Aspen Election Commission member Ward Hauenstein held a meet-and-greet in his Aspen home last month with mayoral candidate Adam Frisch, which has raised the eyebrows of some campaign watchers.
The event was neither a fundraiser nor an endorsement of Frisch’s candidacy, and didn’t violate any city, county or state regulations that govern the volunteer election commission. But it did lead the commission to discuss how, if at all, members are restrained from supporting candidates.
Commission member Bob Leatherman had also expressed interest in publicly endorsing candidates and contributing to their campaigns this spring.
Local election laws don’t prohibit such actions by election commission members, they found in a March meeting with Aspen City Attorney Jim True and former Pitkin County Elections Manager Dwight Shellman, who has been hired to assist with the May 7 election. They are only prohibited from running for office. But if another candidate raises the issue of a commissioner’s objectivity during the course of their duties, due to their support for a candidate, they may be asked to recuse themselves from voting on related issues.
“I think we have to look at it on a case by case basis,” True said, depending on what issues might come before the commission, which is comprised of City Clerk Kathryn Koch and two citizens who are appointed by City Council.
Hauenstein said he was surprised his Frisch event, which hosted fewer than 10 people, became an issue. He maintains that he has the right to freely express his beliefs with endorsements and donations, but said he will not endorse Frisch or donate to any campaigns this election season.
“I don’t want there to be an appearance of a conflict of interest, because I think the electoral process should be above reproach,” he said.
Leatherman had intended to endorse and financially support candidates, but said Friday that he has decided against it, so that he can perform his duties as a commissioner without recusing himself.
“I think it’s best for all candidates if I don’t support one,” he said. “The overriding idea for Ward and I is that we promote the general welfare of the community.”
Both men said they didn’t believe organizing public awareness and informational events about candidates is a conflict of interest. Hauenstein said he would continue holding them.
“I would be open to hosting a meet-and-greet with any candidate,” Hauenstein said. “I support education and awareness of candidates’ positions.”
He said he had contacted mayoral candidate Maurice Emmer and City Council candidate Ann Mullins about hosting them for public awareness sessions at his home to meet voters in his neighborhood near the base of Smuggler Mountain.
This week, the commission will review its procedures on voters establishing residency in Aspen. An undetermined number of people who live outside the city limits are illegally registered to vote because they are using addresses of offices and businesses, Koch said. The commission is hoping to purge the voter rolls of those people.