Leading up to April 2014, local business leaders experienced an awakening.
They realized the man some of them helped elect in 2011 as Colorado Springs' first strong mayor, Steve Bach, was a nightmare. His combative style had infuriated City Council and citizens, paralyzing measures to address the city's horrible roads, flood control needs and the City for Champions tourism venture.
So those local business leaders pulled out their checkbooks and created Colorado Springs Forward, a 501(c)6 nonprofit aimed at promoting their "common business interest" and reversing the city's trajectory. (See "The Rules," below.) At the time, CSF leaders say, "hundreds" signed on to a letter describing CSF's purpose.
Now, going on three years later, the organization has established itself as a political heavyweight, claiming to represent a "broad-based alliance" with an agenda that's good for the community. CSF's wins, board members say, include helping to elect Mayor John Suthers in 2015, and passage of Suthers' road-repair tax, 2C, last year with overwhelming voter support.
CSF board member Tom Neppl, owner of Springs Fabrication Inc., lists future goals as creating jobs, retaining and recruiting businesses, improving the city's infrastructure and supporting the military. CSF wants to see progress made on City for Champions, a tourism venture that would build four attractions, including the U.S. Olympic Museum, and hopes to change city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities' governance from City Council to an appointed board. The latter move may require electing new Council members who share that goal in the upcoming April 4 election. If the past is an indicator, CSF stands ready to shell out big bucks for that.
"Our focus is what's best for the community overall," Neppl says. "I think it boils down to trust. You either have trust that people in this community [CSF members] are out there investing their time and money, and ... they're risking whatever it is they risk to help this community move forward. You trust they're doing the right thing or not. I have trust in this organization."
But CSF — whose leaders insist the group is inclusive and transparent — does not have everyone's trust, nor does it appear to represent everyone. (See "Lacking diversity," below) All of CSF's board members are white, as is its newly appointed executive director, Amy Lathen. When CSF hired Lathen, who forfeited the last six months of her $87,300-a-year El Paso County commissioner seat in July to take the job, some cynics only half-jokingly renamed it Colorado Springs Backward.
Lathen, like much of El Paso County, is staunchly Republican. She embraces the party's right-wing ideology, including opposition to gay marriage, now legal. She loathes President Barack Obama and has a distaste for accepting federal money, though she's an enthusiastic cheerleader for military spending. Not surprisingly, CSF backs a conservative agenda — for instance, it opposed the initiative to increase Colorado's minimum wage that voters passed on Nov. 8.
CSF isn't the first group to bring together the region's power players. Its predecessors over the past 20 years have included movements dubbed 6035, the City Committee, and a Gazette-sponsored goal-setting effort called Dream City. CSF also mirrors other politically influential blocs, such as the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs (HBA), Pikes Peak Association of Realtors and the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance. Like them, CSF's board contains the region's most wealthy and powerful, or their representatives. Also like some of the others, CSF puts money into its own political action committee (PAC), which channels the cash to candidates and causes without identifying individual donors' names. (See "CSF: Political giving," below) CSF refuses to disclose its membership list.
Some observers call CSF a "shadowy" group and question whether the local population needs this band of power brokers to tell them what to do and think.
"I think it would be more effective if we worked together to solve our problems rather than forming another group — with many of the same players — who thinks this time it will be different," former City Councilor Jan Martin said when the group formed. She hasn't changed her mind since.
On July 16, 2014, then-City Councilor Val Snider sat down to lunch at the Garden of the Gods Club, the guest of William Mutch and Bob Cutter. A political consultant with an HBA tie, Mutch acted in the same capacity for CSF. (He recently left CSF, which has since contracted with political campaign manager-for-hire Sarah Jack.) Cutter, a businessman, is best known for his leadership of Mayor Bach's Colorado Springs Together, formed the day after the Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed 350 homes, in June 2012.
Mutch and Cutter, who also has since left CSF and didn't return our calls seeking comment, tried to recruit Snider to support CSF, as was done with other Council members. Snider didn't bite. "It's the same folks who seem to be bitching all the time," Snider told the Independent at the time, adding CSF was launched by 25 millionaires who donated $5,000 each as seed money. "It's the same people who have been the enabler for [Mayor Steve] Bach for three years," he added.
