At the June 9, 2020 meeting of the El Paso Board of County Commissioners, the Fourth Judicial District Attorney asked some questions that piqued our interest. The Colorado Springs Independent covered that discussion here. They were the first and only media outlet to cover this story since our original reporting.
We were particularly interested in some specific comments, excerpted below.
First, District Attorney Dan May asked:
I come here today just basically to ask a question whether you know if you’re going to be doing a TABOR retention request of the voters this fall.
Good question, we’d like to know that too. As a reminder, TABOR stands for the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
May then added:
I think it was about this time last year that you funded a survey to determine, and my understanding is the survey, and I could be corrected on the number, cost over $20,000, on doing a retention last year, whether the voters had the will to do that. It’s also my understanding, the survey did a survey of the chairman, Bill Elder and other commissioners on how popular they were with the community at the same time. So, and I don’t know how that’s funded if you do it in the budget, whether that’s done in an executive session. I believe it’s done in an executive session, so I wasn’t aware of it at the time. And so I just didn’t know if you were going to be spending money on that this year.
As a reminder, we have been covering the question of this survey and the executive session for months. See those blogs here and here. We want that executive session recording released. We have also been curious about why the popularity of county officials is worth spending tax money on.
Commissioner Mark Waller, who is the Chair of the Board of County Commissioners responded in part by saying:
We figured at the time it would probably be better to spend $20,000 to determine where the voters were at before we spent 300 or $350,000 to put an initiative on the ballot. And ultimately, when we spent that $20,000, we decided not, because of the results of the poll. we decided not to go forward with a ballot initiative. So spending that 20,000 bucks saved us $350,000 of costs of related to putting something on the ballot.
We are actually ok with this part. Why put something on the ballot at a cost of $300,000 if there is no chance it will pass?
County Attorney Diana May (no relation to DA Dan May), added some comments about the propriety of going in to executive session, and the legal process by which that is done, prompting DA Dan May to respond:
Oh, so that is something that is a discussion in executive and the spending of that money is in executive session. I have not researched that law to know what the law is on that.
County Attorney Diana May then talked about attorney/client privilege, and how the County provides proper notice when they go in to executive session. You might recall, this is the executive session audio from last year that we want released. We want to know what was so secret about county officials discussing the poll, and the TABOR ballot issue, that they felt it needed to be discussed in Executive session.
Next, the other County Commissioners weighed in:
Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez stated that although the poll saved the taxpayers money, he was opposed, from the beginning, to going to the ballot. He wanted the money returned to the taxpayers, which was the eventual decision. Good for him.
Commissioner Stan Vander Werf added that he also didn’t think it was the right time to ask for money, and supported the return of those tax dollars to the taxpayers. Then he said that he wasn’t aware that the polling about the County Commissioners was a part of that poll, and that he has asked the staff not to do that in future polls. We appreciate that.
But this brings up another question: If Commissioner Vander Werf was not aware of the part of the poll that asked about the popularity of county officials, who exactly asked for that to be in the poll? Likely this was discussed in that executive session. As we have said before, this sounds like a political discussion, not a private discussion. We suspect those popularity questions were added to determine which county officials might have the best chance of convincing the voters to let the County keep the TABOR overage.
So, who ordered those questions to be a part of the poll?
Commissioners Williams and Bremer added some comments about the budget, timing, and how fiscally tough it is for the community right now.
Chairman Waller then asked DA Dan May if he wanted the Commissioners to consider putting a TABOR refund on the ballot this year, and if he needed more information.
DA Dan May responded, in part, with this:
I’d like to say that I’d like to be a little more transparent in the spending of our money. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being in a general session saying we want to spend money on a survey. I think surveys do have a very legitimate purpose and then maybe it can be expressed in that general discussion, what exactly is going to be in the survey. I think spending dollars of tax dollars, shouldn’t be an executive session decision.
The above emphasis is ours, as we think that is key point here. We agree that there is nothing wrong with the discussion being held in open session. We also agree that surveys have a legitimate purpose. The discussion of these topics just doesn’t rise to the level of executive session.
The County Attorney responded to that, in an attempt to clarify that spending decisions are not made in executive session, saying in-part:
Spending of public funds is done in a very transparent manner, and is subject to scrutiny and public review and public disclosure.
I think she misses the point. We want to know about the decision to spend the money, as well as the decision about which questions would be polled. As an aside, we obtained the spending information only after filing a CORA request, which we had to pay for. It’s not as if this type of information exists on a searchable website. It’s not that transparent!
We appreciate that this most recent discussion happened in the open, so we are all able to listen to it. We also appreciate the strong statements in favor of transparency, fiscal responsibility, and common sense from the DA and the County Commissioners, especially Commissioners Gonzalez and Vander Werf.
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