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Proposal to make voting mandatory riles Ridgway


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By Nancy Lofholm

RIDGWAY — Residents of this Old West- meets-New Age town can be fined if their fences are too high, they have too many chickens, their dogs aren't on leashes or their weeds are out of control.

Tom Hennessy would like to add not voting to that list.

Hennessy, a popular Ridgway brewer and pub owner, is proposing that the mostly dirt-street town at the edge of the San Juan Mountains become a national model by enacting a mandatory-voting statute. Residents who don't bother to vote, for no good reason, would be fined.

"We could do this. It would be a paradigm shift," Hennessy said. "We could be the great civics lesson in representative democracy."

The Town Council agreed to put the matter on the ballot for

a recent town election as a nonbinding opinion question.

A letter to the editor of the Ridgway Sun quickly followed. Nonvoting resident Eric Sanford wrote that he would enjoy "the privilege of being the first to file a lawsuit against the Town of Ridgway and individual members of the Town Council."

Hennessy proposes adding a "none of the above" ballot choice to protect free speech. But fear of lawsuits prompted a council already grappling with unpopular budget cuts, including to the town's Pickin' in the Park concerts, to kill the ballot question.

Lawsuits weren't the only concern for council member John Clark.

The stained-glass artist and computer consultant said he feared the ballot measure would upset a delicate balance in a 1,000-person red/blue town where conservatives and liberals, and cowboys and kayakers, live in somewhat tenuous harmony.

"Tom is going at this from the idea of: Think globally and act locally," Clark said. "I think that's a mistake."

But the idea is gaining traction.

Ridgway Sun editor David Mullings called the idea "either stupid, or brilliant" in an editorial that also urged residents to continue the discussion.

Hennessy has been invited to present his idea to the Ouray County commissioners. He also makes use of the perfect soapbox behind the bar at the Colorado Boy Pub & Brewery, a hopping business in a 1915 building that has served the town as post office, drugstore and tipi-making operation.

"I thought it was a neat idea (in the bar). When I heard Tom was going to bring it to the Town Council, I gulped," said Ridgway Mayor Pat Wil lits, who tends bar part time at the Colorado Boy.

Voter turnout has not been anything to brag about in Ridgway. Only 170 of the 790 registered voters marked ballots in the last town election. In the past decade, as few as 82 voters have gone to the polls.

"I applaud Tom for stirring things up," said Ouray County Commissioner Keith Meinert. "It's great to get thinking about this."

Meinert pointed out, however, that the county doesn't have the money to help with a legal battle that could climb to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He also noted that less-polarizing ideas have stirred up testy disagreements locally.

Residents come out in droves to hash over open-space and dog-leash issues. A town regulation limiting hens and banning roosters is headed to court this summer because at least one resident is questioning the rule's legitimacy.

Ridgway administrator Greg Clifton said that while townspeople continue the voting discussion, he wants to take measures to encourage more voting. That might include going to an all-mail-in ballot.

Hennessy said that isn't enough: Ridgway needs to show its mettle.

"Could you imagine if 95 percent of the people in little Ridgway voted?" he asked. "I would bet at the statehouse they would start paying attention to us. I know (gubernatorial candidate John) Hickenlooper would come here if it happened."

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