The making of a puppet commission |

The making of a puppet commission

Dear Editor:

Why was there a Halloween scare campaign targeting the lowly Election Commission? Why was a spotlight directed onto two particular citizen volunteers, both seeking constructive election transparency and improvements? A kind and gentle explanation is hard to imagine. The explanation most often heard is false: There was no conspiracy to wreak illegal havoc on the elections retroactively as Jack Johnson famously claimed.

Why was a surprise open records request used in a fishing expedition for dirty secrets? The open records law gives citizens access to certain written records only when they are being created by the choice of public officials. Most officials know how to avoid open records requests. But unlike seasoned politicians, these volunteers were actually keeping most of their communications in a recorded and accessible form.

So lots of e-mail record is available, but how valuable is it? It isn’t clear what the business of the Election Commission is, or even who was on it at which point in time. Which specific e-mails or social meet-ups for dinner were covered by the sunshine laws? Knowing this foggy uncertainty was not the responsibility of the accused; it is shocking that one of the other local papers has reported on this topic as if a heroic City Council triumphed over evil conspirators. If anything the opposite is closer to truth.

The reality is that all three election commissioners (including city clerk Kathryn Koch) were dedicated to improving election quality and not to illegal pursuits. The altruistic motives of these three has not even been touched upon by most columnists and bloggers spinning their tales.

The way the Aspen City Council actually chose to retroactively end the service of two commissioners, suddenly in the middle of a council meeting, without public notice, without public comment, without due process, without informing the commissioners themselves, is shocking and deserves its own place in the news. That semi-impeachment alone may be the most egregious violation of election integrity of the May election. But it is not the only violation.

The outrageous removal of citizens on a commission appears to have been justified by a noxious smear campaign. This reveals a corrosion of democratic principles. The new commissioners will also apparently be appointed technically contrary to the provisions of the City Charter, as the previous were. A dissatisfied City Council is clearly willing to unseat selected election commissioners for minor and meaningless infractions. We can infer that new election commissioners can never expect to be more than a puppet of the council and therefore will be ineffective in oversight over officials who have a tangible opportunity to effect the means of their own re-election.

A new, weaker election commission substituting for needed oversight, may just hide the fact that election checks are ineffective. The Secretary of State has no jurisdiction over municipal elections. No entity other than the City Council itself has any effective administrative oversight function concerning its own re-election. Who then will protect the public against a City Council that prefers to manage elections in a manner to insure their own re-election? This is a question the media and voters should be asking. Although it is not necessary to accuse an existing Council in order to ask this question, in Aspen anyone asking this question will be considered an attacker. Accusations will surface in the form of character assassination, not against the powerful, but against the citizen questioner – the “sore loser” or the “perpetual campaigner.” Shame on anyone resorting to these ridiculous and threatening epithets.

Since the dissolution of the election commission, we know that courts are the only route to election reform in Aspen. The entry price for each case is tens of thousands of dollars. It will be extremely expensive now to put any pressure on those who manage elections to make changes. We have seen how the columnists responded when a citizen sues the city for improved adherence to principles, even for a relatively mundane civil action to achieve transparency. Wake up Aspen and save your democracy now.

Harvie Branscomb

El Jebel

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