Top cops will ask voters to lengthen terms

Mesa County’s elected law enforcement officials, which includes the sheriff, district attorney and coroner, will ask voters in the fall to increase term limits from two terms to three. Each term is four years.

Voters repeatedly have refused to either abolish or loosen the two-term limits for elected officials in Mesa County, but proponents of the measure say the November question makes sense. If passed, it would add one term, or four years, to elected law enforcement positions, and that could be a boon to taxpayers, who benefit from long-term collaboration among county agencies, they said.

And, adding three-term limits doesn’t ensure incumbents will serve three terms. It only offers incumbents the opportunity to run again, proponents said.

“I’m not in favor of any outright exemption for any elected office,” Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said. “On top of making public sense, it makes political sense.

It really allows the voters to get as much bang for their buck as possible.”

Hautzinger is serving his second term as district attorney, a term that expires in 2012. Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey is serving his second term, and coroner Dean Havlik is serving his first term. Both of those terms expire in late 2010.

The question comes on the heels of a failed measure in 2007 in which a citizen committee pushed for an exemption of term limits for the sheriff. While that vote failed by a slim margin — 51.7 percent of voters upheld the two-term limit — proponents think the upcoming November question is reasonable and say it has gained preliminary support from local leaders.

“Clearly, the citizen committee asked the wrong question,” Hilkey said of the 2007 question to remove term limits for sheriff. “This is not a question to eliminate term limits.

We’re real sensitive about putting the right question up to the voters. I would run again, but it’s up to them to re-elect me.”

A two-term limit for sheriff is rare among Colorado counties, active only in seven other counties: Adams, Costilla, Douglas, Elbert, Huerfano, Jefferson and Teller. Five other Colorado counties limit their sheriff to three terms, and the remaining majority of

Colorado counties have abolished term limits for the position.

Colorado voters in 1990 approved term limits for all state officials and approved term limits for local officials in 1994. A statewide question in 2004 to remove term limits for district attorneys was rejected by the Colorado Supreme Court. However, voters in numerous counties have since largely either removed or relaxed term limits for local elected officials.

Mesa County has been a different story. A question in 2005 to abolish term limits for the coroner was defeated.

Forensic pathologist Robert Kurtzman, Mesa County’s coroner from 1998 to 2006, said the coroner should be appointed and not an elected position. Both Havlik and Kurtzman, who work for the county, are board-certified forensic pathologists, meaning they’ve completed 15 years of schooling, some of that specialized in death investigations. They are among only 300 to 400 forensic pathologists in the nation. But Colorado law requires an elected coroner need only be 18 years of age, a county resident and lacking a felony criminal history.

The prospect of attending years of schooling to become a coroner to potentially have a job for up to eight years could dissuade qualified candidates from working locally, Kurtzman said.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s a small step,” he said about the question to increase the position to three terms.

Term-limit supporter Kent Baughman said the current elected officials are doing a fine job. However, he believes the two-term limit allows new blood into county agencies. He said he would probably be on a committee to oppose the measure, if such a group were formed.

Former Mesa County District Attorney Terry Farina disagrees. Farina served as Mesa County’s district attorney from 1975 to 1985, before term limits.

The first term involves a steep learning curve, and the second term allows officials to get up to speed. Creating an environment that boots out officials as they’re hitting their stride doesn’t benefit the taxpayers, he said.

“Twelve years gives you a much better bite,” he said. “No matter how capable you are, when you get into these jobs there’s a lot to learn. In a recessionary time, having trained people and turning them out doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to run things.

“That doesn’t mean that I endorse the people who are in office,” Farina added. “I do think well of Stan (Hilkey) and Pete (Hautzinger), but that’s not why I’m advocating this.”

Former Mesa County Sheriff Riecke Claussen, 1991 to 2003, refuted a common complaint among proponents of a strict term limit, that loosening the limits allows incumbents to continue getting elected based largely on their name recognition.

Claussen defeated a 16-year incumbent.

A sheriff’s position involves dealing with people on a daily basis, and if “I’m not doing an adequate job, people aren’t going to vote for me,” he said.

Claussen said he believes the third term is probably the most productive.

Mesa County Commissioner Craig Meis said the board will soon schedule a hearing to construct language on the question. He said it’s a bit less palatable in light of the two prior failed elections.


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