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City councilors want to explore tighter controls on campaign donations 

click to enlarge Richard Skorman on election night, after decisively claiming the District 3 City Council seat. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Richard Skorman on election night, after decisively claiming the District 3 City Council seat.

A nasty Colorado Springs City Council campaign in which one group spent at least $240,000 without identifying donors is spurring interest in taking a new look at local campaign finance rules.

Five members of the new Council, due to take office April 18, say they're up for rethinking the city's code, which allows unlimited donations and doesn't restrict so-called "dark money" groups. Newly elected Richard Skorman, for instance, says he wants to place a measure on the 2019 city ballot limiting donations from individuals, political action committees (PACs) and corporations to $400 each per candidate.

That might be doable, because the city's home-rule status allows it the authority to set its own campaign finance rules, separate from the state. But it's unlikely a city ordinance would survive a court test if it undermines certain federal laws, which empower donors based on First Amendment protections of freedom of speech.

Also problematic are "social welfare" groups and other nonprofits that aren't required to report who funds them; one of those is Colorado Citizens Protecting Our Constitution (CCPOC), which outspent all other PACs combined in this year's Council races.

Councilors Tom Strand, Don Knight and Jill Gaebler and Councilors-elect Yolanda Avila and Skorman see value in revisiting campaign finance requirements. Councilors Andy Pico and Bill Murray oppose it, and Council President Merv Bennett didn't respond to questions. Councilor-elect David Geislinger is ambivalent, saying that because he ran unopposed in District 2, it wasn't an issue for him.

Those most eager to change the game plan are those who suffered the brunt of attack in the recent election — Skorman and Gaebler. CCPOC hammered both.

Besides the $400 limit, Skorman wants to see if the city can require nonprofits involved in elections to disclose donors' names, amounts given, and expenditures, while still complying with federal laws.

"At the very least," he says in an email, "we as a City Council should ask that any candidate who has 'dark' money spent on their behalf during a local election, publicly denounce it."

Gaebler says the issue boils down to transparency, and she has a few ideas to shed more light.

First, campaign finance reports should contain more information, she says, noting that in the past election, four candidates simply listed a huge expenditure to a veteran campaign manager — Sarah Jack & Associates — who then spent the money without a detailed accounting. For example, Gaebler's opponent, Lynette Crow-Iverson directed virtually all of her spending, $59,800, to Jack, saying it would be spent on "voter files," "social media," "consulting," "grassroots" and "signs," but not itemizing those expenses. In contrast, other candidates itemized spending. Andy Pico reported spending to the penny on media buys, and even logged a planning meeting at IHOP restaurant as costing $33.90.

Next, Gaebler says donations should be limited, though she didn't cite a cap. She says she wants to see what other cities do.

Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, says that of the 101 Colorado cities with home-rule charters, nine limit donations. Fort Collins caps donations at $100 per entity for mayoral candidates and $75 for council candidates, while Greenwood Village limits donations to $2,000 each.

The prospect of a cap doesn't sound like a good idea to aforementioned campaign manager Sarah Jack, who says via email, "As a Free Speech advocate, I believe that campaign limits confine free speech and violate the First Amendment rights of citizens who want to participate in the process."

But Yolanda Avila, who will replace Helen Collins on Council, says she'd "absolutely" like to see some changes. She had a problem during the campaign when she received a $20 cash donation in an envelope marked with only the person's name. Since she's required to list the person's occupation and employer on campaign finance reports, she ended up giving the money to Springs Rescue Mission.

"If that is what we have to go through with individual donations, why is it they're allowed to bring in tons of PAC money where people do not have to say who they are?" she asked in an interview.

"Elections need to be more fair," she added. "Though everything is fair in love, war and politics, I'd like to think Colorado Springs is better than that."

Reached by phone, Knight says he's concerned that if donations are capped, that will that open the floodgates for unrestrained spending by nonprofits.

Colorado Ethics Watch Executive Director Luis Toro says via email it's not possible to ban dark money altogether from campaigns, but he says those groups could be forced to disclose donor names. "I see no reason why Colorado Springs could not have 527 and electioneering disclosure requirements similar to what the state has, which would have forced a lot of this money into the light," he says.

Murray says he supports the free flow of cash but warns, "It's just influence peddling and if the folks are willing to accept this, we need to allow them to."

While Strand is open to debate on the issue, he says in an email, "I do not believe there is a silver bullet in making campaign contributions above board and controllable." Contributors will inevitably find "workarounds" to stay anonymous, he says. Besides, what's the big to-do anyway, considering the April 4 election proved that money can't buy candidates, he adds, referring to candidates backed by the CCPOC and several influential local groups failing at the polls.

Here's why reform is needed, says Jan Martin, former two-term councilor and president pro tem: "We were fortunate that people in Colorado Springs were paying attention, but that doesn't mean in the next election we will be so lucky."

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