilor Dennis Flores have both announced their intentions to run for mayor and both previously successfully objected to a similar request. Graham has indicated a change of heart and will now support a council-sponsored charter amendment because it is ”the only honorable thing to do because of the disinformation that’s been provided to the petitioners...”

If petitioners are successful in placing the issue on the ballot in November the voters will be presented with an election which gives them the option of electing a mayor and rejecting the strong mayor form of government in the same election. Go figure.

Because of Kogovsek’s erroneous legal advice, Gradisar requested and received his resignation effective April 14.

Dennis Maes served 24 years as a 10th Judicial District judge in Pueblo and was chief judge for 17 of those years. He previously served as director of Pueblo County Legal Services, Inc.; as a public defender and as an attorney in private practice. 

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