Capping a sometimes ugly, often spiteful City Council campaign, this week Colorado Springs City Clerk Kathryn Young evicted activists who were exercising political free speech in front of City Hall.
Young's actions may land the city in a lawsuit over whether Colorado Springs can restrict people from handing out pamphlets to passersby on non-election days.
Last Friday, and then again on Monday, attorney Bob Gardner stood in front of the city administration building at 30 S. Nevada and handed out flyers that read "Unwanted: The Gang Against Progress" with pictures of candidates Sallie Clark, Tim Pleasant, Margaret Radford and Charles Wingate.
The inflammatory flyers listed several reasons why Gardner believed those candidates should not be elected to office, including unsubstantiated allegations that one candidate had been caught "red-handed" ripping up his opponents' yard signs. The flyers were clearly designed to sway city employees, and warned that the four candidates would, if elected, vote to reduce city staff and services. Clark, Radford and Wingate all won office on Tuesday, as did incumbents Jim Null and Judy Noyes.
The flyers indicated that the group Citizens For Honest Government had paid for the literature. However, the flyers did not identify the group or provide any information about its membership. In fact, Citizens For Honest Government is registered by Gardner with the city clerk's office as an educational group whose purpose is to defeat the four candidates attacked in the flyer. This week, Gardner, a former chairman of the local Republican Party who is closely aligned with Housing and Building Association lobbyist Sarah Jack, denied the group has any membership roster.
"It's me and everyone who thinks like me," he said.
Threatened with arrest
Gardner said that on Monday, after he had distributed hundreds of the flyers, a woman who identified herself as the deputy city clerk approached him and told him he had to leave. The city administration building, he was told, is considered a polling place because people drop off their already filled-out absentee ballots there.
State and municipal election laws prohibit people from campaigning or distributing campaign material within 100 feet of a polling place on election day. Gardner said he tried to point out that not only was it not election day, but he was standing well outside the area that the city clerk had marked as 100 feet. The clerk, he said, insisted that the 100-foot mark was actually well beyond where the city had marked the spot.
Eventually, a security guard was called to the scene, as was City Clerk Young, who eventually threatened to call the Colorado Springs Police Department and have him arrested. Gardner said he grew fearful for his personal safety and decided to leave.
"I was scared when they said they were going to call the police," he said. "I was afraid that if an officer thought I was lunging at them with one of my leaflets, I might be shot in the head."
Gardner subsequently submitted a complaint with the city attorney's office alleging the city clerk misapplied the election statute, and violated his civil rights. Gardner is demanding damages and a settlement and wants the city to take remedial measures to correct the misapplication.
"It's regrettable that those of us who go about engaging in political speech have to be concerned about intimidation by government officials, in America of all places," Gardner said.
OK to jaywalk
Later that morning, supporters who were engaging in a "honk and wave" rally to support Clark at the corner of Nevada and Colorado avenues were kicked off of the corner in front of City Hall as well. Clark said that Kate Kile, who is the wife of county treasurer Ken Kile, was asked by a deputy city clerk to leave the corner, as was Chuck Broerman, who is the current chairman of the local Republican Party. Young, again accompanied by a security guard, also appeared on the scene.
Like Gardner, Clark said that she was not aware that City Hall was a polling place. And, she knew it wasn't election day. But she had her supporters move across the street anyway.
"I wasn't going to get in an argument during a honk 'n' wave," Clark said. "Certainly I respect [Young's] interpretation, but the thing that was not good to me was they wouldn't let us even walk on the sidewalk to get to the street crossing. So apparently it's OK to jaywalk but not to stand in front of City Hall."
On Tuesday, Young said that her interpretation of the election laws is that the city administration building becomes a polling site as soon as absentee ballots are mailed out, which occurred on March 9. The city did not post a notice identifying it as an official polling site, as required by state law, but people were not allowed wear campaign paraphernalia or distribute campaign literature within 100 feet of the building from that day forward, she said.
Young said she follows the election rules set by the Colorado Municipal Code and the Colorado Revised Statutes, but could not cite the portion of the law that identifies City Hall as a polling place.
City Attorney Pat Kelly, however, defended Young's interpretation, and noted that it's the city clerk's right to make decisions when the law is not completely clear. For example, Kelly said, "There is no definition of "election day" in the statutes and so Young has the right to determine what she believes constitutes election day.
Kelly said she has not had time to review Gardner's complaint but said she would look into it. However, Gardner is unimpressed with the city's heavy-handed tactics.
"It's astounding to me that I would be threatened with arrest -- it's even more astounding to me to read the statute and find not one but three reasons that it doesn't apply," he said. "I know for sure it wasn't election day, I know I was outside the 100-foot [marker] and I'm pretty sure City Hall is not a polling place. I can only assume that Ms. Young is hostile to my views or hostile generally toward free speech."