BRIGHTON – With tensions still running high over new gun control laws that critics say undermine Coloradans’ Second Amendment rights, it appears that the First Amendment may now be under attack as well – at least in Adams County.
To minimize citizens’ protests against a stormwater tax, the board of county commissioners has banned free speech on county property — except in a remote protest zone.
The 945-square-foot free-speech area is located far away from the entrance to the Adams County Government Center in Brighton, nearly ensuring protestors and petition circulators will be isolated from citizens conducting business in the county building.
The regulations were passed by Commissioners Eva Henry and Chaz Tedesco, both Democrats, without public comment or discussion on May 20. Commissioner Erik Hansen, a Republican, was absent.
In response to media inquiries, the commissioners said the opponents of the stormwater fee had been disruptive outside of the building and had talked too long in meetings when the issue was on the agenda and during public comment.
“That’s an outright lie!” declared Gary Mikes, a leader in the group against the stormwater fee imposed on property owners in unincorporated Adams County.
Though the commissioners call it a fee, Mikes said, “It’s a tax in violation of TABOR (Taxpayers Bill of Rights); it was not put before a vote of the people. If it weren’t for TABOR, this state would be in bigger trouble; it would be like California.”
Mikes, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Henry last year, said the tax opponents are Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and independents. Even union members have joined the cause.
“They’re taxing me on the basis of rain!” declared Don Ramsey, a member of Teamsters Local 455.
Ramsey said he complained about the stormwater tax in a private meeting with Henry and in a letter to Tedesco and Hansen.
“My team not only vetted but supported you both in campaigning including door to door and phone bank campaigning,” Ramsey reminded the commissioners.
When the stormwater tax was put on the county commissioners’ March agenda, more than 400 people appeared to testify against it, said Mikes. But the public comment was limited to 30 minutes.
“Just 10 people were allowed to speak for three minutes each,” he said. “No one was disrespectful.”
According to the Free Speech Area Policy, protestors in the zone may not “threaten any person in any manner constituting assault or actionable harassment; create an imminent safety, security or health hazard.”
“Speech that includes obscenity or fighting words… defined as those words that by utterance tend to incite an immediate breech of the peace…. (and) engage in other speech or action that is not allowed by law” are also prohibited.
“We coordinated with the Brighton Police Department and Adams County Sheriff’s Department before our rally,” said Mikes. “We asked them if we had done anything wrong, and they said, ‘No, you did everything right.’”
“There were no arrests and no was threatened or injured,” said Mikes, whose statement was supported by the Adams County Sheriff’s Department.
After the corruption scandals last year involving Democrats County Tax Assessor Gil Reyes and County Commissioner Alice Nichol, Adams County announced its website was changed “to provide responsive and effective leadership by supporting open, transparent and accountable government.”
The county does provide more access to budgets, contracts and finance reports – but not readily accessible are the study sessions in which the county commissioners discuss such measures as controlling free speech.
In addition to creating the free-speech zone, the commissioners voted to charge $10 to listen to audio recordings of study sessions. The board also adopted a policy to limit comments by citizens to a total of 30 minutes at public board meetings.
Curbing free speech and charging citizens to listen to audio taped study sessions caught the attention of the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union, which may challenge the constitutionality of Adams County’s regulations.
“I cannot think of any legitimate or rational reason for doing this,” said Colorado ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein, who didn’t miss the irony of the commissioners creating a “Free Speech Area.”
EDITORS NOTE: An earlier version of this story erroneously suggested that Commissioner Hansen had expressed support for the new regulations.