At the time, CSF backers admitted that strife between the mayor and Council wasn't what the business community bargained for in the strong-mayor form of government — ironically, a system that many of the same people had supported and placed Bach at the helm of.
Bach, a political novice with no government experience, wiped out decades of institutional memory and expertise by ousting city department heads and installing his choices, paying nearly $2 million in severance along the way. Autocratic and headstrong, Bach was more of a jackhammer than a bridge-builder.
His enabler was City Attorney Chris Melcher, also with no municipal experience, who repeatedly sided with Bach in rifts with Council — about the budget, red-light cameras and ending FREX transit service to Denver, to name a few. Melcher left in early 2014 with a handsome parting check.
Bach also has been faulted for colluding in secret with other power brokers to mold the City for Champions tourism package — a downtown stadium, Olympic museum, sports medicine center and Air Force Academy visitors center — without fully briefing Council, or the public. All of that ignited furor among Council members, the business community and citizens.
CSF's first executive, developer John Cassiani, recapped it this way in the fall of 2014: "Everyone's frustrated about the inability of the Council and Mayor to work together. There's a common frustration, and we are trying to be the catalyst that will take that frustration and direct that to a positive energy to get things done."
Neppl says it's important to realize the ramifications of that to fully understand why CSF members felt the need to become politically involved.
"Our branding [as a city] was a big problem. We were getting such negative press across the country," says Neppl, a former RBA president. "Everyone was feeling the same frustration. How do we stop this negative publicity we continue to get? A lot of it was dysfunction we had in our city government. We didn't know how council and the mayor were going to work together in this new [council-mayor] structure. We quickly learned there was an extremely significant amount of tension that came out shortly after the mayor took office, and it was escalated to the point where it was getting into the paper all the time."
Meanwhile, the Business Alliance was trying to recruit new companies and "kept running into this problem of being branded as a dysfunctional community," he adds.
"Companies look at that," Neppl notes. "More importantly, site-selection firms that companies hire look at that. We discovered Colorado Springs had quietly been sort of removed from the list of potential cities for companies to look at by the site-selection people. Infrastructure, culture, community involvement — even though we met the mark on a lot of those areas, two areas came up: The culture of our political system here was very negative, and the infrastructure in this community was tired and needed to be revitalized. We worked on those issues, and that's really my role in getting involved in Colorado Springs Forward — to focus on the problems from the business side."
When CSF began, backers told the Indy it would be heavily involved in the April 2015 city election, push for road improvements, conduct research and polling on every issue in which it gets involved, and then share findings with the community. There's since been no public disclosure of CSF's polling or research, but it funneled nearly $180,000 into the election to elect Suthers and three of four Council members on the 2015 ballot, and endorsed successful ballot measures on streets and trails.
CSF board member Kathy Loo, a 54-year resident and philanthropist, says it's nothing new for those with deep area roots to choose the best fits for holding public office. "One of our goals originally — and still is — to really find good people to run for office," Loo says. "It doesn't matter what party they are, and it's not political in that way. [We want] people who are qualified and have expertise and understanding of the issues, and the background to be able to understand the complexities of the matters at hand. I think the best example of that is John Suthers himself."
Neppl says that he thinks CSF serves an important function — and he only wishes more groups would mirror its work. He and Loo, the only board members who agreed to be interviewed for this article, bemoan the small number of civic leaders who anchor innumerable local organizations.
"When I go to community events," Neppl says, "when I go to galas and other groups, any of these major other organizations, United Way, Goodwill, pick one ... it's the same 500 or 1,000 people that show up all the time. ... They're willing to spend their time, effort and money for the betterment of this community."
Necessarily part of that formula is having qualified people serve in elective offices, Loo and Neppl say.
"The people who have always done the most in the past in attracting people to run for office are the people who get accused of controlling everything — the HBA, RBA and maybe the Realtors — because they're the only ones who did it," Loo says. "It isn't a fault of theirs that they took this role of trying to find qualified leaders to be in the elected offices. Other groups should have been doing the same."
Quality of candidates, she laments, has eroded: "This is not a matter of trying to have control. It's more a matter of assuring the populace we have qualified people running our government, so we can be a really high-functioning city."
