Aspen City Attorney Jim True is working on an update to the city’s campaign finance rules in an effort to keep anonymous money out of local politics.
True aims to introduce an ordinance at the Feb. 11 Aspen City Council meeting that would “do more to clearly address issues raised by guys like [the Aspen Citizens Committee],” he said, referring to a group that poured at least tens of thousands into last fall’s campaign concerning Aspen’s hydroelectric plant proposal.
The group, whose leadership remains unknown, ran a six-week-long direct mail and radio campaign arguing against the hydro project, but refused city requests that it register as an issue committee and document how much money it spent and who its donors were.
The ballot question, which was advisory, asked voters if they wanted the city to continue pursuing the hydro plant. Voters, by a 51-to-49 percent margin, came out in favor of halting the project.
A Denver lawyer hired by Aspen Citizens Committee sent the city an Oct. 1 letter outlining various reasons why the committee had no legal obligation to comply with campaign finance rules. The letter stated that because the question was advisory and not legally binding on the city, there was “no issue on which [Aspen Citizens Committee] could advocate for or against.”
The letter, from attorney Jason R. Dunn who is a former deputy attorney general for the state of Colorado, also said that Aspen Citizens Committee was a nonprofit “social welfare organization” that aims to “simply educate Aspen area taxpayers about the costs and impacts of the facility itself.” The group “was not formed for the purpose of advocating for or against the advisory question,” Dunn’s letter said.
True said the ordinance updating the local campaign finance laws would attempt to address many of the points raised by Aspen Citizens Committee. It would state that even advisory questions are subject to normal campaign finance laws, he said, and it would aim to create a better definition of electioneering communications, in hopes of keeping groups that are involved in electioneering from claiming an educational purpose.
Part of what makes a group like Aspen Citizens Committee possible is its nonprofit status, since nonprofits do not have to disclose their donors. This is a trickier issue, True said, adding that he is still working on how the ordinance would address the influence of nonprofit money on political campaigns.
Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland said he supported the changes True is working on.
“I think when you are spending money to persuade voters, you should say how much and where you got it,” Ireland said. Just because a group is a nonprofit, it should not be exempt from campaign finance laws, Ireland said.
Councilman Adam Frisch was also in agreement that a tightening of campaign finance laws would be appropriate, saying that “anonymous money has no place in small-town elections.”
“Even people who were against the hydro plant were not exactly thrilled” that an anonymous group had jumped into the campaign. Frisch said.
The new legislation would be up for a public hearing on Feb. 25, and if approved would take effect prior to the municipal May election for council and mayor.