Pitkin County goes solo on campaign finance laws
June 22, 2011
ASPEN – Pitkin County will look to put a stop-gap measure on the November ballot to address campaign finance regulations.
The county’s home-rule charter addresses some aspects of campaign finance, related to contributions and spending in elections for county offices, but in the past, the county has relied on state law to govern other aspects – reporting by political parties and issue committees, for example.
Pitkin County is the only county in Colorado that has its own campaign finance regulations, according to Dwight Shellman III, county elections manager. Last year, when all candidates for county offices had to file campaign contribution and expenditure reports with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office for the first time, the disparity between county and state rules became apparent, he said.
The upshot, summarized in a letter to the county from Judd Choate, director of the elections division for the state office, is that Pitkin County must either follow state law in its entirety or adopt its own provisions and exempt itself from the state regulations. It can’t rely on some state regulations, but not others, he advised.
Shellman, outlining the county’s options for commissioners on Tuesday, nonetheless suggested a “hybrid” approach that leaves campaign finance reporting by local political parties with the state.
He suggested incorporating the state regulations related to reporting by issue committees into the charter until the county has time to write its own laws. At the moment, issue committees in the county are under no requirement at all to report contributions or expenditures, Shellman said.
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“That is probably untenable from a public policy perspective,” he suggested.
The other option, Shellman said, is to repeal all county rules on campaign finance and go with the state rules. All reporting would be done with the Colorado Secretary of State under that scenario.
Commissioners weren’t anxious to go that route, as state rules differ from the county’s when it comes to how much candidates are allowed to collect, and from what sources.
The county sets a $500 contribution limit, while the state has no cap. The state, however, prohibits contributions to candidates from corporations and labor unions; the county has no such prohibition.
Commissioner Rachel Richards was anxious to maintain the $500 limit and her colleagues agreed. That’s how much an individual or entity may contribute to someone’s campaign in an election.
“I’m personally concerned about the public perception of the influence of money on elections,” she said.
Candidates for county office, as well as issue committees that are active on county ballot measures, would file campaign finance reports with the county Clerk and Recorder’s Office rather than the state under the approach favored by commissioners, but reporting by the county’s political parties should go to the Secretary of State’s office, Shellman recommended.
That’s because individuals may contribute to the Democratic Party, for example, in different counties, but all of the contributions in aggregate can’t exceed $3,225. That’s easier for the state to track.
“Right now, political parties in Pitkin County are in a little bit of limbo,” said Frieda Wallison, chairperson of the local Republican Party.
The county will need to convince the state to accept that hybrid approach, Shellman said.
Amending the county charter in November would be done via a resolution approved by commissioners and put to voters. The county doesn’t have time to convene a citizen commission to draft the proposed charter amendment and get it on the November ballot, Shellman said. The county needs to get something in place by 2012, which is a presidential election year.
A citizen committee could be appointed to work on a more comprehensive overhaul of the county’s campaign finance regulations, he said, and that proposal could go on a future ballot.
Shellman, working with the county attorney and the state, is expected to draft a charter amendment for the commissioners to consider later this summer. Ballot questions have to be finalized by early September.