Garfield County, nonprofit reach agreement over withheld grant
September 17, 2009
GARFIELD COUNTY – After weeks of bitter debate, Garfield County and a local nonprofit have reached an agreement that preserves a county grant to the nonprofit, but won’t trample on the constitutional rights of the organization’s officers, board members and employees.
As a result of a dramatic 2-1 vote of the board of county commissioners on Sept. 14, Mountain Valley Developmental Services, the nonprofit in question, will receive its 2009 grant from the county Human Services fund, which totals $65,000, but it may or may not get a grant for 2010.
The two parties had been arguing over provisions of Amendment 54, approved by Colorado voters last fall, which prohibits campaign contributions from any entity, or its representatives, members and associates, that wins no-bid or single-source government contracts totaling $100,000 or more.
It also prohibits immediate family members of holders of a no-bid contract from contributing to any political campaign or candidate who may have influence over the contract.
Most nonprofits receiving grants from county human service departments fall into the second category, as well as some other private firms.
Mountain Valley, for instance, annually gets county money to help provide a variety of independent-living services for people with developmental disabilities.
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The provisions of the amendment were written into Garfield County’s contracts starting in January of this year, requiring grant recipients to abide by the amendment’s provisions.
But Amendment 54 was ruled unconstitutional recently, after a Denver District Court judge concluded it was too vague. The Colorado attorney general’s office reportedly plans to file further arguments before that judge, which means the case has yet to be finished and no appeal has yet been filed, but most observers expect the decision to be appealed should the state fail to convince the judge of its position.
As a result of the Denver District Court ruling, MVDS declined to sign a Garfield County contract, as explained repeatedly by MVDS executive director Bruce Christensen, out of an unwillingness to restrict anyone’s constitutionally guaranteed political activities and free speech. The county, therefore, has withheld the grant money and rejected an MVDS application for a $75,000 grant for the 2010 budget year.
But after protracted negotiations between the county attorney’s office and an attorney for MVDS, the two agencies this week reached an agreement that permits the 2009 grant to go forward.
Officials are unsure what will happen concerning the nonprofit’s 2010 grant request, although county officials have indicated there are discretionary funds available that might be used to pay some or all of the 2010 grant, which Christensen said is sorely needed by the organization.
The language now in the contract specifies that the provisions of Amendment 54 will not be enforced as long as they are “enjoined or invalidated by a court of competent jurisdiction and the court decision has not been stayed.”
The BOCC decision, however, carried with it some drama, in part because commissioner John Martin has argued heatedly that the county’s role is to enforce the will of the voters, and that a Denver District Court decision is not binding on Garfield County.
But commissioner Tresi Houpt argued that the voters “didn’t clearly understand the complications” that would arise out of the amendment, and said, “there’s nothing fair about Amendment 54.”
When it came to a vote of the board, Houpt voted in favor of the modified language, while Martin voted against it, and commissioner Mike Samson was silent for a matter of minutes as he pondered the issue.
He then said he agreed that the new law is “a disaster” and “poorly written and conceived” but added that he had “a real problem with letting one organization … not following the rules” where others had.
Houpt, who sits on the Human Services grants committee with Samson, said she believed that the other nonprofits support MVDS in its resistance to the amendment.
Martin countered that the idea of the amendment “was to make all nonprofits … apolitical” and that the county should be enforcing the constitution.
Otherwise, Martin maintained, voters will conclude that “government is not trustworthy, and they can’t even follow their own constitution.” He called the proposed modifications to the contract “a bunch of weasel words.”
Samson, seemingly persuaded by Christensen’s pledge that MVDS will repay the county’s grant if Amendment 54 ultimately is ruled constitutional, finally voted with Houpt, and the motion passed.