Keystone will soon vote on a charter, paving the way for becoming either a home-rule or statutory town. So what’s the difference?
Voters have two chances to approve the town’s guiding document. If that fails, Keystone will become a municipality more restrained by state laws.
After a historic vote this spring that resulted in Keystone becoming Colorado’s newest town, residents will soon face the next hurdle in their quest for self-governance: approving a town charter.
Serving as the guiding document for the town, the charter establishes rules and processes for local office, elections, financial management and more. After the unveiling of a draft charter in June, voters will have until 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, to cast a ballot for or against it.
“You never know what’s going to happen in an election,” said Ken Riley, a Keystone resident who led the charge to incorporate and who serves as chair for the commission that drafted the charter.
“We’re working hard to get people to vote and ensure that the community’s views are reflected in the voting results,” he said.
A simple majority is needed to approve the charter. As of Monday, Sept. 18, more than 100 ballots have been collected, according to Riley, who said he expects voter turnout to be similar to, if not greater than, the March 28 vote to incorporate.
More than 400 residents voted in that election out of roughly 900 registered voters. This time around, outreach has been even greater, with a roughly 10% increase in people added to the mailing list for election-related news that is issued by charter proponents, Riley said.
But if the charter is not approved, it’s back to the drawing board. Charter commission members, who are all full-time Keystone residents, will have the opportunity to make changes to the draft in a bid to win over enough voters before sending it to a second vote. If it fails again, Keystone becomes a statutory town rather than a home-rule municipality.
Statutory and home rule, what’s the difference?
According to Kevin Bommer, executive director for the Colorado Municipal League, home-rule represents a “form of self-governance that allows greater independence on many matters of municipal concern.”
Home-rule cities and towns are afforded greater latitude when it comes to setting, and changing, the rules that govern their near and long-term future. These municipalities can determine their form of local government, set election criteria and timelines, and establish new taxes, among other policies.
Statutory governments, on the other hand, must defer to state law on many of these issues, making for a more restrictive governing process.
“For all power exercised by the governing body, state statute would dictate the extent of what they are and the limitations,” Bommer said.
In Colorado currently, there are 105 home-rule municipalities and 166 statutory ones. Georgetown is a singular anomaly, being the only town in the state governed by an archaic “territorial charter” that was in effect before Colorado became a state, according to Bommer.
Registered Keystone voters should have received ballots shortly after Sept. 4.
Any ballots being sent-in via mail must be received by the election commission before 7 p.m. on Sept. 18, which is why residents who have yet to vote are encouraged to drop their ballot off in-person.
This can be done at the Keystone Center, located at 1628 Saints John Road. The ballot drop box will be opened from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sept. 19, 23, 25 and 26.
To read the full draft of the proposed charter and to see a sample ballot question, go to IncorporateKeystone.WildApricot.org/.
One of the biggest areas where home-rule and statutory governments differ is in land use, Bommer said. While both are allowed to zone their towns and cities for different purposes — be it commercial or residential, and set density limits — statutory towns must follow the direction of state lawmakers if new land-use legislation is passed.
Bommer gave the example of Senate Bill 213, a failed proposal by state Democrats introduced in the legislature earlier this year that would have required denser housing developments in cities and towns across the state.
The municipal league, along with local officials, largely opposed the measure, claiming it would circumnavigate local zoning decisions. While the legislation would have been intended for all local governments, if passed, Bommer said home-rule municipalities would have had the legal footing to fight the law in court and likely prevail.
Statutory governments, on the other hand, would have had no avenue for legal recourse if 213 passed, he said.
Other differences include election criteria.
Home-rule charters can set dates for elections that differ from state statute, which mandates elections be held in April of even years. Charters can also establish thresholds for citizen-initiated petitions needed to place questions on local ballots and allow more flexibility around replacing local officials in the instance of a vacancy.
The latter posed a unique problem to state lawmakers last year, when the city of Florence, a statutory municipality near Canon City, resigned en masse. Only the mayor remained, meaning the city did not have a majority of representatives available to call for a special election to fill the vacant seats.
State statute at the time provided no remedy, leading the municipal league to lobby state lawmakers to revise the law so that the city’s clerk could set the election, Bommer said.
“A lot of the home-rule charters don’t get widely specific, but create a framework by which councils can do things by ordinance,” Bommer said, adding in a circumstance similar to Florence. “A home-rule municipality could have had a mechanism already in their ordinances, whereas we had to go back to the state house to help statutory cities and towns.”
What does statutory look like in Summit?
In Summit County, the towns of Breckenridge, Frisco, Silverthorne and Dillon are home-rule while Montezuma and Blue River are statutory.
A purely residential community with no commercial operations, Blue River is “kind of unique and different in a lot of ways from the rest of the county,” said Blue River Town Manager Michelle Eddy.
Incorporated in 1964, the town has a population of just over 870, according to 2020 U.S. Census data. It is governed by a seven-member board of trustees that operates the same as neighboring town councils, with a mayor and six other elected officials overseeing town decision-making, Eddy said.
The structure operates the same as a “council-manager government” that also incorporates aspects of a “weak mayor” system. Under this model, elected officials each get one vote on ordinances that are then implemented by a town manager, who serves as the overarching administrator for public policy.
Home-rule status grants towns and cities more options when choosing the structure of their government, such as a “strong mayor” system in which the mayor is afforded executive authority that can include directly hiring and firing staff as well as veto power.
Typically, only the largest cities utilize this form of government. In Colorado, just three cities — Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo — have a strong mayor system. Keystone’s charter calls for a council-manager government in which the town council and mayor are equals and appoint a manager to administer policies, the same as other towns in the county.
One of the larger differences between Blue River and home-rule towns is how it receives sales tax revenue. The tax is collected by the state rather than local officials and remitted to Blue River on a monthly basis, according to Eddy.
While it hasn’t revealed any problems for the town, Eddy said since Blue River shares zip codes with both Breckenridge and the unincorporated county, it’s possible that not all its tax revenue is being returned.
Eddy said she’s requested several state audits, most recently in 2022, but has yet to hear back.
“There’s nothing alarming. But at the same time, when you share a zip code, you want to make sure that things are on the up-and-up,” Eddy said.
Riley, the Keystone charter commission chair, said it raises a larger issue around taxation for statutory towns. While any taxation must be approved by voters, Riley said statutory governments are constrained in their ability to issue taxes outside of what is permitted by state statute.
A lift ticket tax, for example, would not be possible in Keystone under statutory measures, which Riley said could risk the town’s ability to ensure a diverse tax base for future growth and services.
Another area where home-rule status grants more leeway is in community representation.
The charter, in its current form, does not allow part-time residents who are registered to vote outside of Keystone the ability to hold elected office or vote in elections, prompting some second-home owners to speak out against the provision in June.
It does, however, contain language that allows non-permanent residents to sit on boards and commissions, something Riley claimed would not be possible under statutory rules. For example, though Blue River allows part-time residents to sit on advisory committees, state statute mandates that members of planning commissions be “bona fide residents of the municipality,” according to Article 23 of Title 31 of the Colorado Revised Statutes.
It’s all part of why Riley hopes Keystone voters approve a town charter and secure the area’s future as a home-rule municipality.
“It allows us more flexibility to get the entire community involved in planning a future for where the community’s going to go,” he said. “What we’re looking for is as much flexibility in our government as we can possibly have.”
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