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Challenging a City’s Interpretation of Its Charter, City Code, and Other City Legal Authorities in Denver and Colorado Courts

In Colorado, incorporated municipalities, cities, and towns are local governments that, in effect, function separately from the state. Such local governments have their own independent legislative, executive, and judicial powers and can regulate and pass laws that govern conduct within their boundaries. See Voss v. Lundvall Bros., Inc., 830 P.2d 1061 (Colo. 1992) (stating that the Colorado Constitution grants home-rule cities “every power possessed by the General Assembly as to local and municipal matters”) (citations and quotations omitted).

So long as a local government’s laws and regulations are oriented towards matters that are of a local concern, as opposed to conduct that is a statewide concern, the local government’s laws and regulations will govern. See City of Commerce City v. State, 40 P.3d 1273, 1279 (Colo. 2002) (discussing legal criteria for determining whether a state law will supersede a local government’s law or regulation).

There are various ways local governments can be created and incorporated under Colorado law. They can be created under Colorado’s local government statutory laws; incorporated as a home-rule municipality or other local government type under the Colorado Constitution; or created and established in the Colorado Constitution itself, such as the City and County of Denver. See Voss v. Lundvall Bros., Inc., 830 P.2d 1061, 1064 (Colo. 1992).

Regardless of how a local government is created, they frequently have a common structure. There is usually a mayor vested with executive authority that is able to exercise executive branch powers; and a larger governmental body, such as a city council or town board, that is able to exercise legislative and judicial type powers. These powers frequently overlap and local government’s have wide discretion as to how they allocate those powers.  See Margolis v. Dist. Ct., 638 P.2d 297, 303 (Colo. 1981).

Additionally, local governments typically have various levels of legal authorities that define the structure of the local government, the actions the local government can take, and the laws and regulations that apply to conduct within the local government’s boundaries.

For example, cities in Colorado typically will have a city charter adopted by its citizens, city code promulgated by the city council, and city level regulations also promulgated by the city council or some other city level administrative official. These authorities have a hierarchy. That hierarchy is important in challenging a local government’s actions or interpretation of its own legal authorities in court.

Illustrative of this hierarchy, and continuing with the city example, a city’s charter is its highest-level legal document and, thus, highest on the hierarchy. It is the document that incorporates or otherwise forms the city, defines the governmental structure of the city, and defines the powers and restrictions of the governmental bodies created by the charter. The charter is usually adopted by a vote of the city’s citizens and is considered the equivalent of the city’s constitution. See O’Connell v. City Council of Denver, 2019 COA 65 (Colo. App. 2019); Colo. Springs Citizens for Cmty. Rights v. City of Colo. Springs, 360 P.3d 271 (Colo. App. 2015).

Second to the city charter, is city code. These are the laws passed by the legislative branch of the city, most commonly the city council, and are the equivalent of city level statutes. Municipal ordinances governing traffic laws, business licensing requirements, low level criminal offenses, city taxes, and land-use and zoning are common examples of city code. See Liquor Board v. Cinco, 771 P.2d 482, 485 (Colo. 1989).

After city code are city level regulations that are administrative in nature. Such regulations are typically not promulgated by the city council in a legislative capacity but are, instead, promulgated in an administrative capacity or promulgated by some other administrative official altogether.

The necessity for such administrative regulations arises from the fact that cities have various functions to perform and, accordingly, frequently create different departments to address those functions. For example, cities may have different departments to address parks and recreation, zoning and community development, and business licensing requirements.

The city charter and city code often times are not specific enough to direct those departments how to implement and enforce city code of otherwise perform the department’s functions on a day-to-day or case-by-case basis. Accordingly, regulations are promulgated by administrative officials to address such ambiguity. Such regulations exist within the confines of city code and are usually adopted by specific departments within the city to implement the laws and requirements of city code. See Travelers Indemnity v. Barnes, 191 Colo. 278, 282 (Colo. 1976).

Returning to the hierarchy concept, each level of legal authorities promulgated by a local government must comply with the ones above it. By way of example, administrative regulations must comply with the provisions of city code they were adopted to implement; city code, and the manner in which it was adopted, must comply with the provisions and requirements of the city charter; and the city charter must comply with higher level authorities, such as state statutes, the state constitution, federal statutes, and the federal constitution. See City of Boulder v. Pub. Serv. Co. of Colo., 420 P.3d 289, 295 (Colo. 2018).

Where a local government has taken actions or positions inconsistent with its own legal authorities, those actions or positions may be challenged in court. Examples of scenarios where it may be necessary to challenge a local government’s interpretation of its own legal authorities include land-use and zoning issues; city level taxation issues; disciplinary proceedings for city employees, including police officers; and challenging contracts that a city has entered into with third parties.

Challenging a local government’s interpretation in court can be difficult as there is a degree of deference courts afford to local governments in interpreting their own legal authorities; however, interpretation of that legal authority can often be dispositive of a local government’s action and whether it was appropriate or not. Thus, where a local government is incorrectly interpreting or applying its own legal authorities, courts may void or invalidate a local government’s action.

 

Legal Standards for Interpreting City Legal Authorities Under Colorado Law

Colorado courts employ ordinary statutory construction principles when confronted with interpreting a local government’s legal authorities. The primary task in interpreting such authorities is to discern and give effect to the intent of the governmental body that enacted that legal authority. See Friends of Denver Parks, Inc. v. City & County of Denver, 2013 COA 177 (Colo. App. 2013); MDC Holdings v. Town of Parker, 223 P.3d 710, 717 (Colo. 2010); Bowman v. Eldher, 149 Colo. 551, 554 (Colo. 1962).