CSF's board judges the candidates. The current board consists of Neppl, Loo, Broadmoor Chairman Steve Bartolin, businessman Phil Lane, developer Doug Stimple, attorney Dan Stuart and GE Johnson Construction owner Jim Johnson — most with deep roots here.
(Though Chris Jenkins denies he helped found CSF, the organization occupies offices free of charge in Plaza of the Rockies, a downtown building owned by Jenkins' family, IRS records show. Jenkins' father, David, almost single-handedly funded the $1 million strong-mayor ballot measure approved by voters in 2010, which ushered in Bach and, in turn, spawned CSF.)
In addition to selecting quality candidates, Neppl and other leaders also wanted to quash "destructive" voices, though when asked, he wouldn't name names and quickly pivoted to CSF's support for City for Champions, which has drawn criticism over financing tools some feel haven't been fully vetted or explained. Neppl concedes C4C wasn't as transparent as it could have been when introduced in mid-2013. "Lack of transparency can lead to speculation, speculation can lead to innuendo, and innuendo leads to accusations, and then you've got a bunch of stories circulating," he says.
CSF might consider former City Councilor Joel Miller a destructive voice. Miller, who resigned his seat in late 2014 to run for mayor, has been stringently critical of City for Champions.
"Colorado Springs Forward is a political fundraising machine that pursues its members' agenda," he says by email. "CSF presents itself as facilitating 'good' in the city, but its actions tell another story. Shielded from transparency by the tax code, CSF is a front for the same old agenda that the Housing and Building Association has pursued in the past — the one that is bleeding our city dry. Using euphemisms like 'ending the divisiveness' and 'reaching our full potential,' they've obtained the buy-in of the unsuspecting. They attack opposition to their nakedly political agenda by smearing those who would dare inform citizens of the threat their agenda presents to our city."
Miller addressed three of CSF's "focus areas":
"1. City for Champions, concocted in back-room deals, seeks hundreds of millions in local public dollars for a downtown stadium and its infrastructure. At local taxpayer expense, the downtown C4C projects would turn CSF members' poor investments from 30 years ago into personal profits. [Since developers own land in the project areas.]
"2. CSF has and will continue to pursue transforming Utilities governance from a board directly accountable to Colorado Springs citizens to one beholden to CSF and its political influence. Such a structure would enable further shifting of development costs from CSF members to Utilities customers with no citizen oversight. One plan leaked from CSF would have had a board unable to be recalled and utilities customers paying for water in common areas of developer districts.
"3. While it's hard not to agree that we need infrastructure, CSF's approach is the same path that has allowed the development community to build poor and inadequate road and stormwater infrastructure and then to ask citizens for new taxes (such as 2C) to go back and fix it."
Miller is hardly CSF's only critic. Echoing his remarks, City Councilor Helen Collins says via email, "Colorado Springs Forward has an agenda to support developers/builders."
Rick Wehner, a Springs native and businessman, who works with others such as economist Tom Binnings and banker Robin Roberts to conduct public-policy surveys through Springs Unigroup, says he felt CSF wanted to skew surveys to favor outcomes they liked.
"When Colorado Springs Forward started, we thought, great, these people had the power and the outreach," Wehner says. "They started out with every good intention, but when they started getting involved in City for Champions and getting political ... that's when people got disenchanted."
Wehner adds later via email, "Springs Unigroup has been doing grassroots surveys since 2006 and has consistently been accurate when compared to the paid surveys done by Wilson-Allen-Perkins and Magellan. [William] Mutch from CSF called my team to a meeting and told us that the only surveys that would matter are the ones done by CSF! Binnings and Roberts said, 'Thanks, but no thanks, we will remain independent.'
"At that time, realizing CSF was going to be the street pimps for the development community, I thought it prudent for there to be a truly independent organization," Wehner says, referring to Springs Unigroup.
Another CSF critic is Gary Casimir, a retired service member often seen at public meetings. He says one of CSF's founders once told him that forming the group was a mistake. Casimir himself calls CSF "a politically driven social club" and reports his attempt to join fell flat. "I signed up to get on the email list and find out where the meetings were," he says. "Somehow, I didn't get invited anywhere."
Among CSF's goals is to replace Council as the Utilities board and install an "independent" board appointed by the mayor and/or Council. That's according to a statement made to The Gazette by CSF board member Phil Lane after Council voted in June not to make a change. Lathen and others assert Utilities is a sophisticated, complex, $1 billion, four-service operation.
