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County ready to fight CSA contribution suit

Allyn Harvey

The Pitkin County Commissioners appear willing to defend the county charter and its campaign contribution limits, even if it costs them a bundle of money.

At least three county commissioners – Dorothea Farris, Mick Ireland and Leslie Lamont – say they are willing to fight the Common Sense Alliance’s lawsuit in federal court challenging the limits, but they are hoping to find partners to help pay for the defense.

“There are a lot of other people in this community for whom the home rule charter matters, groups that could come forward and defend it, but if they don’t the Board of County Commissioners needs to do it,” Lamont said.

“As far as I am concerned, the people’s law needs to be defended,” Ireland said.

Commissioner Shellie Roy Harper was quoted in a news report yesterday saying that “county leaders” had determined it was “fiscally irresponsible” to defend the campaign contribution limit of $500 per person and spending limits of $12,547 per campaign, unless financial support in the form of private donations shows up.

“I don’t think that’s true,” Farris said.

“We need to be prepared and have our finances in line, but no decision has been made yet about what direction to take on this.”

In an interview yesterday, Harper backpedaled from the earlier position and said she’s willing to consider defending the campaign spending and contribution limits, but remains worried that legal precedence is working against the county.

“We’re struggling with this, but there has definitely been no decision,” she said. “But as with everything, we have to weigh whether, in fact, it is a good investment for us.”

The limits are contained in the election section of the county’s home rule charter and have been approved by voters three times since 1980, twice, in the general elections of 1980 and 1995, by overwhelming margins, and once, in the 1996 primary, by a narrower margin. They have been an irritant for the local political action committee known as the Common Sense Alliance, which openly defied the county’s rules in past

elections and last month took its gripes to Federal District Court in Denver.

The Common Sense Alliance is asking the court to declare the county’s spending and fund-raising limits unconstitutional on the grounds that they limit free speech. Its complaint cites the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Buckley vs. Valeo, a 1976 decision that affirmed the right of government to set limits on direct contributions to candidates, but which also affirmed the right of groups and individuals to spend freely in support of political causes – including elections.

A hearing on the Common Sense Alliance’s motion for a temporary injunction banning enforcement of the county’s limits was delayed two weeks, from Sept. 26 to Oct. 10, at the county’s request. County attorney John Ely said he had not had time to meet with his clients – the county commissioners – to discuss the case.

The injunction is necessary, says Common Sense Alliance treasurer Jeffrey Evans, because the group is opposing two transportation-related questions on the fall ballot.

Lumping the Buckley decision in with Plessy vs. Ferguson, the 1896 case where the Supreme Court ruled that blacks could be educated in “separate but equal” facilities, and the Dred Scott decision, the 1857 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled no slave or descendent of slaves could be a U.S. citizen, Ireland said he thinks the issue is important enough to enough people that the county needs to see it through to the end.

“I was surprised that even some of the high school students brought this issue up with me on the Ex. Ed. trips. A lot of people have said that this is ridiculous, and something needs to be done about it,” he said.

Ireland, who is perhaps more motivated than the other commissioners in the wake of a recall campaign last summer that featured several groups violating county campaign finance rules in their effort to unseat him, said he is currently searching for other jurisdictions around the state and country that may want to back Pitkin County, either financially or with legal briefs, in its defense of campaign spending and contribution limits.

Commissioner Patti Clapper could not be reached for comment.


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