In discerning intent, courts first look to the actual language of the legal authority and give it a plain language construction. Courts aim to construe the legal authority in context and to produce a harmonious and consistent result in light of other legal authorities. See Friends of Denver Parks, Inc. v. City & County of Denver, 2013 COA 177 (Colo. App. 2013); MDC Holdings v. Town of Parker, 223 P.3d 710, 717 (Colo. 2010); Cook v. City & County of Denver, 68 P.3d 586, 588 (Colo. App. 2003).

If the language of the legal authority is unambiguous and its intent can be discerned, then courts do not resort to other rules of statutory interpretation and, instead, will construe the legal authority as written. See Murr v. Civil Service Commission of City, 2019 COA 51 (Colo. App. 2019); Denver Police Protective Association v. City & County of Denver, 2018 COA 26 (Colo. App. 2018).

However, if the language of the legal authority is found to be ambiguous or its intent unclear, courts will look to extrinsic sources to discern that intent. Such extrinsic sources may include the history of the legal authority being challenged, declarations of intent in the legal authority itself, and provisions of other legal authorities such as city code or the city charter.  See Burger Invs. Family Ltd. P’ship v. City of Littleton, 2019 COA 127 (Colo. App. 2019); Murr v. Civil Service Commission of City, 2019 COA 51 (Colo. App. 2019).

Where the language is ambiguous, courts will also consider the interpretation put forth by the local government itself. If that interpretation is reasonable, it will be given deference by the courts. However, if the local government’s proffered interpretation is inconsistent with the intent of the legal authority, inconsistent with extrinsic authorities, or would lead to an inconsistent or absurd result, the city’s interpretation will be rejected. See O’Connell v. City Council of Denver, 2019 COA 65 (Colo. App. 2019) Murr v. Civil Service Commission of City, 2019 COA 51 (Colo. App. 2019).

In short, if the language of the legal authority being challenged is clear on its face, courts will simply enforce it as written without giving consideration to the local government’s interpretation. If there is ambiguity in the language and the legal authority is able to be construed in more than one way, courts will look to other sources to clarify that ambiguity. In such circumstances, deference is given to the local government’s interpretation unless that interpretation is inconsistent with its other legal authorities or its interpretation would lead to absurd results.

While local governments are entitled to a certain amount of deference in interpreting their own legal authorities, it is not uncommon for them to misinterpret, misapply, or overreach in trying to apply and enforce their own laws. Accordingly, there are numerous Colorado cases where courts have rejected a local government’s interpretation of its own legal authorities as contrary to the plain language of the legal authority or because the proffered interpretation would lead to inconsistent or absurd results. Examples of some of these cases include:

– O’Connell v. City Council of Denver, 2019 COA 65 (Colo. App. 2019), where the Court of Appeals rejected Denver’s interpretation of its charter that a historic district designation is not an exercise of city council zoning power because that interpretation was inconsistent with the plain language of the charter;

– Murr v. Civil Service Commission of City, 2019 COA 51 (Colo. App. 2019), where the Court of Appeals rejected Denver’s interpretation of its charter that it’s quasi-judicial disciplinary body for police officers had implied authority to rescind a disciplinary order after it was entered because that interpretation would lead to inconsistent and absurd results;

– Burger Invs. Family Ltd. P’ship v. City of Littleton, 2019 COA 127 (Colo. App. 2019), where the Court of Appeals rejected Littleton’s interpretation of its charter regarding jurisdiction of its municipal courts because that interpretation was inconsistent with city council minutes reflecting the intent of the at-issue charter provision;

– North Avenue Center, L.L.C. v. City of Grand Junction, 140 P.3d 308 (Colo. App. 2006), where the Court of Appeals rejected Grand Junction’s interpretation of its charter relating to jurisdiction of its municipal courts over land-use variance requests because that interpretation was inconsistent with the charter’s language;

– City of Fort Collins v. Dooney, 496 P.2d 316 (Colo. 1972), where the Colorado Supreme Court rejected Fort Collins’s interpretation of its charter regarding referral of zoning decisions to a vote of the people because that interpretation was inconsistent with the plain language of the charter; and

– City of Golden v. Sodexo America, LLC, 2019 CO 38 (Colo. App. 2019), where the Court of Appeals rejected Golden’s interpretation of its tax code as being in conflict with the code’s plain language.

Challenging a local government’s interpretation of its own legal authorities can be difficult and is often times highly nuanced. It frequently requires comparing and contrasting various different legal authorities, such as a city charter, different portions of city code, and researching or reviewing the legal authority’s legislative history. However, where a local government is acting in contravention of its own legal authorities the effects can be significant. It can create circumstances where a local government is improperly attempting to expand its powers and, in more egregious circumstances, can result in local governments cutting out or ignoring rights guaranteed to its citizens. Local governments can be reluctant to reassess their procedures as well as their interpretation of their own legal authorities. Accordingly, utilizing the court process to force them to do so may be the only avenue of relief.

© 2020 J.D. Porter, LLC. Author: Jordan Porter. Denver, Colorado.

Disclaimer: The information on this website is intended to be general information only and not legal advice. Laws change frequently and the information on this website may not be up to date, nor is the information intended to be fully comprehensive. For legal advice specific to your case please contact J.D. Porter, LLC or another licensed attorney.