March 08, 2007 News » Cover Story

Bruce against the machine 

Spouting one-liners, county commissioner proudly baffles colleagues

click to enlarge Relying on a tattered copy of the U.S. Constitution and a - quick, caustic wit, Douglas Bruce has introduced an - unyielding presence into county government. - PHOTO BY JON KELLEY
  • Photo by Jon Kelley
  • Relying on a tattered copy of the U.S. Constitution and a quick, caustic wit, Douglas Bruce has introduced an unyielding presence into county government.

It's afternoon in the office of Jeff Greene, El Paso County's top administrator. Commissioner Douglas Bruce enters, wearing a flowery blue tie and an expression approaching a scowl.

Just hours earlier, during a Feb. 22 commission meeting, Bruce grew outraged as his colleagues prepared to make their "single worst decision" he has seen "bar none."

"It's an abomination," he said prior to the 4-1 vote that refinanced county certificates of participation.

The plan, which emerged and was finalized within a week, will bring $31.4 million to the county to address several issues, including the removal of asbestos from the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex.

"It is a disgrace," Bruce said of the plan. "It is illegal."

After telling a reporter that the other four commissioners had "trashed" his "baby" aka the state's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR Bruce was hovering over Greene, wagging his finger.

"It's debt," Bruce told Greene. "It's debt."

As the other commissioners had said during the contentious week, Greene told Bruce the situation was a bit more complicated. The county had done something similar to refinancing a home loan, Greene said.

"Certificates of participation are financial instruments," he told Bruce.

As a result, the cash-strapped county could now remove a health threat, renovate and reopen the downtown Metro jail, and restore the recently cut inmate work/release program. The county also will be able to finish building the judicial complex to accommodate coming judges, add on to a parking garage downtown and buy a building for the Department of Motor Vehicles.

What's more, the county would make money, Greene told Bruce. Fees that the work/release inmates pay would more than cover the additional $791,000 in annual interest the county would tack on to its annual $8 million payment over 20 years.

Bruce stood firm, ending the exchange with a reference to the asbestos risk and a near-comedic flourish.

"I could lick the tables in there and nothing would happen," he said with a grin.

Two years into his term as a county commissioner, Bruce, 57, retains the reputation as a stubbornly disagreeable, even cantankerous, anti-tax activist that he built for himself in the two decades since moving with his real-estate portfolio from his native Los Angeles to Colorado Springs.

His colleagues say he doesn't often build consensus or compromise, as most politicians do.

Rather, Bruce is the reason why the board's record is riddled with many 4-1 votes, and he is at the nexus of explosive outbursts.

He regularly disapproves of federal cooperation, ignores rulings by courts and tends toward a style of interrogation that some of his colleagues say smacks of grandstanding.

Meanwhile, Bruce labels his colleagues a dirty word "liberals" and accuses them of taking the county down the road to socialism.

In recent on-the-record remarks during a meeting, he even equated Commissioner Sallie Clark with the Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West.

"One of my colleagues has, for some reason, personally been upset with me ever since a house fell on her sister," Bruce said as disbelief swept Clark's face.

click to enlarge Commissioner Jim Bensberg - PHOTO BY JON KELLEY
  • Photo by Jon Kelley
  • Commissioner Jim Bensberg

While commissioners say the personal attacks are uncalled for, Bruce alleges his colleagues are the ones prone to "public name-calling and bickering and backbiting and nasty remarks."

Are the skirmishes among commissioners a sign of a permanent 4-1 war on the board? And why are Bruce's ideals at the center of what former county administrator Terry Harris says is hampering everyday business?

Doug Bruce 101

In the mid-1960s, Bruce attended Hollywood High School in Los Angeles, whose famous graduates include actors Judy Garland, Carol Burnett and John Ritter, class president a year ahead of Bruce.

He served as a deputy district attorney from 1973 to 1979 with his law degree from Southern California Law School. In 1980, he ran for a seat in California's State Assembly as a law-and-order Democrat but lost.

He subsequently became a Republican, feeling the Democratic Party cared more about the rights of criminals than their victims and had eventually become overrun by "weirdos" and "socialists" seeking to "feed at the public trough."

"As [President Ronald] Reagan said, he didn't leave the party, the party left him," Bruce says.

Now a "recovering attorney," Bruce complains Democrats are doing more to balance budgets than his party, which he says has been on a "spending orgy" and backing "corporate welfare."

