Tuesday, June 9, 2020

DA raises questions about county voter sentiment poll

Posted By on Tue, Jun 9, 2020 at 12:00 PM

click to enlarge Dan May: Urges more transparency by county commissioners. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Dan May: Urges more transparency by county commissioners.
Fourth Judicial District Attorney Dan May accused El Paso County commissioners of a lack of transparency and possibly a violation of the Open Meetings Act at its June 9 meeting, referring to spending $20,500 in taxpayer money on a voter opinion poll, including asking about the popularity of certain elected officials.

May said the poll, released last year, sought to ask voters about whether the county should be able to retain money collected in 2018 above the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights revenue cap. The poll also quizzed voters on what they thought of county elected officials. Discussions about the poll, May said, apparently took place in executive session, and he questioned whether that's a legitimate use of a session that's closed to the public.

"I didn’t know if you’re spending money on that [this year] and whether commission had been talking about this [in closed session]," he said to commissioners.

May supports Deputy District Attorney Michael Allen in the June 30 Republican primary election for DA, a seat also being sought by Commission Chair Mark Waller.

Waller downplayed the poll, which the county produced under an open records request submitted by SpringsTaxpayers.com, a watchdog website run by political operative Laura Carno. Here's one story from the website about the issue. But the county has refused to release recordings of the executive sessions at issue.

"We did a poll, which happens all the time," Waller told May. "Colorado Springs, I’m sure, is doing one right now. We want to determine what do the voters think. Do they want to keep it [TABOR excess revenue]. It would be better to spend $20,000 to determine where the voters are at rather than spend $300,000 on the election."

He added that due to the results of the taxpayer-funded poll, commissioners decided not to submit a question to the November 2019 ballot. As for a similar ballot question this year, he said, "We’re trying to consider all the options going forward." But he sidestepped confirming whether another poll has been conducted and financed by taxpayers.

The 2019 question would have asked to retain $4 million in excess revenue. Instead, the money was refunded to taxpayers.

By the way, we asked the city about its polls, and spokesperson Jamie Fabos says via email that the city's polls have been funded and conducted by outside groups, not with taxpayer money.

County Attorney Diana May (no relation to Dan May) defended commissioners discussing the poll and the potential refund measure in closed session under the Open Meetings Act exemption for attorney-client privilege. She also noted that the sessions in which those matters were discussed were properly posted in advance according to law.

But Carno tells the Indy, "So they're using our money to do a poll to figure out how best to trick us out of our money?" She also says her organization has retained an attorney to seek access to the executive session recordings to determine if those sessions were legitimately called and held.

As SpringsTaxpayers.com reported in March:
We submitted a request to El Paso County under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) to find out more about this telephone poll. We were curious to find out who paid for it, and what questions were asked. The invoice for the poll, returned through the CORA request, showed that $20,500 of your hard-earned tax money was paid to Square State Strategies to conduct the poll. It appears that Square State Strategies then contracted the poll to Magellan Strategies, a well-known Colorado polling firm.

The live telephone poll was conducted between July 15 and July 17, 2019. In addition to the expected poll questions about how to best “sell” a TABOR retention ballot initiative to the voters, there were poll questions about the favorability of various county officials, to include the 5 County Commissioners and Sheriff Bill Elder.

We can only assume that the poll questions were structured to determine who would have been the best messenger to promote a possible ballot measure, allowing the County keep the $3.5 million budget overage. The poll questions probed respondents on how receptive they would be to allowing the County to keep the overage, based on how the retained money would be used —i.e. road projects or parks— instead of returning the money to taxpayers. There was a consistent push throughout the poll to figure out how best to gain support for the measure using different wording. See the full poll here.
In case you're interested, Waller fared best for "image rating" among voters and Commissioner Stan VanderWerf, who faces a Democratic opponent in this year's election, fared the worst.
click to enlarge screen_shot_2020-06-09_at_11.28.52_am.png

Forty-eight percent had a favorable view of Sheriff Bill Elder.

May urged transparency. "I don’t see why you can’t be in open session to discuss how you want to spend that money. [Discussion of] spending of tax dollars shouldn’t be in executive session. It was an expenditure out of the taxpayer's pocket."

He also asked if commissioners have conducted a new poll to determine whether to seek voter approval for retention of the TABOR excess revenue from 2019, the amount of which was not readily available.

"I don’t think it’s a good time right now," May said. "People are fighting for jobs, to keep their income, keep employees employed. The shutdown has been a real struggle."

Waller wouldn't say where he stood on asking voters to let the county keep excess revenue at the November 2020 election, saying, "That’s what we always do — have those discussions."

The Indy asked the county for the poll and for the TABOR refund amount from 2019 but hasn't heard back. We'll update if we get more information.

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