"We should be looking at professional board members who have either unique business experience or direct utility experience to help craft policy and give the oversight needed," Neppl says.
Lathen says Utilities' interests often stand at odds with city interests. For example, city parks would love to get free water from Utilities, but bond-debt mandates bar Utilities from giving water away. Also, Utilities pays the city a "surplus revenue" payment, previously called the Payment in Lieu of Taxes, of more than $30 million a year. How does that square with Utilities' desire to keep rates competitive?
But when asked to name three bad decisions by City Council acting as the Utilities Board, Neppl, Loo and Lathen couldn't come up with even one. Loo quickly interjected, "That's not the reason for our thinking. Things are changing so fast these days. ... It seems to me it's very important to have people who have a pretty good knowledge of it."
Though Lathen says "discussion needs to go forward" and the issue of Utilities' governance isn't settled, Utilities Board Chairman Andy Pico gives a different version:
"Final for now," he says via email. "We said at the time that we (or the future council) would review this again in 5 years."
For CSF, the operative portion of that sentence is "future council." After not mounting a petition drive to place the issue on the April city ballot, CSF's other course is to back candidates who agree the Utilities Board should be appointed.
Jan Martin shudders at the idea of an appointed board whose members would operate beyond the reach of voter recall. She sees the issue as the final piece on the Monopoly board of community control by developers, the wealthy and politically connected.
"I think it consolidates power even further in the community, and I think that's a real problem," Martin says. "Power players and money, that's what makes them suspect. We always go back with the question: What's the problem? What are they trying to fix?"
Asked for her take on the Utilities debate, Councilor Jill Gaebler called CSF's tactics "heavy-handed" and says that it "wants control of our Utilities solely in the hands of the Mayor, which would concentrate power and control of our city government with one elected official, who could, I believe, be more easily controlled by special interests, like Colorado Springs Forward."
This is hardly the first time CSF, which has interesting tactics, has meddled in city business. Consider the 2C campaign last year. The "vote yes" committee operated out of CSF's Plaza of the Rockies office and used CSF's bank. The committee received donations from CSF and many CSF supporters. (See "CSF: Political giving," below)
Another case in point is the city's Strawberry Fields land swap with The Broadmoor. CSF issued a letter to the community backing the swap, and now will mount a campaign against Gaebler for voting against it, sources say. Though Lathen denies CSF has decided whom to support, CSF board chair Lynette Crow-Iverson resigned Oct. 24 and reportedly will oppose Gaebler.
Randy Purvis, a 20-year city councilor between 1987 and 2011, also says word on the street is that CSF wants to bounce Gaebler because of her land-swap vote. He wonders why, given that the swap was approved.
Purvis says: "Has it come to the point that City Council is little more than a rubber stamp for what comes out of the mayor's office? They don't get to look at it independently? Or is it just 'show me where to sign and let's get out of here?' I can't think of a worse way to run a government than having one person calling all the shots and nobody exercising any checks or balances on it.
"The question is, at what point are they advocating what's best for Colorado Springs, and at what point are they advocating what's best for members of the group?"
When Colorado Springs Forward applied for nonprofit status, it stated its purpose like this:
"To serve as a broad based alliance of committed persons and entities who demonstrate a profound interest in the economic health of the Pikes Peak Region through an ongoing investment of time, energy, and resources. The organization and its members will protect and enhance the business climate of Colorado Springs to ensure that the Greater Colorado Springs Area is, and remains, a vibrant and dynamic community now and into the future."
According to CSF's bylaws and other founding documents:
• Board members are chosen by other board members and must approve adding individual, nonprofit and business members.
• Dues are listed as amounts per year and must be paid for three years, as follows: $25,000 for charter members, $10,000 for "platinum" members; and $5,000 and $1,000, respectively, for "gold" and "silver" members. Silver memberships are designated for nonprofits, while "donor members" can join for "irregular" donations of less than $1,000.
• "Supporters" are defined as "people who have signed on with our letter." This letter, says CSF executive director Amy Lathen, was published in The Gazette in the group's early days and outlined its goals to improve the community. She says "hundreds" of people signed.
• "Members shall not be entitled to vote," because CSF's decisions are reserved for the board.
