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Campaign finance changes aimed at transparency 

More disclosure

click to enlarge City Council voted to tweak campaign finance rules. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy City Of Colorado Springs
  • City Council voted to tweak campaign finance rules.
Back in spring 2017, negative ads, funded in part by hundreds of thousands of dollars from a dark money group, proliferated in the Colorado Springs city election.

It ended up being money poorly spent, because most of the City Council candidates backed with dark money lost.

But the mystery of not knowing who funded certain ads bothered several of the six winners, who vowed to change the city’s campaign finance rules to discourage negative campaigning.

Now, a measure due for final Council approval on Dec. 11 aims to amend the city’s code by requiring more disclosure of campaign funders and how the money is spent.

But while many welcome the changes, others say a more far-reaching effort should be in order involving more than just Council.

The ordinance was shepherded by Councilor Jill Gaebler, who vowed on election night in April 2017 to tackle campaign finance reform. She now acknowledges her tweaks are just that, rather than an overhaul, but says those baby steps still will force more transparency.

“It helps voters understand who really is behind the different [campaign] pieces,” she says.

But not everyone is supportive. On first reading on Nov. 27, Councilors Andy Pico and Tom Strand opposed it.

During the 2017 campaign, a mailer landed in mailboxes that sharply criticized Gaebler but didn’t indicate who funded it. Her opponent, businesswoman Lynette Crow-Iverson, instantly disavowed knowledge of or involvement in the mailer.

Though some had suspicions about who was behind it, there was no way to know for sure. So after Gaebler was elected, she looked into what changes could be made to shed light on campaign materials.

What emerged was a new ordinance that would require:

• Any campaign piece to state who paid for it, including ads in magazines, and on billboards, large campaign signs, direct mailings, handbills, internet-based advertising and broadcast ads on radio, television and other technologies. Disclosure would not be required on yard signs, pens, lapel pins or bumper stickers. It wouldn’t apply to individuals who don’t form committees. The current ordinance requires the disclosure only in 
newspaper ads.

The requirement would allow voters to consult campaign finance reports to identify which group or individuals funded which campaign tools. Even dark money groups are required to file campaign finance reports, although they don’t have to list individual donors. Frequently, dark money groups list one donation from their own political action committee. For example, in one 2017 filing, the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs was listed as the sole donor, of $50,000, to the HBA Political Action Committee.

• More precise disclosure of how money is spent. Under the current ordinance, candidates can list an expense for a campaign consultant without detailing what’s covered. During the 2017 election, for example, one candidate listed $8,000 was spent on “grassroots” campaigning. If adopted, the measure would require candidates and campaign committees in the upcoming April 2 city election to report “the source and purpose” of each expenditure.

But how much detail is required is sort of fuzzy and led Strand and Pico to oppose the measure, along with Mayor John Suthers.

It was Pico’s chief complaint, he tells the Indy, because even Council couldn’t agree on what types of descriptions of spending are acceptable. “If we had trouble defining it, we shouldn’t be adopting it,” he says.

Pico also objected to making changes in the midst of a campaign. While candidates don’t begin filing for office until January, Suthers, for one, has launched his campaign and reported raising $107,729 and spending $10,978 — $7,983 of that on “campaign consulting,” according to campaign finance reports.

Lastly, while Pico acknowledges the transparency concern, he notes, “In crafting it, it wasn’t very transparent. The only public input was at the dais” when the measure was discussed by Council on Nov. 27.

Long-time campaign consultant Sarah Jack agrees that a larger public process, such as a citizen task force, should have considered the changes.

“There are stakeholders in this community who have a lot to say about campaign finance,” she told Council at the Nov. 27 meeting. “Maybe these aren’t the only things that need to be changed.”

Citizens Project Executive Director Deb Walker told Council her organization supports the minor changes as “a step in the right direction” and “common-sense reforms.”

“Citizens of our community have a right to know who is funding political campaigns,” she said.

But she called for a “more comprehensive and holistic” study of how to improve transparency while aligning city code with state law, with the goal of implementing changes before the 2021 election.

Gaebler admits her proposals didn’t navigate a citizen-based process, telling the Indy, “Every time we create a committee it takes a couple years to bring something forward, and I don’t think we shouldn’t chip away at some of these issues.”

Council President Richard Skorman, also elected in 2017, supports the changes, including the call for more detail in how money is spent. “When someone says ‘campaign consulting,’ what does that mean? Is it opposition research? Is it robo calls?” he says.

He notes that while still largely undefined, the requirement will be emphasized by City Clerk Sarah 
Johnson when she briefs candidates on campaign finance.

Skorman himself had considered proposing a ballot measure for the 2019 election to limit donations by political action committees and corporations to $400 each per candidate.

But he’s junked that idea after discovering that such a limit could run afoul of federal law, notably the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that recognized 
corporations are people for purposes of campaign donations.

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