Guests to Bruce's office are offered Jelly Belly candies, an immediate reminder of Reagan, who made them famous in the 1980s. A statement on a box of tissues on Bruce's desk provides this consolation to constituents: "Have an issue? Have a tissue." And a posted bar graph illustrates that the county's budget has climbed by roughly 140 percent in 15 years.

Bruce says inflation and population growth can't explain the steady increase. He then asserts that county coffers would have grown larger without TABOR, the 1992 constitutional amendment that limits government spending.

Since its inception, and especially in recent years of austere budgets, TABOR has been blamed for shortfalls to public safety and welfare programs. That has spawned a "de-Bruce" movement by Colorado communities eager to salvage core services and programs.

Bruce has regularly fought those efforts, particularly at the county level.

Asked about his philosophy of government, Bruce pulls out a worn copy of the U.S. Constitution and quotes the 10th Amendment in the Bill of Rights: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

He doesn't elaborate, smiling as if the amendment's limits on federal power are unassailable.

In tax cutting, Bruce's politics come into focus. He estimates he has filed eight, perhaps 10, lawsuits in the name of TABOR rights over the years. He has also battled to place tax-cutting measures on ballots, making sensational headlines along the way.

Prior to a debate last year on KKTV Channel 11 with Mayor Lionel Rivera on Bruce-authored Issues 200 and 201 which sought to reduce the city's sales tax, eliminate city property tax and limit the city debt Bruce wrote in the station's guest book that the reason for his visit was to "destroy Colorado Springs."

Bruce, who lost a race for state Senate District 10 in 1996, was elected in 2004 to the El Paso County Commission. He represents District 2, the mainly rural, eastern portion of the county, where he campaigned on a pro-life, family-values and "never raise taxes" platform.

He brings with him strong suspicions of federal agencies, many times voting on principle against federal cooperation, says Commissioner Wayne Williams.

"In many ways, he doesn't acknowledge the way the federal government works," Williams says. "Right now, the federal government takes a significant number of tax dollars out of El Paso County. We have an opportunity to get some of those back, and a majority of the board believes that if we can get some of our constituents' money back, we ought to do that."

Clark shares that view. She says Bruce has taken his distaste for federal cooperation to extremes that would harm public safety.

"If the federal government is going to give us dollars for things like bullet-proof vests and providing additional law enforcement officers to reduce crime in our schools, to me that's constitutional and something I should support," she says. "I'd rather have those dollars coming back into our community. We should give as much back to our taxpayers as possible."

click to enlarge Commissioner Sallie Clark - PHOTO BY JON KELLEY
  • Photo by Jon Kelley
  • Commissioner Sallie Clark

Bruce says he was against providing Sheriff's deputies with the gear because it would have violated his oath of office to uphold the Constitution. The Constitution, he says, doesn't say anything about gear for deputies. He would have supported the measure if the county was footing the bill, he adds.

Bruce also says because the courts are "not obeying our Constitution," he has "minuscule respect for our judicial system."

The current board chairman, Commissioner Dennis Hisey, is uneasy that Bruce doesn't recognize the "Supreme Court of either Colorado or the U.S. as being a final arbiter in what's legal and what's not."

"What makes us different than anarchy is we agree to follow the laws," Hisey says. "And when we decide we're not going to recognize the final arbiter, it concerns you."

Terry Harris, who retired in January after 11 years as county administrator, says that while he respects Bruce's interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, Bruce ignores a large and evolving body of law and policy.

"A lot of things have happened in the federal government since the Constitution was written," Harris says.

The net effect, he adds, is that petitioners, such as developers, find it more difficult to do business with the county.

"You've got to get three out of four [commissioners] rather than three out of five, because you know [Bruce] is going to be against you anyway," Harris says.

Civility and ideology

Disagreements with Bruce often lead to confrontations at commission meetings.

In October, former County Attorney Bill Louis, now one of two deputy county administrators, criticized Amendment 38. The Bruce-authored measure, which failed in the November election, would have made it easier for petitioners to place measures on the ballot.

"What this is really about, in my opinion, is the destruction of representative government in order to serve narrow interests that are at the fringes of our society," Louis, speaking as a citizen, told commissioners.

He added that Bruce was from those fringes, labeling the commissioner a "narcissist," a "sociopath," a "bully" and a "crackpot enabler" who threatens democracy with the passion of a guerrilla.

Bruce's response was to ask whether Louis meant "gorilla."

Greene says that with Louis now part of his administration, rather than an adviser to commissioners, he won't tolerate further confrontations between the two.

"I have the greatest respect for [Louis'] skill and ability," Greene says. "I do feel he was inappropriate in certain remarks to Douglas Bruce."