• Original founders were philanthropist Kathy Loo, consultant Kae Rader, developers Doug Stimple and Doug Quimby, and businessmen Tom Neppl, Phil Lane and Bob Cutter, according to CSF. But for CSF's IRS filing in 2014, the original board also included small business owner Lisa Tessarowicz, attorney Ben Sparks, retired Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart and developer Chris Jenkins.
• CSF's articles of incorporation were filed May 7, 2014, by Mario Nicolais, an attorney and long-time Republican operative. He represented Deborah Hendrix in her unsuccessful 2015 attempt to recall City Councilor Helen Collins, who's seen by some community leaders as obstructing City for Champions and other business initiatives.
Nicolais also served as registered agent for Colorado Springs Government Watch, a group that backed the recall effort and is run by Dede Laugesen, wife of Gazette editorial page editor Wayne Laugesen. The source of the group's money isn't known because it's not required to disclose donor names.
And Nicolais also represented Citizens for a Sound Government, which also doesn't have to disclose donations and donors. It opposed incumbent Councilor Brandy Williams in the 2013 city election, along with Joe Barrera, a Hispanic candidate, and businessman Ed Bircham.
While Colorado Springs Forward aims to influence campaigns, the organization must step carefully to stay on the right side of the law and maintain its nonprofit status. IRS rules do permit 501(c)6 organizations like CSF to engage in political campaigns for or against candidates, but only if "such intervention does not constitute the organization's primary activity."
Also, under IRS rules, some contributions to CSF are tax-deductible and some are not. Specifically, contributions that go to lobbying federal and state officials, "grass roots lobbying" expenses and "amounts paid for intervention or participation in any political campaign," are not tax-deductible.
CSF acknowledged in its application for tax-exempt status that it planned to lobby City Council and county commissioners on behalf of members, as well as "influence legislation and the organization of our Council-mayor city government." It also disclosed plans to form a political action committee (PAC) to support candidates for local offices.
But it's not completely clear how CSF has spent its funds since then — or if it has stayed on the right side of those IRS rules. IRS forms do show that in its first year, 2014, CSF raised $406,950 and spent $241,756 on consultants, polling services, advertising, a paid executive director and policy director, and two donations totaling $50,000 to a drainage ballot measure. Nothing was given to candidates.
CSF hadn't filed its IRS Form 990 for the 2015 year by the time the Independent went to press this week, so it's not publicly known how much money the organization spent that year.
In 2016, CSF expects to spend $300,000, CSF executive director Amy Lathen told the Indy in an interview, but she declined to give a number for 2015's spending. Regardless, the $300,000 figure for this year is far less than CSF predicted. In IRS documents filed in 2014, CSF said it expected to spend $500,000 in 2015 and $500,000 in 2016.
While they don't tell the whole story, campaign records do reveal a bit more about CSF's money trail:
• In 2014, CSF donated $50,000 via its political action committee to Citizens for Responsible Stormwater Action, which campaigned for approval of the Pikes Peak Regional Drainage Authority in the November election. Opposed by then-Mayor Steve Bach, the measure failed.
• In 2015, CSF spent money in two elections. For the April city election, CSF contributed $173,900. Of that, $20,000 was donated to Council candidates; $8,700 to mayoral candidates, and $144,458 to campaign consultants including Rock Chalk Media of Grand Junction; Targeted Victory of Alexandria, Virginia; Blitz Canvassing of Greenwood Village and Blakely + Company of Colorado Springs.
Specifically, CSF gave $7,500 to John Suthers, who was elected mayor, and $5,000 each to Council contenders Merv Bennett, Larry Bagley, Tom Strand and Jariah Walker. Only Walker wasn't elected.
It also gave $1,200 to Lathen, who ran fourth in a field of six candidates for mayor and later left her El Paso County commissioner seat to take the job with CSF as its executive director. (Strangely, during the campaign, Lathen alleged she had been offered a top job in Suthers' administration if she would drop out of the race. Suthers called the allegation "nonsense.")
In the November 2015 election, the Colorado Springs Forward PAC gave $5,000 to the "vote yes" committee, Springs Citizens Building the Future, for the 2C road tax. The PAC also was the sole donor to the "vote yes" on 2D committee, giving $2,500 in support of the trails spending measure.
