PI Editorial: More transparency needed in issue campaigns
Post Independent Editorial Board
Jerry Raehal (Publisher)
John Stroud (Editor)
Charlie Wertheim (PI staff)
Heather Marine (PI staff)
Michael Durant (community member)
Wendy Huber (community member)
To put it mildly, the campaign for and against the proposed Glenwood Springs city street tax proposal got a bit heated before the measure went down in flames in the April 2 election.
Though much of the post-election attention has been on the financial disclosures of the pro-tax Fix Our Streets Now committee that revealed road construction companies helped bankroll the campaign, to be fair, there were some questionable tactics on both sides of the argument that prompt some serious reflection.
First, we commend those who stepped up to try to convince voters on either side of the proposal whether it was a good idea to add a ¾-cent sales tax to pay for some $56 million in street reconstruction and repairs over the next decade.
When the Glenwood Chamber Resort Association board decided not to activate its Community on the Move Committee to get behind the tax proposal, a group of City Council members and city Financial Advisory Board appointees saw fit to form their own committee to advocate for the new tax.
Likewise, those who thought it a bad idea from an economic standpoint were compelled to organize and argue their point.
It’s a thankless job that involves hundreds of volunteer hours attempting to explain a point of view and try to inform voters one way or the other.
The Post Independent listened to both sides and ultimately endorsed the proposal, viewing it as the best way to take care of the city’s failing streets and subsurface utilities in the shortest amount of time, for the least amount of money, and without compromising other important city projects, services and programs.
We stand behind that position, and will be watching and listening, and probably weighing in again, as the discussion evolves about how to make the necessary street fixes in the future.
Be certain, we do understand where voters were coming from in turning down the tax proposal.
Despite a well-reasoned campaign — and, let’s be honest, there was some misinformation in the form of an alarmist mailer sent out by the opposition — the reality is that the business community was not behind it.
And the main reason is that it would have taken the overall sales tax rate in Glenwood Springs to 9.35 percent (even higher at Glenwood Meadows with its extra 1.5 percent PIF).
That’s a lot, and clearly it was too much for voters to except.
So be it.
That said, we do have some very serious concerns about the makeup of the pro-tax committee and its practices when it came to committee organization and financial disclosures.
With three elected City Council members and essentially every member of an appointed advisory board on the Fix Our Streets committee, we questioned whether they would have to comply with Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) rules regarding communications between public officials.
At the advice of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, we filed a formal CORA request with the committee, seeking any electronic communications between said officials discussing how the tax money would be spent, should it be approved.
That, we felt, is where those communications cross the line from selling a tax proposal to discussing public policy.
Committee leadership complied by requesting disclosure of any such communications between committee members. It was reported back that they found none.
It’s one of those their word against, well, no one’s really. And it appears to be a gray area when it comes to open records laws, and whether political action committees involving public officials should have to comply.
Which brings us to another point — the committee’s decision to organize first as a small-scale issue committee under Colorado campaign finance laws, then as a full issue committee once it accepted more than $5,000 in political contributions.
In choosing to start as a small issue committee, either they weren’t serious about trying to sell the tax proposal, or they just didn’t grasp what it would take to play politics on the matter.
Based on the time line in notifying the City Clerk five days before the election about the committee classification change, it looks to most observers like they were gaming the system to avoid having to disclose who was giving to the pro-street-tax campaign until actual election day.
Intentional or not, there’s an appearance of impropriety that needs to be taken seriously and avoided when it comes to future local issue campaigns. This is true for the city of Glenwood Springs or any municipality or Garfield County entity, including school, fire and other special districts going forward.
Although campaign laws require paid government staffers to stay out of politics only when it comes to tax issues, we believe that should also extend to elected officials as a good-faith best practice.
It’s a fine line, and in the end most of our local elected officials are just average, everyday citizens trying to make a difference in their communities. But the appearance of conflicts and personal agendas is real, and should be acknowledged by those who choose to be involved on that level.
Regarding the pro-tax committee, the financial information should have been made available to the public long before the final ballots were cast as a simple matter of transparency.
In the end, it’s not about what may be allowed legally. It’s all about transparency and making sure best practices are followed when it comes to matters of public policy.
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