Ballot question survives one challenge, faces another

LAKEWOOD – A hearing officer ruled late Monday in favor of petitions supporting a citizen-initiated ordinance that would require that police seize the vehicles of every unlicensed driver they stop.

But opponents of the measure said they will appeal the ruling by attorney John E. Hayes, leaving the issue in limbo, said Lakewood City Attorney Tim Cox.

The appeal, which goes to Jefferson County District Court, leaves little chance that Lakewood voters will see the issue on the Nov. 3 ballot.

City Council had scheduled a special meeting Monday night to consider the proposal. Council can adopt the ordinance or send it to voters.

But Cox said Council can’t act on the measure while it is under protest or challenge, and there is little time before the Sept. 4 ballot deadline for the court to act on the appeal.

If the ballot deadline passes, the initiative would be destined for a special election in all likelihood.

Lakewood resident Sigrid Higdon earlier this month challenged the petitions, which were approved by City Clerk Margy Greer before they were circulated. During the hearing on Higdon’s complaint, Greer said she approves the form, but not the content, of such petitions.

The petition drive to place the proposed ordinance before Council was the idea of Daniel Hayes, a resident of unincorporated Jefferson County who headed similar efforts in Aurora and Denver. He enlisted two Lakewood residents to be the “Petitioner’s Committee” in order to get the issue on the city’s ballot.

The effort also faces another complaint filed last week by Colorado Ethics Watch. The watchdog group believes Daniel Hayes and his “Lakewood Safe Streets Committee” comprise an “unincorporated association formed to accept contributions and make expenditures in support of a proposed ballot question” without registering as an issue committee with Lakewood’s City Clerk as required by law.

Ethics Watch filed the complaint with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

“This behavior is a blatant double standard,” said Luis Toro, senior counsel for Ethics Watch. “Lakewood Safe Streets Committee demands that everyone who drives in Lakewood carry their driver’s license at all time on pain of loss of their car and payment of thousands of dollars for bonds and fines.

“And yet, the Committee acts as if (it is) above the law by ignoring the legal requirement to register with the city clerk before spending money to promote a ballot initiative.”

Toro suggested that the organization register immediately and pay the $50 a day fine specified by law for filing late. He calculated the total amount at $6,000 as of Aug. 25.

In addition to requiring that cars driven by unlicensed drivers be impounded, the initiative also would require owners of seized vehicles to post a $2,500 bond that would be surrendered to the city if police catch another unlicensed driver at the wheel of the vehicle within a year. It also would impose a $200 impoundment fee.

Higdon’s protest, which is supported by Colorado Common Cause and Coloradans for Safe Communities, questioned the validity of a number of signatures on the petitions.

The protest, filed by attorney Mark Grueskin, claimed a number of signatures on the petitions are invalid because the people who gathered them failed to provide “an actual residential address” and more than 2,000 signatures are invalid for other reasons. The protest also claims the petitions did not meet the city’s requirement that a warning to voters and the title of the ordinance appear on every page of the petitions and that the warning’s wording strays from the required language.

John Hayes’ ruling “reluctantly” concluded that the petitions “substantially complied” with City Charter requirements, although he did disqualify more than 1,700 signatures.

 The petitions targeting unlicensed drivers in Denver and Aurora also have been challenged, said Daniel Hayes.

“Getting unlicensed drivers off the road is a big deal because if one hits you, you have to have enough insurance to cover any injuries to your car, because they’re not going to have any,” he said.

Coloradans for Safe Communities also was involved in the Aurora challenge.

“This is a measure that we think has a lot of unintended consequences,” said Carolyn Siegel of CSC. “We just think it’s way too broad.”

Siegel said the proposal would weigh heaviest on people who simply forgot their licenses and the already-strained budgets of police departments.

“We actually think the police are pretty well-run and should have the discretion to do an impound in situations where they deem it appropriate rather than having their hands tied.”

Organizations representing Colorado’s police chiefs and county sheriffs also oppose the proposal. 

In a written statement, Higdon questioned the process followed in the petition drive.

“I filed the protest because I am very concerned that petition circulators misled voters to support a flawed policy through a very flawed process,” Higdon said in the statement. “Unfortunately, these petitions highlight both a blatant disrespect for the use of taxpayer funds and a disregard for the rules that protect the voters of Lakewood.”

Other critics have said the issue is a way of pressing an anti-immigration agenda, saying the ballot initiatives target people who are in this country illegally.

Daniel Hayes concedes that watching the way what he calls “unlicensed illegals” are handled by traffic judges prompted his crusade, but said the proposed ballot questions target all unlicensed – and therefore uninsured – drivers.

“They’re not the victim, we are,” he said. “The person riding a motorcycle that doesn’t have an ‘M’ (the motorcycle endorsement) on their license, the truck driver that somebody hired without checking to see if they had a commercial drivers license, these are not the victims. It’s (targeting) all unlicensed drivers.”

The initiative submitted in Lakewood makes provisions for people who simply forgot or can’t find their valid license. It also protects rental car agencies from being forced to pony up for a “vehicle bond”.

The bonds, Daniel Hayes said, are available on Denver’s “Bail Bond Row” near the new Justice Center complex downtown. The cost is about $375 to $400 for a year’s coverage.

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