Alan Rosenfeld, the candidate who is taking on County Commissioner Cindy Domenico in next year’s Democratic primary, has filed a petition asking a judge to declare Domenico ineligible to run for another term.
Rosenfeld, a Louisville attorney who asserts that the current commissioners have not taken a strong enough stand on issues like fracking and GMOs, has claimed that Domenico has already served at least two terms and is term-limited. He cites the fact that she was appointed to the board when former Commissioner Tom Mayer passed away in 2007, successfully stood for election to finish the final two years of Mayer’s term the following year, and was then re-elected in 2010.
But County Attorney Ben Pearlman, himself a former county commissioner, has said finishing someone else’s term does not count toward the state’s two-term limit. He points to opinions from Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar in 2000 and Attorney General John Suthers in 2005, a Democrat and a Republican, respectively, who agreed with that interpretation.
Rosenfeld’s petition, filed Dec. 4 in Boulder County District Court, names a host of county officials and local political party leaders as defendants, including Domenico and Assessor Jerry Roberts, who is in a similar boat, having been appointed to replace Domenico when she was named commissioner. Roberts, however, is one of the county officials who can serve three terms instead of two.
The county’s voters have approved a third term for assessor and several other elected offices — including a fourth term for sheriff in 2011 — but in 2001 rejected a measure that would have completely eliminated term limits for a host of county officials, including the commissioners. In his petition, Rosenfeld cites not only the 1994 state constitutional amendment approved by voters that created the two-term limit, but additional case law establishing that courts should adhere to people’s “common understanding” of terms as well as voter intent when it comes to analyzing constitutional questions.
He says the “ordinary and popular meaning” of a “term in office” in the minds of most people would include, at the very least, Domenico’s two years of service after being elected in 2008 to complete Mayer’s term. Rosenfeld adds that unless and until voters extend or eliminate term limits for the commissioners, their intent under the state’s Amendment 17 is to have commissioners serve only two terms, or eight years.
“The voters, whose intent matters for the purpose of interpreting the Colorado Constitution, are those Colorado voters who in 1994 passed Amendment 17 and put the term limits for county officers in the state Constitution,” he told BW. “Those voters gave the Boulder County voters the right to change the term limits for its county officials, and Boulder County voters have never done that for the commissioners. … They intended the commissioners to serve a maximum of eight consecutive years.”
County Commissioner Cindy Domenico | Photo courtesy of Cindy Domenico
Domenico will have served about seven and a half years at the end of her current term, and allowing her to stand for re-election would extend her period of service to 11 and a half years, clearly beyond what the voters intended, Rosenfeld argues.
In his petition, he asks the court to rule that Domenico is not eligible to run for another term but that Roberts is, since he has three possible terms.
For his part, Roberts says his understanding from the county attorney’s office is that only a full term counts against term limits.
Roberts says he doesn’t expect the debate to affect him anyway because, if anything, he’ll only run for one more term, for what would be classified as his second. He says he’ll decide after Jan. 1.
“I’m looking at a few things and seeing whether I want to [run] again or not,” he explains, adding with a laugh that his first term has been full of natural disasters. “I mean, I’ve had the worst fire in Boulder history. I’ve had the worst flood in Boulder history. I’m thinking, ‘What will happen next if I continue?’”
He says he wouldn’t consider running for a third term because he’s already worked in the assessor’s office for about 32 years.
“I haven’t lost any sleep over it, because basically I don’t think it will ever affect me,” he says of the controversy. “But I understand the situation with Cindy.”
Roberts says he supported past efforts to extend term limits for the county officers, including the commissioners and his own position, because they can be very technical jobs that require people who have expertise, experience and institutional knowledge.
“That’s the problem you run into with term limits,” he says. “Eventually you can run out of qualified people who know really what is going on, with a lot of historical knowledge of the job. … Just when somebody’s really beginning to function well and understanding the job and doing a good job, then they end up having to leave. That, with the fact that the pay scales are below what they would be out in the private sector for what is expected, it’s harder and harder to find really good, qualified people for these kinds of jobs.”
Pearlman told BW that he is standing by his original interpretation of the law, an interpretation that he says is consistent with the opinions of his predecessor, other county attorneys and the two attorneys general.
“A judge may have a different opinion, but until there is a different opinion, I think most of us believe that, for the context of that ballot measure and language, ‘term’ means full term, full four-year term,” he says.
Domenico told BW that she fully expected Rosenfeld to file his petition, and thought he would do it sooner. She says she looks forward to having the matter settled, and that she is relying on the opinions of not just Pearlman, but other county attorneys and the two attorneys general.
“The job of county commissioner is really about governing, it’s not about politics,” Domenico concludes. “So that’s why I do what I do.”