In the Feb. 22 meeting, extended clashes returned this time over Bruce's remarks in an op-ed published in The Gazette.

Bruce alleged that various commissioners vote for spending requests 99.5 to 100 percent of the time.

He urged citizens to recall his colleagues for backing "illegal debt," saying voters should have been able to vote on certificates of participation under TABOR although the state Supreme Court has concluded the certificates are not subject to TABOR.

Commissioner Jim Bensberg took exception. He quoted wordsmith Noah Webster, stating Bruce seemed to "arrogate to himself a dictatorial authority, the legitimacy of which will always be denied."

Bensberg then accused Bruce of lying when he promised he doesn't accept a salary from the county.

click to enlarge Commissioner Dennis Hisey - PHOTO BY JON KELLEY
  • Photo by Jon Kelley
  • Commissioner Dennis Hisey

"This is not true," Bensberg said. "Commissioner Bruce knows it's not true. His statements to the contrary, which are on the record, are absolutely false, and therefore the credibility of Commissioner Bruce on this, or any other issue, is called into question."

Bensberg declined to comment for this story, saying he did not want to cause more divisiveness among the commissioners. He also said his statements in meetings were for the record.

Bruce told the Independent he signs his checks over to Active Citizens Together, a nonprofit he launched several years ago.

"It's my gross salary," he says, adding that he makes up for the taxes, Social Security and other funds taken out of the check at the end of the year.

"I'm adding all that back in and writing a check," Bruce says.

According to its Web site, actcolorado.org, ACT is an "educational organization whose mission is to educate the citizens of Colorado on the workings of government and how they can influence government at all levels within the state of Colorado."

The group, which sent out mailers last year supporting Issues 200 and 201, backs TABOR, advocates the rights of gun owners and has offered thousands of pocket U.S. Constitutions, Bruce says, to local school districts. Several schools await copies, he adds.

The charity doesn't sit well with Hisey.

"It's a political nonprofit espousing his ideas," Hisey says.

The charity did not file political committee forms with the Clerk and Recorder's Office for the last election, Bruce notes.

"It was not a political committee because it did not advocate," Bruce says.

Making some headway

Commissioners also are perplexed by Bruce's refusal to attend closed-door executive sessions.

The sessions, allowable under Colorado law, are often for the "purpose of receiving legal advice," "negotiations," "developing strategy" or "other," according to recent agendas.

The Independent found commissioners have discussed approximately 100 such issues behind closed doors since 2005.

Bruce hasn't participated once.

He considers the sessions "secret," a way for commissioners to avoid public scrutiny on potentially controversial issues. There are only rare instances in which he says he would attend, such as national security.

Williams, who defends the sessions as crucial to protecting the county's interests, says Bruce is "doing a disservice to his constituents."

"By not attending, he, therefore, doesn't give input as to some of the guidance that's given to staff on various issues whether it's in respect to negotiations or litigation or settlement of claims," Williams says.

Bruce says he is able to keep up with the issues discussed in the sessions by talking to county staff one-on-one. But to Williams, who says he has asked Bruce to consider attending, that's no substitute.

"If you don't go yourself, how would you know?" Williams says. "It's kind of like saying, "I don't like the taste of green peas' without ever having green peas."

click to enlarge Commissioner Wayne Williams - PHOTO BY JON KELLEY
  • Photo by Jon Kelley
  • Commissioner Wayne Williams

Williams says that aside from high-profile divisive moments, Bruce mainly agrees with commissioners. The most common vote at commissioners meetings is 5-0, Williams says.

"The overwhelming majority of the time, things are passed, and Doug is part of the passing coalition," Williams says.

He adds that Bruce sometimes convinces commissioners to take a closer look at issues, particularly those involving spending. Bruce has argued that instead of using outside consultants, the county can save money by using existing employees or by hiring new staff.

"Are there specific instances in which we might have been better served in not [using consultants]?" Williams asks. "I think there are those times."

Hisey agrees, but notes that it isn't always simple. For example, hiring a new employee means the county has another potential retiree to pay down the road.

"We wouldn't bring them in knowing we were only going to use them for six months," Hisey says. "If we bring somebody on, we really want them to think they have a home with the county."

The decorum

Clark, who served as chair prior to Hisey, says her biggest frustration was seeing Bruce criticize schoolchildren who performed music for commissioners at a meeting.

"He made a comment about their screeching violins," Clark says. "To make fun of adults is one thing, but to criticize children who are trying their best to be creative and come to government to be appreciated is unacceptable."

