Romero-Hunt alliance passes city muster
October 14, 2015
One of Dwayne Romero's last actions as an Aspen city councilman was voting in favor of the Base2 Lodge on June 1. Less than three months later, on Aug. 24, Romero sat beside Base2 developer Mark Hunt at a City Council meeting concerning the project, which is in the hands of Aspen voters after a citizen referendum forced the issue to a vote.
Romero's newfound business alliance with Hunt has some tongues wagging that there was a conflict of interest because he previously sat on the very council that approved Base2.
But the city's rules of ethical conduct, passed by the Mayor Helen Klanderud-led council in June 2003, doesn't prohibit outgoing council members from forging such business relationships as the one Romero has with Hunt. The ethics law only gives exiting elected officials a six-month pause from working for the city government.
"It's a small town, and City Council members have to make a living, too," said City Attorney Jim True. "They're not highly paid individuals, and they are allowed to be citizens, and you don't want to limit them."
City employees, however, aren't afforded the same flexibility when they step down. The city's ethics law gives them a six-month time period to refrain from doing business with the private sector when they have a conflict of interest or the appearance of one.
"The six-month disqualification of a former employee (law) specifically excludes council members," True said.
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Had Romero been a state lawmaker in a similar situation, the Colorado Constitution would have precluded him from joining forces with Hunt for two years. The constitution "further restricts members of the General Assembly and statewide elected officials from serving as lobbyists for two years after leaving office," reads the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission's handbook for 2013-15.
Some Aspen residents believe the city's cooling-off rule should be applicable to exiting council members, as well.
Tim Murray has raised the issue in a lawsuit he filed against the city. Filed in September in Pitkin County District Court, Murray's suit asks the court to rescind all of its prior votes in which Romero voted on a Hunt land-use application, arguing "it is not possible to discern if those votes were made in the public's interest or to win favor with Hunt to assure Romero a position with Hunt's company."
Romero said he expected some public backlash when he joined Hunt's team, but his conscience is clear.
"I held my views as an elected official and now as a citizen here in the community," he said. "It's my right to exercise my voice. I'm not breaking any laws or breaking any of my personal ethics."
Romero, who was appointed to fill a council vacancy in June 2013 and did not seek re-election in May, also hasn't universally supported Hunt's land-use applications. In January he voted against Hunt's application on first reading to build 81 units on Main Street where the Conoco service station currently is; a revised design — which voters will decide on in November — calls for 37 units at the same spot. At that same meeting, Romero also voted against Hunt's Base1 proposal at the Buckhorn Arms Building on Cooper Avenue.
Romero, a developer who resigned as president of Related Colorado in March, said the city's ethics law shouldn't be altered so outgoing council members get the same six-month suspension as city employees.
"The city has had long since the passing (of its ethics rules) the chance to review, update, change or affirm their rules," he said. "The city is quite good at thinking through and developing its own rules and regulations. We've long been a home-rule charter, and I think it's interesting that people think it should be more inclined to be subordinate to the state."
Aspen activist Ward Hauenstein, who is outspoken against Base2 and also led the petition drive to take it to voters, said the ethics law should be changed.
"I think Dwayne is honest, and I don't think he would have done anything that's illegal," he said. "But it probably would be good to have a cooling-off period."
Councilman Bert Myrin, another Base2 opponent on the grounds that the approval process has been tainted, said it's not a high-priority issue for him.
"To me, the issue isn't about the people; it's about the issue itself," he said. "I'm not hammering on people; I'm hammering on the issue."
However, Myrin said the same rules that apply to city staff members should apply to council members, as well.
"We get a paycheck," he said. "And the rule should be the same for all people who get paychecks from the city. I don't want to be different and make us more special than someone else."
True said the law could be changed through a charter amendment, but he questioned the necessity. The state law was created, he said, to prevent ex-lawmakers from becoming lobbyists or working for parties that supported them with campaign contributions. The same abuses potentially happen at the federal level.
But locally "it's different," True said.
"There just haven't been any instances in this city, that I recall, of anybody appearing to abuse it. I don't think there's any evidence here that it's being abused," he said.
Romero was emphatic that he hasn't been playing just by the legal rules but moral ones, as well.
"In my heart of hearts, I'm not breaking any of my personal values," he said. "I'm raising a family, and I'd like to stay and be a part of this community. And that means getting out there and applying yourself."