At city council’s regularly scheduled Dec. 13 meeting, Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Jerry Forte and Christian Nelson, CSU strategy and external affairs manager, are scheduled to present a proposed charter amendment for referral in the April city election. Currently, the city charter forbids Council from “selling, conveying or leasing all or any substantial part of the property of Utilities or any Utilities Department without an affirmative vote of the electors of the City.” The proposed amendment raises the bar, requiring the approval of at least 60 percent of the electors of the city.
Forte and Nelson are only there to provide information — Councilor Keith King, who could not be reached for comment, is the measure’s sponsor. Nelson explained that the proposal came about as a response to public concern about any such sale after council had declined to support the creation of a separate utility board.
The text of the question, as it will be presented to voters, reads:
“Shall article VI, section 6-80 of the charter of the city of Colorado Springs be amended to provide that City Council cannot sell all or any substantial part of the Utilities’ water system, wastewater system, electric light and power system, gas system or other utility owned by the city without approval by at least sixty percent (60 %) of the electors of the city voting upon such question?”
The section, as it is currently written, reads:
“6-80. Sale, Conveyance or Leasing of Utilities. Council shall not sell, convey or lease all or any substantial part of the property of Utilities or any Utilities Department without an affirmative vote of the electors of the City; provided that the foregoing shall not apply to the sale, lease, or conveyance of property of Utilities or any Utilities Department (i) which occurs in the ordinary course of business, or (ii) which shall cease to be necessary for the efficient operation of the utility, or (iii) which shall have been replaced by other property serving substantially the same function. (1995).”
In the April 1995 municipal election, 73.6 percent of voters approved of adding Section VI 6-80 to the charter.
In the only recent instance of a citywide vote regarding the “sale, lease or conveyance” of a substantial city-owned enterprise, 82.4 percent of voters in a special municipal election on Aug. 12, 2012, approved leasing Memorial Health Systems to the University of Colorado Health System.
King has long opposed proposals to sell or lease CSU’s electrical generation and transmission assets. Former Mayor Steve Bach and a minority of city council had informally considered privatization, but council subsequently rebuffed an offer by Xcel Energy to enter into discussions about a possible sale.
“It’s an issue that came up in our governance meetings,” said Utilities Board Chair Andy Pico. “We thought that a supermajority vote would be appropriate for any sale. We originally discussed requiring a two-thirds majority, but we ended up at 60 percent.”
“The impetus for the proposed initiative to require a supermajority vote comes from the council/utility board,” said Mayor John Suthers. “As mayor of Colorado Springs and a long time resident of the city, I favor CSU continuing as a municipally owned utility and do not oppose the initiative.”
As currently written, the measure does not make it clear that the charter currently forbids any sale without an affirmative vote of the people. Is that a problem?
“No, I don’t think so,” said Pico. “It seems clear to me.”