County Government Spending

Taxpayers Unwittingly Pay for Manipulative Poll

At SpringsTaxpayers.com, we have been very occupied with Colorado Springs City government over the past few years. There’s just so much material to work with there.

But then we got a tip about some shenanigans in El Paso County. A tipster passed along information to us about a telephone poll that was conducted by El Paso County back in July, 2019. El Paso County residents were surveyed about a possible ballot measure that would have allowed El Paso County government to keep a $3.5 million overage, under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), from the 2019 budget. Under TABOR, in order for the County to keep the excess taxpayer money, it would have had to put the issue on the ballot.

We submitted a request to El Paso County under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) to find out more about this telephone poll. We were curious to find out who paid for it, and what questions were asked. The invoice for the poll, returned through the CORA request, showed that $20,500 of your hard-earned tax money was paid to Square State Strategies to conduct the poll. It appears that Square State Strategies then contracted the poll to Magellan Strategies, a well-known Colorado polling firm.

The live telephone poll was conducted between July 15 and July 17, 2019. In addition to the expected poll questions about how to best “sell” a TABOR retention ballot initiative to the voters, there were poll questions about the favorability of various county officials, to include the 5 County Commissioners and Sheriff Bill Elder.

We can only assume that the poll questions were structured to determine who would have been the best messenger to promote a possible ballot measure, allowing the County keep the $3.5 million budget overage. The poll questions probed respondents on how receptive they would be to allowing the County to keep the overage, based on how the retained money would be used —i.e. road projects or parks— instead of returning the money to taxpayers. There was a consistent push throughout the poll to figure out how best to gain support for the measure using different wording. See the full poll here.

According to the El Paso County Commissioner agendas, the board went into executive session —sessions that are not open to the public— on 3 different occasions:

  • June 11, 2019
  • July 23, 2019
  • July 30, 2019

The purpose of these executive sessions was:

“Conference with the County Attorney’s office for the purpose of receiving legal advice on specific legal questions, including but not limited to options for ballot questions and/or return of taxpayer funds.”

So, it’s clear they were talking about the prospective TABOR overage ballot issue in these executive sessions. It’s not clear why conversations among elected officials about ballot initiatives to keep more of our tax dollars should not have been conducted in public. We call on the members of the Board of County Commissioners to vote to release all of the content from those executive sessions that is not required by law to be kept confidential.

While we don’t know for a fact that the poll was discussed in those executive sessions, note that the executive session dates are clearly in the middle of the polling period.

It must have been an important poll, to occupy time in three different executive sessions.

If you also believe, as we do, that the Board of County Commissioners should vote to release all of the executive session content that isn’t legally required to be kept confidential, please join us in calling on the Commissioners to hold such a vote.

D1: Holly Williams                            (719) 520-6411                HollyWilliams@elpasoco.com

D2: Mark Waller                                 (719) 520-6412                 MarkWaller@ElPasoCo.com

D3: Stan VanderWerf                      (719) 520-6413                 stanvanderwerf@elpasoco.com

D4: Longinos Gonzales, Jr.            (719) 520-6414                LonginosGonzalezJr@elpasoco.com

D5: Cami Bremer                                (719) 520-6415                 CamiBremer@elpasoco.com

The County Commissioners were not required to vote on the decision to order the poll from Square State Strategies, as their approval is not needed for expenditures less than $100,000. Also, no bids were sought from other pollsters. The County’s explanation for only taking the one bid was that Square State Strategies was “uniquely qualified” and was a sole source procurement. Are there no other polling firms in Colorado that could have at least bid on the job?

The County’s 2018 Contracts Procurements Policy Manual goes into great detail about sole source procurement.Any discussions about polling or sole source procurement are not required to be kept confidential in executive sessions.

We have not yet heard back from the County about who specifically in County government approved the expenditure. The authorization has a signature or set of initials that is difficult to discern.

We can all agree that $20,500 is a lot of money. And it’s your money. The fact that the County used taxpayer dollars to figure out how to best manipulate us out of even more of our money is pretty insulting.

What’s even more bothersome is that this email also mentioned previous polling from 2017. It’s not likely the first time this sort of polling has happened out of the public eye. If we uncover more instances of taxpayer-funded polling, we’ll make sure to update you.

We have more questions than answers, as the County only gave us about 65% of the information we asked them for. But we felt it important to share with you what answers we do have. After all, it’s your money.

Oh, and the punch line?

The TABOR retention issue that was the subject of all the polling was never placed on the ballot. So, the $20,500 price tag was for naught.

Speaking of price tag, the County charged us nearly $400 to fulfill the CORA request. It was a pretty paltry amount of information for all that money.

We will continue to follow up on the missing information —including what was discussed in executive session— and will share it with you when we have it. We will keep looking out for you and your tax dollars.

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