Longmont turnout may have tanked county’s green initiatives

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Pamela White and Jeff Dodge
Katie Witt

Ed. Note: For
a complete list of results, click here.
Visit our Vote 2009 page, here.

Jaws may have
dropped in Boulder on Tuesday evening when it became clear that two county
ballot issues most had believed would coast to easy wins had failed. Ballot
Issue 1A, a sales tax extension for county open space, and Ballot Issue 1B,
authorizing the county to issue $85 million in bonds for the successful
ClimateSmart Loan Program, both failed by narrow margins.

It marks the
first time an open space tax has failed since 1989. It was only the second time
that ClimateSmart had appeared on the ballot. But the program, which enables
the county to issue bonds and to loan that money to both residential and
business property owners for renewable-energy and energy-efficiency
improvements, has been highly successful by any measure, pumping money into
local construction and renewable energy businesses and reducing utility bills.
The program is considered so innovative and successful, in fact, that numerous
communities in the United States and develop similar efforts.

So what
happened?

Boulder County
Commissioner Will Toor was surprised to see 1B fail, “given that it passed by a
nearly 70-30 margin last year, and has been a very popular, non-controversial
program,” he told Boulder Weekly Wednesday morning.

Toor says a
number of factors, including a small voter turnout and confusing ballot
language may have played a role in the defeat of the ClimateSmart measure.

“It is also a
very different election this year — a very small turnout this year compared to
a much bigger turnout last year,” he says. “Last year the supporters ran a
significant campaign. This time I think there was an assumption that this was
not needed, which was clearly a mistake. Unfortunately, the legally required
language is confusing legalese, so it is hard to know what the ballot issue is
about just by reading the ballot language.

“I think the
inclusion of joint bonding with other counties was also confusing and made the
bonding number look very large, at a time when people are very nervous about
the economy.”

But perhaps the
single biggest factor involved in the defeat of both county ballot issues was
Longmont’s contentious city council election. Longmont’s election had become a
bitter battle between conservatives, the “old guard” who have traditionally
held sway over the town’s politics, and progressives, who have moved to
Longmont in increasing numbers as a result of Boulder’s high housing costs.

As Longmont’s
election results demonstrate, conservative candidates got out the vote.

Election
statistics show that the turnout in Longmont was higher than in Boulder and the
county as a whole. About 34 percent of county voters who received a ballot returned
those ballots. In Boulder, the turnout was only about 29 percent. In Longmont,
it was approximately 41 percent.

If the turnout
in Longmont had been similar to Boulder’s there would have been 5,490 fewer
votes cast. According to unofficial results, the margin of defeat on County
Ballot Issue 1A was only 2,568 votes; the difference was even narrower on 1B:
1,190. So it is conceivable that a spike in conservative voters submitting
ballots in Longmont could have made the difference on those two ballot measures.

“In such a low turnout election it made a big difference,”
Toor says.

In what was the
most vitriolic Longmont race, City Council member Karen Benker lost to
challenger Katie Witt in the Ward 2 race, an outcome that she attributes
largely to the “formidable” amount of funding collected by her opponents and
the negative tactics they used.

“They raised a
ton of money and they ran a negative campaign, and negative campaigns work,”
she says.

The race
attracted a 41 percent turnout in Ward 2.

Benker had been
targeted by a group called the Longmont Leadership Committee, which was
primarily funded by an outside right-wing organization called Western Tradition
Partnership. (See the Oct. 29 story, here.)

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Benker agrees
that the large turnout among conservative voters in Longmont may have
contributed to the defeat of County Ballot Issues 1A and 1B.

“I think that’s
a real possibility,” she says. “If there were so many conservatives that turned
out to vote for conservative candidates, they would be highly likely to vote
against the ‘green’ initiatives.”

Witt, who has
denied having any involvement with the anti-Benker campaign, says the outcome
of the race was more about issues than money.

“All of the
people who I wanted to win won,” she says. “I was rather surprised at the
margin of victory. It was a clear mandate that we’re ready to get back on track
in Longmont.”

She said the
higher-than-expected turnout in the Ward 2 race was not just due to the
mailings and phone calls made on her behalf.

“I knocked on
3,000 doors,” Witt says. “We worked really hard to get out the vote.”

But Benker says
the outcome wasn’t about knocking on doors, which she says she did to the tune
of a couple thousand households.

“There was a lot
of big money in this campaign,” she says. “It’s hard to say how much was spent,
because not everything was declared, I believe.”

Benker says she
was especially shocked that Mayor Roger Lange lost to Bryan Baum in the
election.

“I was very
surprised at what happened to Roger Lange, because he’s a good man,” she says.
“It’s very unfortunate that the conservatives targeted him because he’s a very
moderate Republican.”

Witt says her
first priority will be to work toward discontinuing the city’s lawsuits against
the town of Firestone over the annexation of property for the LifeBridge
Christian Church development.

“I really want
to see those lawsuits dropped and tied up,” she says. “I will be more than
happy to close that chapter.”

Witt also says she’s ready to get past
the bitter battles of the election season.

“We want to
start working together cooperatively for what’s best for Longmont. Let’s heal
old wounds and move on.”

The Boulder
County Elections Division completed tallying the 62,667 ballots by 1:30 a.m. on
Wednesday, Nov. 4.

“We had a low
turnout this year for two reasons. First, because there was no statewide
issue,” Boulder County Clerk & Recorder Hillary Hall said in a news
release. “Second, we had a record number of people register to vote in 2008 and
many did not turn in a ballot this year. We need to find a way to encourage
one-time voters to become lifetime voters. We want them to understand how all
elections can impact their lives.”