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Colorado initiatives: change you can pay for.

Mon, Sep 13, 2010

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Colorado Springs voters will be asked Nov. 2 whether they want to radically revise the city charter and replace the city manager for of government with a so-called “strong mayor” system.

While the term “strong mayor” may be misleading, one thing is clear about the proposal: It has been driven and financed by a handful of wealthy individuals, most notably local property magnate David Jenkins and his son and partner Chris Jenkins.

Of the $282,919 in cash contributions that the campaign has received, including an estimated $120,000 in start-up costs, David and Chris Jenkins have accounted for $206,000.

They funded most, if not all, all of the start-up costs, and have since loaned the campaign $86,000.

Six other contributors accounted for a further $60,000.

They include:

  • Corporate Office Properties Trust, $10,000
  • Ron & Susan Johnson, $10,000
  • Katherine Loo, $10,000
  • Gary Loo, $20,000
  • Bruce Shepard, $10,000

About 35 other individual contributors gave $16,919, or 6 percent of the total.

Now that the proposal will definitely appear on the ballot, it’s reasonable to expect that there will be more contributors, both large and small.

Whether or not you agree with the proposal, these figures are somewhat disquieting.  They speak to the enormous power of money in politics, especially when it comes to creating citizen initiatives.

Professional signature gatherers, such as those used by virtually every such campaign, are given a script to read, a place to stand and solicit, and are paid for each signature.  The scripts and messages are carefully crafted by political professionals to appeal to voters.

Signature gathering, like grilling on the patio, is a summer ritual. The days are longer, the weather more pleasant, and potential marks are more easily persuaded to stop and sign. It doesn’t hurt that many of the signature gatherers are fresh-faced young people making a few bucks from a summer job.

Whether they’re relatively benign, like the strong mayor proposal, or eccentric and damaging, like amendments 60 and 61, such initiatives are rarely citizen-driven, at least as we might understand the term.

In past years many initiatives, both locally and statewide, came about as a result of genuine popular movements.

TABOR (1992) and TOPs (1997) were funded on a shoestring, and placed on ballots by hundreds of dedicated signature collectors, who spent their evenings and weekends standing on street corners and in front of grocery stores politely harassing passersby.  They weren’t paid to do so. Participation in our democracy was their reward, not to mention the hoped-for satisfaction of prevailing in an election.

You can scarcely blame the backers of the “Mayor Project” for playing the game according to the rules that now govern initiatives.  And in any case, it’s interesting to compare their financial transparency – remember, they were under no legal obligation to reveal either the amount or the source of funds expended in the run-up to the campaign-with that of the backers of Amendments 60, 61 and Proposition 101.

Despite clear evidence that professional signature collectors were employed to gather the tens of thousands of signatures to put the measures on the November ballot, we don’t know how much was spent, nor who provided the funds.

Someone, as the Aurora Sentinel pointed out last week, provided at least $140,000 to circulate the petitions.

And, the Sentinel observed, there’s a smoking gun.

“News stories from earlier this year revealed at least several of the paid petition circulators live in an apartment building owned by (Douglas) Bruce… Voters deserve and need to know just who it was that financed petition campaigns that got three measures – amendments 60, 61 and Proposition 101 – on the ballot, and it’s clear that Bruce has the information voters need…Bruce is not telling, and he’s gone to incredible extremes to hide the information. State officials started hounding him for answers in April, when they discovered he likely had a substantial hand in getting the measures on the ballot.”

Mr. Bruce has employed one of the ablest civil rights/criminal defense attorneys in Denver, David Lane, to defend him. Lane will probably manage to stall any revelations of his client’s involvement (or lack thereof) in the campaign until after the November election.  It’s all legal, I guess … but it makes an absolute mockery of the intent and spirit of the laws that govern, or ought to govern, the initiative process.

Conclusion: whether you oppose or support the ‘strong mayor” proposal, you owe to its supporters a shout-out for adhering scrupulously to the letter and spirit of the law.

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