Jerry Kopel

When Sen. Ed Perlmutter, D-Jefferson County, introduces his 1998 bill to end election of RTD directors he should frame it, if possible, as a referendum to be voted on by electors in the RTD district. After all, proponents of an elected RTD board had to have the ENTIRE STATE vote on the issue in 1980.

In a blatant display of abuse of power in 1980, then-House Speaker Bob Burford, R-Mesa, refused to allow two RTD bills out of House Rules Committee. One, SB 88, sponsored by Sen. Paul Sandoval, D-Denver, had already passed the Senate 24 to 8. The other was HB 1134, by Rep. Jack McCroskey, D-Denver. Each bill was a referendum to require RTD board members to be elected from RTD sub-districts.

Daniel Taylor of the Rocky Mountain News told the story best: "Burford has consistently said he doesn't want the elected board issue to come up this year because the issue is too emotional and clouded in side-issues. `I know it sounds like BS but I don't like that kind of issue settled amid all that emotionalism' he said.

"`John McElderry is chairman of Rules, but the Rules Committee is the Speaker's Committee', insisted Burford, whose Western Slope constituents aren't affected by the RTD. Burford is, in other words, immune from the pressures over the bill..."

Burford did admit RTD lobbyists had some influence on his decision. The lobbyists, according to Taylor, argued that an elected board would be controlled by the bus drivers' union.

That left McCroskey and the rest of us with one alternative: A petition drive. There were five names on the initiative, all legislators, three Republicans and two Democrats. They were listed on the petitions in alphabetical order: Rep. Gerald Kopel, D-Denver; Rep. Jack McCroskey, D-Denver; Rep. Betty Neale, R-Denver; Sen. Dan Schaefer, R-Jefferson; and Rep. Mick Spano, R-Jefferson.

Joining in to help on the petition drive would be Rep. Miller Hudson, D-Denver, Sen. Dennis Gallagher, D-Denver, James Perin, Michael Henry, and dozens of volunteer workers. The measure didn't receive approval by the state's title setting committee until April 8th. We needed 62,234 signatures by July 3rd, which gave us only a few months to finish the job.

When the petition drive ended, the secretary of state's office verified 74,881 of the signatures collected. McCroskey was definitely the leader, prodding us on, and putting in twice the number of hours as any of the rest of us.

Under the old appointive system, there were 21 RTD directors, ten from Denver, nine from the other counties, and those nineteen selected the final two. Under the proposed initiative, Denver would go down to five of 15 based on actual census numbers.

The salary per director would be $3000 per year. I thought the salary was too low, but McCroskey argued correctly the opposition would stoop to use the fiscal impact of increasing the annual salary from $600 then given appointed directors, to $3000 for elected directors, against us. That salary has never been raised in 17 years.

Why were we all so unhappy with appointed RTD directors? You certainly couldn't pressure them. They didn't have to stand for election. In my case it was because from the inception of RTD in 1969, appointed directors were obsessed with running a fixed light rail system down E. Colfax in Denver, even though their own studies admitted that would create major business disruptions and failures, along with declines in nearby residential property values.

And if you think the present board is weird, how about this? In early January, 1980, RTD Executive Director Howard Beck resigned and it was later revealed board officers had hired private detectives to shadow Beck over alleged sexual activities and had forced him to resign.

On July 18th, 1980, News reporter Taylor wrote the RTD had assigned two RTD district auditors and a $30 an hour (a lot of money then) handwriting expert to review signatures on the petitions for an elected board. Present Attorney General Gale Norton, then a staff attorney for Mountain States Legal Foundation, warned RTD could NOT use taxpayer funds or paid employees to fight issues that affected them.

The initiative was placed on the ballot as Amendment No. 6. The organization to support the change was called "Citizens for An Accountable RTD." Opposition was led by former Gov. John Love and his group was called "Citizens for a Responsible RTD".

Joining Love were former U.S. Senator Gordon Allott and elected officials Denver Mayor Bill McNichols, House Speaker Burford, Senate President Fred Anderson, R-Larimer, Jefferson County Commissioner Hal Anderson, and Arapahoe County Commissioner John Nicholl.

There were also six House Republicans: Steve Durham, Colorado Springs; Anne Gorsuch, Denver: Wad Hinman, Yampa; Jim Lillpop, Alamosa; James Reeves, and Paul Schauer, Littleton; one House Democrat, Chuck Howe, Boulder; and one more Senate Republican, Paul Powers, Denver.

Does that list remind you of the "big guys" vs. the "little guys" in the RTD mass transit tax issue on the ballot of 1997? It should.

John Fleming Kelly, former RTD chairman, was spokesman for the opposition. "Experience," he said "has shown that those responsible for transportation should not be subjected to the pressures resulting from direct election. The current board is appointed by and responsible to locally elected officials."

The vote Nov. 4, 1980 on Amendment 6 was 570,049 in favor and 444,902 against, a majority of 125,000. Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas, and Jefferson counties contributed 106,000 of that 125,000 majority. El Paso and Larimer counties provided a 21,000 majority, which meant the rest of Colorado voted in opposition.

The elected RTD board wasn't the ONLY RTD issue on the ballot. Sen. Paul Powers, and Rep. Martha Ezzard, R-Arapahoe, had SB 75 which passed the legislature in part as a referred law. It asked voters in the RTD district to accept a three-fourths of one cent increase in the sales tax to fund construction of a fixed rail 73 mile mass transit system. And guess what? The tax issue was defeated.

Another bill, SB 144 by Sen. Paul Powers and Rep. Ron Hilsmeier, R- Boulder, would have removed eight of the 1980 members from the RTD board, by limiting the number of years a person could serve. It passed the legislature and was vetoed by Gov. Dick Lamm.


Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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