• In January 2016, the CSF PAC gave $2,500 to the Senate Majority Fund, dedicated to retaining a Republican majority in the Colorado Senate, and it gave $1,000 in April to the Colorado Leadership Fund LLC, which works to elect Republicans to the Colorado House.
Though Colorado Springs Forward board member Kathy Loo stresses that "anybody is welcome to join us," diversity isn't the group's strong suit, based on feedback sought from the community.
"We have not had much contact with Springs Forward," Patricia Yeager with The Independence Center, which serves the disabled community, says via email. "I offered [CSF executive Amy Lathen] that anything The Independence Center could do or participate in, let us know. I expect that when disability issues come up, she will get in touch with us."
Lisa Villanueva, local NAACP president, reports via email, "To be honest, I have never heard of the group until now. No, we have not been contacted by the organization at all and I do not feel there is any representation of the African American Community in their organization."
Joe Barrera, a retired professor and local activist who ran for City Council, says the Black/Latino Coalition hasn't been invited to the table. "Speaking strictly for myself," he adds by email, "I feel that CS Forward is mainly a conservative lobby for the small government, low-tax element in local Government. This perspective has prevailed far too long."
Nor is the Colorado Springs Black Chamber of Commerce a member. "Our Chamber does not operate in the political arena," president James Stewart writes in an email.
Here's another sign: A southeast Colorado Springs initiative called RISE (resilient, inspired, strong and engaged) involves more than 30 public, private, nonprofit and community agencies. Goals include improving family health and the economy through services such as child care, healthy meals and meeting transportation needs. El Pomar Foundation is funding a $350,000 grant over seven years. Groups taking part include the Black Chamber, Council of Neighbors and Organizations (CONO), the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, Better Business Bureau, the city, at least two school districts, Pikes Peak Community College, Silver Key, and many others, but not Colorado Springs Forward.
While CSF leaders say people don't have to be invited to join CSF, when the Indy asked why CSF isn't participating in RISE, Loo says, "We weren't asked."
Lathen adds that CSF is "doing diverse outreach" but doesn't spell out details. CSF board member Tom Neppl cited CSF's support of Jariah Walker for Council as evidence, because Walker, at 38, was younger than many 2015 candidates. (Walker, white and a registered Democrat, now works for the city.)
"We recognize we need to get some youth into the group in Council," Neppl says. "We weren't concerned with his political affiliation. He was a young, enthusiastic, energetic guy."
Asked if CSF would support a ballot measure to increase Council's $6,250 annual pay to attract younger people into seek office, Neppl, Loo and Lathen wouldn't commit. "We probably will discuss it," Neppl says, adding it isn't considered urgent.
One more sign: CSF doesn't appear to have much direct involvement in addressing the region's poor and homeless. At least not currently.
"We'd like to be part of whatever the solution is," Neppl says. "There's been a lot more traction lately. Some organizations already are supporting the homeless."
Loo says CSF board members are extensively involved in community causes.
"All of us who are on this board are active in this community in many ways," she says. "We all serve on nonprofit boards, and we support numerous things, including people working on homeless issues."
Jan Martin, who served eight years on Council and remains locally active, says CSF can't speak meaningfully to its diversity because it's not diverse.
But CSF does associate with groups that interface with different parts of the community — namely CONO and Pikes Peak United Way.
The logos for both appeared on the CSF website as "partners." But United Way, contacted by the Indy to explain the partnership, asked CSF to remove its logo. CSF has since complied. "I didn't even truthfully know that until you called," PPUW executive director Jason Wood says. "I don't have an answer on how they got us listed as a partner."
Wood said United Way doesn't give money to CSF, he says, because, "They spend most of their time endorsing candidates and we can't do that."
United Way and CSF are connected in an oblique way. Cindy Aubrey, former communications director for Mayor Steve Bach, serves as United Way's senior vice president of marketing while performing contract communications work for CSF.
Unlike United Way, CONO paid dues to CSF in the past but hasn't recently, reports CONO president Dave Munger. Asked whether being listed as CSF's partner means CONO agrees with CSF's political choices, Munger responds, "We are prohibited by our bylaws from taking a stand for candidates for public office."
As of the Indy's press time, CONO was still listed as a partner.