Sponsors of a contentious proposal to strictly limit new oil and gas drilling in Colorado said Friday they've recovered thousands of voter petitions supporting the measure that had been taken to Oregon by a signature gathering firm in a dispute over payments for its services.
Boulder-based Colorado Rising said it hopes its contract dispute with Direct Action Partners, Inc. of Portland doesn't jeopardize its efforts to get the measure on November's ballot. The proposal would eliminate 85 percent of non-federal land in Colorado to new oil and gas drilling and related development, analysts say.
Colorado Rising says Direct Action Partners suddenly closed its Colorado offices last week and took an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Colorado voter signatures to its Portland headquarters.
DAP president Michael Selvaggio has said DAP abandoned its Colorado fieldwork because it was owed money, a claim Colorado Rising disputes.
On Friday, Selvaggio said in an email that despite their differences, DAP and Colorado Rising were working on a resolution. DAP returned seven boxes of voter signatures Thursday after Colorado Rising filed a complaint in Denver District Court, said Suzanne Spiegel, a lead campaign organizer.
"This has been the biggest nightmare," said Spiegel, a veteran of other petition campaigns. "I never saw anything like this."
Colorado Rising hired DAP and several other firms to collect signatures for the measure, known as Initiative 97. Sponsors need to submit nearly 98,500 voter signatures to the secretary of state's office by Aug. 6 to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
Spiegel said Colorado Rising selected DAP because it had a good record collecting signatures for initiatives in Oregon and elsewhere and didn't have a conflict of interest with groups associated with Colorado's $32 billion energy industry that are battling the initiative.
Her group agreed to pay DAP nearly $405,000, she said.
The signatures returned Thursday could make or break the initiative effort, Spiegel said. Typically, initiative sponsors or political candidates must submit more than the required number of voter signatures to the secretary of state to ensure they survive vigorous vetting for accuracy.
The dispute underscores a need to re-examine the conduct of signature-gathering firms, said Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar, who filed the court complaint.
DAP "took the signatures of Colorado voters out of state. There should be a law that prohibits such a thing," Salazar said. "My view is that they are the property of Colorado Rising, and that it is the contractor's responsibility to safeguard those signatures."
Salazar said he discovered a stipulation that any dispute would fall under the jurisdiction of Oregon courts. "That should never be a provision for petition-gathering in Colorado," he said.
Initiative 97 would, in part, ask voters whether new oil and gas operations should be at least 2,500 feet from occupied structures. Current setback requirements are 500 feet for homes and 1,000 feet for schools.
It also would adopt setbacks for "vulnerable areas" that include parks, drinking water sources, irrigation canals and creeks. And it would allow local municipalities to lengthen setbacks. Current law gives the state that jurisdiction.
It's the latest attempt to harness drilling in the metropolitan Denver area, whose rapid expansion over the past decade has led to housing and commercial development alongside once-isolated oil and gas fields.