Reform School

Although two high-profile campaign-finance reform measures are grabbing all the attention--and threats of lawsuits--the City of Westminster has quietly instituted a reform that's effectively changed the system. And so far, there isn't a lawsuit in sight.

Both Amendment 15 and a new ban on contributions to RTD's latest tax-hike measure share the problem of limiting the activities of campaign donors. Amendment 15, approved last November by Colorado voters, limits the amount of contributions a person can give to a candidate, among other provisions; there are at least three lawsuits currently pending against it. The RTD board last month approved a measure that would prohibit anyone who gives more than $100 to the Guide the Ride campaign from competing for contracts that could be awarded if the plan is approved by voters this November; lawyers threatened to sue over that prohibition before it was even voted on.

Courts have equated campaign donations with "political speech," meaning that any government-imposed limits could be a violation of donors' First Amendment rights. Both Amendment 15 drafters and RTD boardmembers insist that they crafted their proposals in ways that will pass constitutional muster, but that will be up to the courts to decide.

The Westminster idea is disarming in its simplicity: A candidate for office can take as much money from as many different people, companies or PACs as he likes. If elected, however, that official must abstain from any vote that could directly affect a donor. In theory, the Westminster law would discourage councilmembers from accepting donations from developers, consultants and others who have business before the city. At the very least, they would have to acknowledge their conflicts publicly.

"What is under scrutiny is the behavior of the elected official as opposed to the behavior of the campaign donors," says Glenn Scott, a Westminster City Council member who developed the proposal with fellow councilmember Gary Smith.

"As far as I know, it's novel," says Dave Magelby, a political science professor at Brigham Young University in Utah who has studied state and local campaign finance reform around the country. "It's quite unusual," he adds. "It has some potential."

Although Magelby says the administrative burden of keeping track of the plan could be troubling, Westminster's city attorney, Marty McCullough, says it hasn't been bad at all. "It has been extremely simple. Plus, the council has been bending over backwards to meet this thing," he adds.

Westminster's mayor, Nancy Heil, says that in practice the rule has not been the logistical nightmare some had said it would be. "It's really not all that horrible," she says.

And McCullough says there shouldn't be any kind of legal challenge to the Westminster plan. "There's really no constitutional right for a councilor to hold office in terms other than what the citizens say they should be," McCullough says.

The penalties for breaking the rule can go as high as loss of office, a $1,000 fine and 180 days in jail.

Scott says the idea was spawned last year while he and Smith were sitting around chatting about campaign finance reform and realized that all reform efforts had been aimed at the donors. Meanwhile, Scott had become familiar with conflict-of-interest rules. He was mulling over a run for state treasurer as a Republican and learned that if he won that office, he would have to give up his seat on the Westminster city council.

"Even though I would be serving the people in both jobs, it's perceived as enough of a conflict that it is prohibited," Scott says.

Which led him to the key question: Isn't it more of a conflict to take money from a particular person and then vote on things that help or hurt that person?

It's a fair question, and one the voters of Westminster answered by approving the new conflict rule by a 2-1 margin last November.

Now, in order to run for a seat on Westminster's city council, candidates are not required to bring in massive piles of money. They do still get donations, however, and there have been a handful of votes in which one or more councilmembers have had to abstain.

One such situation came up last month when the council was voting on a "warranty of habitability," a measure that would require landlords to provide heat, hot water and other essentials to tenants. When it came time to vote, three of the members had to abstain because they had taken money from a landlord.

Had there been four rather than three abstaining, the council would not have had a quorum to be able to vote on the measure. In that case, there is a back-up plan under the new law: If a majority of the council had a conflict, everybody would be allowed to vote, but those with conflicts would have to state them for the record.

"They would have to say right in front of everybody, 'I took money from so-and-so, and this is how I'm voting on this issue.' Then at least everybody knows about it," Scott says.

Jean Townsend, head of the Colorado Common Cause board, which often touts campaign-finance reform, says she hadn't heard of the Westminster law. But she adds that it doesn't surprise her that such a revolutionary idea would be started with a group such as city council. "There's a lot of interesting things coming out of the local level," Townsend says. "Our primary interest at Common Cause is in making a disconnect between money and elected officials. It sounds like the spirit of [the Westminster rule] is to make that disconnect.

"At a theoretical level, it's fascinating."

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