Pitkin County keeps its own campaign finance rules | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County keeps its own campaign finance rules

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Pitkin County will keep marching to the beat of its own drum when it comes to campaign finance rules for county elections, but its political parties will adhere to state law in a unique compromise forged by local election officials and the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

The county, long governed by a home rule charter, will maintain rules on campaign contributions that differ from other counties in Colorado, according to a draft ordinance to be reviewed by county commissioners next week. And Pitkin will be the only county in which county candidates and committees report to the county clerk. The state oversees that function for other counties.

“We are the only county that elects officials the way we elect them and has unique campaign finance regulations,” said Dwight Shellman III, county elections manager.

With a June 26 primary fast approaching, Shellman and others have been working diligently on what he calls “incredibly convoluted, complicated stuff.”

How to meld the county’s unique rules with the state’s has been an issue since 2010, when campaign finance reporting became a function of the Secretary of State’s Office. That year, when candidates for county offices had to file campaign contribution and expenditure reports with the state for the first time, the disparity between local and state rules became apparent.

So, according to the proposed ordinance, candidates for county office (or their committees) will follow Pitkin County’s unique rules and report to the County Clerk’s Office. So will issue committees formed to campaign for or against issues put forward by the county and independent political committees formed to support or oppose a county candidate.

The ordinance doesn’t apply to municipal, school district and hospital district elections, among others.

The county will maintain its $500 limit on candidate contributions per election, while the state has no limit at all, and the county will allow contributions to candidates from labor unions and corporations (with the $500 cap). The state does not permit contributions in any amount from such entities.

Issue committees formed to campaign on a county ballot issue also will report contributions and expenditures to the clerk rather than the state, but the threshold at which the reporting is required remains unclear.

The state had required reporting of expenses once they exceeded $200 and reporting individual contributions of $20 or more, but those rules were struck down in court. The court also said $1,000 is too low of a threshold but offered no further guidance. The state has since raised its threshold to $5,000, but during a February discussion, Commissioner Rachel Richards advocated setting the lowest threshold that can withstand a challenge.

“Five thousand is simply too high,” she said.

Shellman said he planned to review how much local issue committees have raised and spent in the past to give commissioners some guidance.

“The question is: What’s the right number?” he said.

Local political committees, which are typically formed to oppose a candidate but act independently rather than in coordination with any candidate, would be required to report expenses once they exceed $200 and contributions of $20 or more. Those are also the state’s thresholds for reporting.

The county’s political parties would report their contributions and expenditures to the state, but Secretary of State Scott Gessler has suggested that if the parties make contributions to local candidates, they do so from a separate fund that would be subject solely to the county’s campaign finance provisions.


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