If someone is buying Mayor Steve Bach fancy meals or paying for his rounds of golf, it might be nice to know. But Colorado Springs residents have been denied that knowledge because of a giant loophole: The city's ethics code doesn't explain how such gifts and honoraria (or speaking fees) are to be reported.
The Independent discovered as much in late October, when it asked for any such reports covering the last 18 months, and was told none existed. Since then, the offices of the City Attorney and City Clerk have recommended the six-year-old ethics code be amended "to provide more specific direction regarding the timing, format and manner of gift documentation."
That's important because, as Colorado Ethics Watch executive director Luis Toro says, "You can't have meaningful ethics oversight unless there's some disclosure."
Golf, dinner, wine
Through the years, local and state elected officials have been on the receiving end of rounds of golf, elegant dinners and expensive trips.
In 2010, for instance, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa reported receiving $3,144.78 for teaching a week-long course for Penn State in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
In early 2013, Gov. John Hickenlooper filed a report listing numerous books he received as gifts, including a Qur'an, as well as items including a Dale Chihuly glass bowl valued at $6,000 sent to him by Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire.
As a state House representative, Keith King, who now serves as Springs City Council president, filed reports listing rounds of golf valued from $55 to $150 from organizations including the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, and a $3,000 trip to China funded by the Republic of China.
Taxpayers knew who was giving what to whom in those cases, because those officials were required under a state law to report, in writing, anything they received that was valued at $53 or more. Elected officials in Colorado Springs also historically have filed those reports each year with the City Clerk's Office.
Bach, who took office in June 2011, filed his only report on April 27, 2012, listing five gifts and their values: $130 for two tickets from the Broadmoor for the U.S. Women's Open Golf Tournament; $248 for a pair of tickets from the Winter Night Club for two dinner events; $500 for two tickets from Scott Blackmun, U.S. Olympic Committee executive, for a Hall of Fame dinner; and $270 for two tickets from what was then the Springs Chamber of Commerce, for its annual dinner.
But he hasn't filed one since, and neither has any other elected city official, because City Clerk Sarah Johnson simply hasn't required it.
Home rule rules
The Independent asked Johnson, hired by Bach in May 2012, where the reports are filed. Her email reply: "The reports for gifts, or honoraria are not filed with my office. Please contact the City Ethics Commission/City Attorney office."
We did so, but found nothing, and again asked Johnson. Within an hour, she wrote, "The City Attorney and my office are researching the issue now."
Johnson later said via email that the city's Ethics Code, adopted in 2007, supersedes the state law due to home rule authority and that the state's reporting requirements "do not apply to City of Colorado Springs elected officials."
The statement left Toro at a loss.
"This is a situation where you might construct a good legal argument that city officials are exempt from the state requirement, but why on earth would you want to do that?" he asks. "People in Colorado Springs are left without any information about conflict of interest of the Council and mayor."
Strangely, Johnson noted that the city's Ethics Code contains provisions for gifts to be "documented," but in the same message pointed out, "It does not require reports to be filed."
That seems to be a distinction without a difference, and doesn't explain why the filings stopped after years of compliance with state law.
Jan Martin, who's served on Council since 2007, says former clerk Kathryn Young "was a stickler" for gift reports. But Johnson's never mentioned them to Council, Martin says. "The new [Councilors] don't even know we used to file them annually," she adds. "Not sure what happened to all the pledges for transparency."
After we asked Johnson again about how gifts are being documented, or if they are, the city communications office sent us a copy of a Nov. 8 memo to Council and Bach from Johnson and the City Attorney's Office, saying the ethics code needs to be rewritten. The memo notes that while the code does, in fact, require gifts to be reported, it doesn't outline how they're to be reported. The code should be amended to spell that out, the memo said, and reporting forms adopted.
"This is a win for Colorado Springs residents," Toro says upon hearing of the Nov. 8 memo. "The Council should step up and adopt something, and the mayor should sign it."
Council President King says in an email that he's "open to the idea." But nothing's being done yet. Council communications specialist Vicki Gomes says a measure to address the code hasn't been scheduled for a Council work session or meeting.