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Secretary's Day Off

Several pieces of proposed legislation making their way through the Colorado General Assembly raise the question: If Secretary of State Vikki Buckley had nothing left to do, could she do it well?

Early last week, three bills designed to take away a huge chunk of her responsibilities were awaiting action in the legislature. Although one was later modified, supporters of the legislation say both of the proposed laws were written in direct response to Buckley's mismanagement of her office.

The first bill, introduced on January 19 by Representative Steve Tool (R-Larimer), would liberate state election matters from Buckley's direct oversight by creating a statewide elections commission. The second piece of proposed legislation was introduced earlier by Senator Peggy Reeves (D-Larimer). Reeves's bill would have pulled responsibility for the Central Indexing System away from the secretary of state's office, where it currently resides. Although it has since been amended, the new version may still limit Buckley's authority in that area.

The third, HB-1187, proposes creating a new commission to oversee bingo regulation in a way that Buckley has been unwilling or unable to do in the past. "It would take the politics out of bingo," says Gary Fielder, vice president of the Colorado Bingo Association.

The session is still in its early days, and the bills could die, leaving Buckley with her full range of responsibilities intact come May. But if any of them pass into law, Buckley will find herself with considerably fewer chores. And even if none pass, the simple introduction of the measures reflects poorly on the secretary, who has been the target of sharp criticism from previous and current employees during her four years in office.

The biggest change for Buckley will come if her responsibility to oversee Colorado's elections--the goal of House Bill 1248--is whisked away. Tool, the sponsor, says he introduced the measure at the request of several of the state's county clerks. Indeed, many of Colorado's 63 county clerks, who must work closely with the secretary of state's office on election matters, are behind the move to create a state elections commission independent of Buckley.

That seems to hold double for those who once worked for her. Bill Compton, for example, was Buckley's chief of elections until he quit out of frustration last summer. He didn't stay unemployed long. After working for the Jefferson County clerk, he recently was hired as the executive director of Denver County's elections commission.

"I am wholeheartedly supporting this," he says of the idea to form a state commission. Compton's so supportive, in fact, that he helped Tool draft the bill. The proposed law trades Buckley for a five-member, governor-appointed commission that would supervise primary and general elections as well as statewide ballot-issue elections. The commission would also be responsible for interpreting new, election-related laws.

"Elections are held almost every year now," says Compton. "It's a sophisticated process, and there needs to be an oversight committee to make sure that mistakes don't happen."

Compton and others are hesitant to point publicly to specific mistakes that have arisen out of Buckley's office (El Paso County clerk Patrick Kelly cites only a vague "history of problems"). Then again, they don't have to: There were plenty of examples to choose from during November's general election.

Several months before the election, for example, Buckley decertified two candidates--Tom Norton, who was running for governor, and Paul Weissman, a congressional candidate--for not having enough petition signatures. Both appealed Buckley's ruling and won, noting that she'd used out-of-date records to make her decisions. Buckley later earned the dubious distinction of being the first Colorado secretary of state to allow an initiative onto the ballot without having fully verified the signatures on the petitions used to get it there. In fact, the snafu happened twice.

The result: An initiative seeking to require that minors have parental permission before receiving abortions and one that would permit politicians to accept voluntary term limits both ended up on the November ballot by default. Buckley's office, devastated by staff vacancies, simply couldn't verify petition signatures for each before the legal time limit. And county clerks say those were only the latest examples of blunders and inattentiveness to spill out of that office. Complaints of inaccessibility and neglect had been traded among the clerks since soon after Buckley's election to office in 1994.

More official complaints about Buckley's work, delivered early last summer by a legislative audit, spurred the introduction of a second proposed bill, designed to remove even more responsibility from the secretary of state's office. That audit, released in May 1998, blasted Buckley for her oversight of what is known as the Central Indexing System.

The CIS was started in 1995 as a way to make life easier for bankers and other lenders across the state to research security documents such as liens and finance statements. Before that, the information was filed in the closest county clerk's office--meaning a Denver banker researching a loan candidate in Larimer County would have to travel to Fort Collins to check the papers. CIS was an attempt to make all the filings available by computer. The system, which is overseen by Buckley, went online in July 1996.

Two years later, when the Legislative Audit Committee checked in to see how the new system was working, it wasn't. "The data in CIS are not complete, accurate or timely," the committee reported.

Much of the blame for the system's failure landed on Buckley's desk: The secretary, the auditors found, wasn't providing support for the new system, as she was required to do by law. The auditors found that Buckley had refused to provide the help even when CIS's directors begged for it.

House Bill 99-65 aimed to fix such problems by simply removing the Central Indexing System from Buckley's reach. The bill would have created a new position--a "central filing officer"--to handle the paperwork. Next--and more crucial--the legislation recommended moving the entire operation to the state's personnel department.

Senator Reeves, the bill's sponsor, says she wrote it specifically to address the problems raised in the May 1998 audit of Buckley's oversight of CIS. The audit's conclusion that Buckley was inadequate to the task, she says, left her with two options: Create a new agency, or move the CIS away from the secretary of state's office.

"The audit raised a tremendous number of issues," she says. "The system was not operating and functioning the way it should." But last week, in an effort to avoid confusing the people who use the CIS, the Senate Business Affairs and Labor Committee decided to try to make it work in the secretary of state's office rather than move it, and Reeves agreed to rewrite the bill to keep CIS under Buckley's watch.

Whatever changes are made to her bill, Reeves promises that the new law will nevertheless keep a tighter rein on the secretary. "We needed to put in things that will require some accountability," she says.

These are also the goals of supporters of HB-1187, introduced by Representative Steve Johnson (R-Larimer) last month. Although the bill would keep oversight of bingo in Buckley's office, it calls for the creation of a gaming commission that would have the authority to consider and adopt new rules, then enforce them--tasks currently handled by the secretary. Supporters say an independent commission would erase favoritism from bingo regulation, a charge that has dogged Buckley since she rode into office on a tide of bingo-industry campaign contributions ("The Buckley Stops Here," September 17, 1998). Says Fielder, "We need to get the dishonesty and politics out."

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