That's why she let Bruce's recent Wicked Witch of the West allusion slide at the meeting.

"It doesn't serve me any purpose to even respond to that he's being a poor sport, acting like a child," Clark says. "He's called me "mommy' and "mother' before, when I was chair. Other than sending him to his room without any dinner, I don't know how to respond to that."

Hisey admitted he's had difficulty deciding how to handle comments such as the most recent one Bruce made about Clark.

"When he comes up with those rapid one-liners like that, I vacillate between "Do I call him on it and say this is not appropriate?' and take the chance of escalating it, or "Do we just move on and try to take care of the business at hand?'" Hisey says.

He adds that he plans to approach Bruce about board decorum. Williams says such remarks have no place at commission meetings.

But Bruce offers Clark no apology for the Wicked Witch remark. He says he was grossly misunderstood.

"I thought that it was a funny statement," Bruce says. "Anyway, it was even funnier that nobody seemed to get it."

Harris finds no humor in the situation. He says that unlike tense times among commissioners in the past, disputes with Bruce have tarnished the board's image.

"He became obnoxious to the commissioners, and they would start fighting back and they would start fighting in the open," Harris says.

He adds that Bruce's battles appear to be preventing him from success in pushing his agenda.

"I think that has been devastating, and I think it grew and grew and grew to where it became a 4-1, no matter what the issue was," Harris says. "I bet you could count the issues when he had support on both hands on major issues."

Bruce says he won't change course, claiming some commissioners are attacking him.

click to enlarge Jeff Greene - PHOTO BY JON KELLEY
  • Photo by Jon Kelley
  • Jeff Greene

"Every time they do it, I'm going to smile a little bigger and sit a little taller because I know I'm getting to them and they cannot discuss the issue on the merits, so they resort to calling me names," Bruce says. "Once they descend to that level, they've lost the debate."

He says his fellow commissioners don't appreciate him because he is a "whistleblower, shining the spotlight of public scrutiny" on their lack of fiscal restraint.

Commissioners balk at that allegation.

"I'm a fiscal conservative,as we all are on the board," Clark says, adding, "We have the lowest mill levy of 64 counties in Colorado. How is that not being fiscally conservative?"

To that, Bruce says he issues a debate challenge to Clark and the other commissioners. He admits the recall he urged has not gained any momentum.

Rumors swirl in Republican circles that Bruce might run next year for the State House seat of Rep. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, who is term-limited in House District 15.

Bruce smiles when asked about his political future. He won't say whether he'll run for Cadman's seat or any others.

"I've thought about a lot of things, but I have not made any decision," Bruce says.

On the other hand, he suspects his fellow commissioners are pushing such rumors because they "would just love to see me go away somewhere."

Instead, he says, "People should anticipate I will run for re-election."


Colin Stroud contributed research to this story.

Jeff Greene's balancing act

To hear his predecessor tell it, Jeff Greene, El Paso County's top administrator, is facing a very tough two years.

"If you don't get your revenue increased, the challenge is, "How do you balance the budget?'" asks former county administrator Terry Harris, who retired in January. "Well, there's only one answer, and that's when you start cutting services and laying off people."

Greene replaced Harris and now oversees a county comprised of 15 administrative departments and 2,200 employees.

Greene, 39, grew up in Thomaston, Ga., where he graduated from Robert E. Lee Institute. He later obtained a bachelor's degree in business administration and economics from the University of Tennessee.

He left a management job at PacifiCare Health Systems in 2001 to join the county and grapple with its myriad health-care issues. He rose quickly through the ranks, and on Jan. 9, he replaced the man he considers a mentor.

Greene will be constrained, Harris says, by slumping revenues and the 1992 Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. He soon could be outlining tough choices for commissioners if they fail to band together with other officials to push for solutions, such as a tax increase.

Harris knows that's not what voters in a county governed entirely by Republicans want to hear, but he says services and programs are already strained, and there are few other places to find revenue.

Greene, who says the county is already in a "financial crisis," says commissioners are beginning to discuss possible solutions. He notes that on Feb. 22, commissioners voted 4 to 1 to refinance certificates of participation to create $31.4 million for a variety of projects.

Yet the cash won't restore the $7.2 million shortfall in this year's budget, which left social services and welfare hard-hit. It will be up to commissioners and other elected officials, such as the sheriff, assessor and clerk and recorder, to address the problem, Greene says.

"I'm just a lowly employee," he says. "The county administrator is the bottom of the barrel."

He insists he's not self-denigrating, but rather being realistic.

"Finding consensus," he says, "is difficult."


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