Can the Weld County commissioners advocate for the 51st State Initiative?

51st State Initiative Map via The Burlington Record
51st State Initiative Map via The Burlington Record

From The Greeley Tribune (Analisa Romano):

A legal concern over Weld County commissioners’ involvement in the 51st state movement was whittled down on Monday to whether passage of the ballot proposal would give commissioners authority they don’t have.

The Weld County Council heard arguments for and against the idea at their regular meeting on Monday, per the request of three Greeley attorneys who originally said they would like council members to review whether commissioners could legally spend time exploring the idea and writing editorials on it. Nearly 100 people attended the meeting at the Weld County administration building in Greeley, and some clapped and groaned during public comment.

The three Greeley men — Robert Ruyle, Stow Witwer and Chuck Dickson — said wording in the ballot proposal means commissioners would be given the unauthorized power to advocate for the 51st state movement and to allocate taxpayer money to explore the creation of a new state.

Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker said a more proper time to debate whether commissioners have that power is to wait to see if the 51st state question passes. Even so, he said, commissioners could legally pass a resolution in support of the 51st state movement and show it to the General Assembly, or they could individually contact state legislators to advocate for the movement.

Ruyle disagreed, saying court precedent requires commissioners to act as a board in those matters, and the board can’t legally pursue the 51st state by advocating for it through state legislators.

The ballot proposal asks Weld voters whether they would like commissioners, “in concert with the county commissioners of other Colorado counties, (to) pursue those counties becoming the 51st state of the United States of America.”

Ruyle and Witwer said “pursuing” secession is outside of commissioners’ authority, but it was also outside of their authority to place something on the ballot that would give them that power.

Barker said commissioners wouldn’t have authority to pass a resolution that initiates secession, because the movement must go through the proper channels, including the state Legislature and a statewide ballot measure. But he said the ballot proposal does not initiate secession — it asks voters whether they would like commissioners to spend time and money exploring the 51st state movement. He cited several state court cases to support his argument that commissioners can budget money to investigate the effects of secession, saying they have wide discretion over the county budget.

Weld County Council Chairman Don Mueller said council members would not decide on anything on Monday, but were there to listen to each side’s arguments and “digest” the information. Still, some council members voiced their opinions on the matter.

Jeffrey Hare, a council member who is also a member of the 51st state movement and updates its Facebook page, told Ruyle and Witwer he felt they were “jumping the gun a little bit.”

“That’s your interpretation of what the referendum intends to do,” he said of the attorneys’ arguments.

Originally, Ruyle, Witwer and Dickson said the state Constitution explicitly says only Colorado citizens have the authority to alter or dissolve their government, but the power of commissioners is limited to what is listed in state statute.

Barker said commissioners have so far acted legally because the Colorado statutes cited by the three Greeley attorneys pertain only to official actions, such as resolutions or ordinances. The only official 51st state action commissioners have taken is a resolution referring the 51st state question to the ballot. He said Weld County’s Home Rule Charter gives commissioners a process for putting an initiative or referendum on the ballot with no restrictions.

“The fact of the matter is, they haven’t done anything else,” Barker said.

More 51st State Initiative (North Colorado Secession) coverage here.

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