A campaign by Littleton residents that began in early July to alter laws governing certain petitions and elections in the city has failed to meet the needed signature requirement and deadline — which was Aug. 12 — to be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Under Colorado law, petitioners have 90 full days to submit a petition and still have until Oct. 5 to reach the necessary threshold of 3,626 signatures. If successful by then, the question could still be asked at a future election, according to City Clerk Colleen Norton.
"We are continuing under the statutes as described by the city and we'll be going from there," said John Marchetti, a Littleton resident and petitioner. "We would have loved to have made it but we knew it was going to be a hard push, but we're real positive about making the deadline for October."
At the heart of the petition is an effort to give residents the ability to push certain questions onto voters' ballots with less signatures and in a shorter time frame.
The campaign seeks to do this by aligning Littleton's city code and charter with Colorado law, which requires signatures from just 5% of the registered voters in the last municipal election and mandates special elections be held 60 to 150 days after a petition is certified.
Currently, state law allows for exemptions to these rules for municipalities. Littleton's code and charter do so by requiring signatures from 10% of registered voters in the prior election and by allowing city council to set its own election timelines.
Frustration from the petitioners over Littleton's rules was spurred by the outcome of a prior effort to force a referendum vote on the redevelopment of Aspen Grove, a shopping center in southwest Littleton.
In January, thousands of residents succeeded in delivering a petition that would have forced the city council to either rescind its rezoning of the mall — which allowed for up to 2,000 new housing units to be built — or punt it to a city-wide vote.
Council opted for the latter and slated the question for the Nov. 8 ballot. But several residents involved with the Aspen Grove petition felt a special election should be called sooner and one resident — Linda Knufinke — sued the city for not doing so.
An Arapahoe County District Court judge recently ruled against Knufinke, allowing the city to move forward with asking the question in November since it is within the city's legal rights.
Some petitioners also said they were worried the Aspen Grove vote in November would be a moot point as — despite the outcome — a slimmer plan for roughly 500 housing units at the site was approved in July under the city's new land use code.
With the current petition efforts largely serving as a backlash to the continued fallout of Aspen Grove, some city residents have voiced concern for what its success could mean.
Should the petition succeed in making it to a future ballot and should voters approve it, it could lead to more off-cycle special elections. Such elections are more costly for the city than regularly scheduled elections coordinated with the county.
In the case of the Aspen Grove referendum, it would have cost the city about $60,000 to run its own special election as opposed to $20,000 to add it to the November ballot, according to Norton. Special elections also historically see much lower voter turnout than regular elections, Norton said.
“This seems like a way for the vocal minority to block projects that they don’t want,” said Matt Duff — a member of Vibrant Littleton — a pro-housing citizen group.
Duff pointed to the November 2021 election, which saw several council members who ran on a pledge to bring more housing diversity to the city win by large margins, as evidence of what a majority of voters want for Littleton's future.
“By lowering the standards of how many people need to be heard … it’s being used as a way to get around who is elected," he said.
Julia Montano, an academics specialist at Littleton Public Schools, said during an Aug. 2 city council meeting said the current petition "undermines our elections and silences the voice of the voters even when it claims to protect them."
Frank Atwood, a Littleton resident who was at a signing event for the petition Aug. 18, said he understands "some people's hesitancy" for lowering the signature threshold.
But, Atwood said he sees the petition as "an issue of representation and my feeling is that it's reasonable to reduce it to state level of 5%."
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