Forced to flaunt stay-at-home orders, Boulder petitioners face uphill battle

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Patrick Murphy, left, shows John Marshall how to safely sign a petition on Thursday, April 30, at North Boulder Park. (Shay Castle / Boulder Beat)

Friday, May 1, 2020

In a steady stream they came: one by one or in pairs. Driving, biking, walking from neighborhoods all over Boulder, makes and gloved, sometimes lining up — six feet apart, of course — and waiting patiently for their turn to participate in the democratic process.

At the end of two days in North Boulder Park, Patrick Murphy had collected 195 signatures for his petition to place a question on November’s ballot: Should the city end its decade-long effort to create a municipal utility and repurpose the tax funding it for other clean energy efforts?

Murphy was flirting will illegality in setting up his table, flaunting Boulder County’s recently extended stay-at-home order. Law enforcement have advised against the practice, their words carefully chosen, perhaps afraid of stifling democracy.

Local health officials have been strangely silent despite repeated inquiries as to the advisability of in-person petitioning, the only option left after council declined to place current measures on the ballot or implement an online workaround.

Jeff Zayach, director of Boulder County Public Health, on Tuesday declined to answer  councilwoman Rachel Friend.

“Can this be done safely in person?” she asked. “Is it allowed to gather door-to-door or in public places?”

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Zayach said. “I received that question and pushed it to my legal team.”

A followup email to BCPH spokeswoman Chana Goussetis, inquiring specifically about the health and safety of signing events like Murphy’s or planned door-to-door canvassing, also did not garner a response.

“I’m not sure what the conversations have been or what Jeff is advising, so I’ve asked for input,” Goussetis wrote. “I’m not sure when I’ll hear back, unfortunately, but I’ll let you know when I do.”

Two campaigns emailed health officials and law enforcement, asking them to weigh in on the advisability of their signature gathering plans. Neither Sheriff Joe Pelle and new Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold gave an explicit OK — and both deferred to Boulder County Public Health, who passed the buck to Deputy Boulder County Attorney David Hughes.

“Jeff Zayach asked me to reach out in response to your inquiry about signature gathering,” Hughes wrote to organizers for No Eviction Without Representation, a group seeking to provide legal counsel to renters facing eviction. “BCPH does not currently have the capacity to review your proposal or provide specific guidance on this issue.

“However,” Hughes continues, “a few important reminders: Boulder County remains under a Stay at Home order until May 8. The stay at home order prohibits all public and private gatherings of any number of people except for the limited purposes expressly permitted in the order, which includes essential activities. The County does not yet have specific guidance from the State about what limitations on group gatherings may be in place after BCPH’s extension of the state at home order expires. However, we encourage you to review any such orders or call the BCPH call center after May 8 regarding group gatherings.”

Hughes wrote that “the situation is the same” for going door-to-door. He advised the campaigns to contact the Secretary of State for more guidance.

The Secretary of State previously advised against in-person petitioning, 9News reported. A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office did not respond to requests for comment from Boulder Beat.

Sheriff Pelle was more direct: “A couple things I do know for sure is that gatherings of over ten people are currently not permitted,” he wrote. “And under the current situation I’m positive that door to door contact will most certainly generate calls and complaints to the police.”

“I agree with the Sheriff in his response,” Chief Herold wrote.

City Manager Jane Brautigam and City Attorney Tom Carr on Tuesday reiterated that the stay-at-home order was in place, but that petitioners were unlikely to be bothered by law enforcement who, in Brautigam’s words, “are not out there after folks.”

“The city is not providing guidance on this issue,” she said, “The rule is to follow the stay-at-home order.”

Given the conflicting advice, council members Friend and Aaron Brockett asked that petitions be revisited once the health department has weighed in. Council has until September to place whatever it likes on the ballot, via majority vote.

“If they don’t think people should be gathering signatures, I would support bringing that back up,” Brockett said.

Mayor Sam Weaver agreed that the council scheduling committee would have a discussion; it has been added to Monday’s agenda. Past practice has been to honor any peer request to allot time for new discussion items.

Weaver, Bob Yates and Mirabai Nagle are currently serving on the scheduling committee. All three were part of the five-member majority who voted down electronic signatures: Yates and Weaver included in their arguments comments about the content of the petitions themselves.

As council debate stretches on, circulators have watched the deadline for submitting signatures grow ever closer. While Murphy’s efforts were successful — helped along by a front page Daily Camera photo — End the Muni will need to average 100 signatures every day to reach the required 3,336. Campaigns typically collect above and beyond the minimum threshold to account for scrapped signatures.

“Based on time,” Murphy wrote in a followup email after the signing events, “we are screwed. Based on the unknown, anything is possible.”

More signing events are planned: tentatively, three each week through the end of May. Mailings are also in the works, though at a rough cost of $3,100 per zip code, Murphy said End the Muni only has enough money for one batch.

Tentative End the Muni signing schedule
Dates, times and location subject to change. Visit endthemuni.org for up-to-date information.

Admiral Arleigh A. Burke Park (490 Mohawk Drive, near Frasier Meadows)
May 13, 14, 15 (Wed, Thurs, Fri)
Noon to 4 p.m.

Viele Lake (Gilllespie Drive and Table Mesa near Fairview High School)
May 20, 21, 22 (Wed, Thurs, Fri)
Noon to 4 p.m.

Wonderland Lake (Broadway west of Sumac)
May 27, 28, 29 (Wed, Thurs, Fri)
Noon to 4 p.m.

Organizers have begun pooling resources. Bedrooms Are For People, an effort to amend Boulder’s residential occupancy limits, this week launched petition delivery: Interested residents can arrange a time for canvassers to come collect their signatures. Circulators have indicated they will bring petitions from all ongoing campaigns with them, giving signers access to every measure from the comfort and safety of home.

It’s a creative solution to the difficult choice many Boulderites find themselves in: Risk potential exposure to a possibly fatal virus, or forego their right to participate in direct democracy. Murphy on Thursday noted that he volunteered to run the signing event because, though he’s in the higher-risk group of older adults, among the campaign’s organizers, he is “healthy.”

On Friday, as more than 100 people came and went to sign the End the Muni petition, one phrase kept being repeated over and over: “Thank you for doing this.”

Read a play-by-play of Tuesday’s brief council discussion on petitions

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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8 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Can’t thank you enough. Well done.

    Patrick Murphy

    1554 North Street

    Boulder, CO 80304

    303-444-4358

  2. There’s an inherent conflict of interest in bundling the progressive initiative that provides legal services for renters facing eviction and the pro-poverty/boardinghouse- slumlords initiative “Bedrooms are for People”. Will the “Bedrooms for People” organizers still be willing to come to my house if I only want to sign the Eviction legal assistance petition and have no interest in the two other ballot initiatives?

    • Hi, William. They definitely will. I believe they are only making the other petitions available as a courtesy; you certainly don’t have to sign all of them to get circulators to pay you a visit.

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