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Councilor lobbies on taxpayers' dime 

A letter supporting a transit tax written by City Councilman Jim Null and mailed at taxpayers' expense is not a technical violation of the Fair Campaign Practices Act.

However, the letter, dated August 1999 and written on city stationery, has raised questions over whether the first-term councilman misled people -- by using taxpayer resources -- into believing the city has endorsed the tourist-tax measure, which will appear on November's ballot.

At least one of Null's colleagues believes the situation is awkward at best. "It appears to be a blanket endorsement by the city," said Councilman Bill Guman. "My opinion is, this is not appropriate."

Even if the letter did not violate the Fair Campaign Practices Act, Guman noted that the city's code of ethics prohibits even a perceived conflict of interest in City Hall.

Null sent the letter, on city stationery, on behalf of Peak Mobility 21, a transportation group that has met for the past 18 months. He signed the letter as "James A. Null, Councilmember." An estimated 200 letters, costing 33 cents each, were sent out on Aug. 9, using the city's metered postage stamp. The correspondence was prepared by city staff, he said.

Peak Mobility 21, which is not affiliated with the city, supports the initiative for a sales tax to pay for improved public bus service that is on the November ballot. In his letter, Null extolled the proposal: "We are excited about how this initiative can improve the quality of life in our community for everyone," Null wrote in the letter, addressed to "Friends."

"We would like to hear from the community about this issue and are prepared to meet with your group to further explain the benefits and choices of this measure."


Impropriety denied

The letters were mailed on Aug. 9, two days before the City Council voted to place the transit question on the ballot.

City Attorney Pat Kelly said that since the letter was mailed before the formal vote was taken, the matter did not constitute a violation of the Fair Campaign Practices Act. The law was passed by Colorado voters in 1996.

The act forbids officials from spending public money to support, influence or oppose a campaign, and prohibits government employees from using public facilities, equipment or staff time for political campaigns.

Since Null's letter was sent two days before the matter was voted on, he technically was not in violation. This week, the District 1 councilman dismissed any suggestions of impropriety.

"There's no conflict of interest at all until the issue is on the ballot," Null said of his advocacy efforts before the formal vote.

The topic of the City Council's role in campaigning was actually raised during the Aug. 11 public meeting, when Null asked his colleagues how they should best work to get the transit measure passed. At the time, Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace stated she felt it inappropriate for City Council members to become intimately involved in any campaigns.

Null, however, said this week he intends to serve an active role on the transit's political action committee.


The gray areas

In addition to his work with Peak Mobility 21, Null also serves on the board of the Fine Arts Center, which benefits in contributions from both the city and the city-owned utility company.

Null said the issue over whether that dual affiliation presents potential conflicts has never come up, but that he would "certainly look at it" if the issue were raised. Null is on a nine-member council that approves the city's budget, which includes a yearly contribution to the Fine Arts Center of $81,000.

As a member of the board of directors for Colorado Springs Utilities, Null also helped approve that agency's Community Trust Fund, which distributes a quarter-million dollars a year to various non-profit agencies. This year, CSU gave the Fine Arts Center $10,000, said Rita Garza, community media relations manager for the utility department.

"I don't think people see this as an issue," Null said.

Makepeace could not be reached as of press time for comment. However, Guman said that questions over the gray area of conflicts -- and even perceptions of conflict -- have increased among Council members since former City Attorney Jim Colvin retired in January 1998. Colvin's job was, in part, to distinguish such conflicts and, was a stickler for propriety.

Guman himself is no stranger to accusations of conflicting interests. In the seven years he's been on Council, the policy-maker, who owns a landscape architecture firm, has been criticized for attempting to secure city contracts.

He was once reprimanded by former Mayor Bob Isaac for sending a letter to would-be donors for campaign contributions, he said.

As for whether Null's lobbying efforts at city taxpayer costs was appropriate, Guman said, "We have a code of ethics, and perhaps that needs to be dragged off the back shelf and reviewed periodically."

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