Denver City Council members on Monday voted against drawing from the Fair Elections Fund, a public campaign finance program, to raise money for changes they want made in Mayor Michael Hancock’s 2021 budget.
The Fair Elections Fund was created with 71% voter support in 2018 and is designed to match municipal candidates’ contributions of $50 or less at a ratio of 900%. The program is exclusive to candidates who agree to voluntarily fundraise in lower amounts and to only take donations from individuals and small donor committees. The measure was pushed forward as a way to empower average voters and lessen the influence of affluent donors and political action committees.
This year marks the first that the pot of money began collecting the annual allocation of nearly $2.1 million from the city budget. A total of up to $8 million in the fund is required by the 2023 election. Councilman Kevin Flynn called for the suspension of that $2 million transfer next year to fund the council’s requests, including more money for police reform.
His bill would have required restoring three-fourths of the suspended amount in the 2022 and 2023 budgets, a total of $1.5 million. In other words, the net reduction would be a total of $500,000, bringing the fund’s new total to $7.5 million.
Flynn said his bill was intended to solve an “optics” problem, in light of city employees having to take up to eight furlough days to help close a $190 million budget gap next year due to the pandemic.
“The people who drive our trash trucks, the people who do our inspections, the folks who staff our offices, the administrative assistants, I can’t look them in the eye and say, ‘You have to give up … your pay, but the taxpayer funds for my next reelection are off-limits,’” he told Colorado Politics.
But last Wednesday, Flynn was already doubting that he could wrangle enough support to get the bill past the finish line. “It would take nine votes,” he said in a phone interview Oct. 21. “I’m not sure I have the votes.”
By 4 p.m. Monday, he was certain he didn’t. The bill failed in an 8-5 vote a few hours later.
In Flynn’s corner were council members Kendra Black, Jolon Clark, Chris Herndon and Debbie Ortega, who saw the temporary decrease as a way to balance priorities amid a pandemic. They also pointed to the bill language that created the fund, which grants the council the authority to suspend or reduce the cash funneled into the fund in times of fiscal emergency.
“This is the biggest fiscal crisis we’ve ever seen,” Clark said Monday night in Flynn’s defense. “So if this is not the time to at least look at this, then when is? That was built into the bill. I believe this is a responsible way to look at funding these things.”
Council members Candi CdeBaca, Stacie Gilmore, Chris Hinds, Paul Kashmann, Robin Kniech, Amanda Sandoval, Amanda Sawyer and Jamie Torres stood opposed.
Several of them cited letters sent to the council over the last week by Denver Clerk and Recorder Paul Lopez.
In Lopez’s initial Oct. 20 letter to the council, he expressed his “continued frustration by the lack of official communication from either City Council or the Mayor’s Office when the two bodies are considering policy and budget changes that impact the Office of the Clerk and Recorder, an independent agency.”
The clerk urged council members to consider suspending the appropriation only if taking specific safeguards, including fully restoring the fund.
Although some changes were reflected in Flynn’s bill when he direct filed it Thursday, it didn't go far enough. Lopez sent another disapproving letter to council members hours before the Monday night vote.
“Unfortunately, this bill does not contain the proper and necessary safeguards that I identified in my letter,” he wrote. “While every option must be considered to ensure the City has enough resources to serve its citizens, I urge you to oppose this ordinance as [it] shortchanges the Fair Elections Fund and the successful administration of this program. Ethical elections governance and compliance is an essential function and the Fair Elections Fund will require the full $8 million as originally intended and passed by the City Council and the people of Denver in 2018.”
Facing an estimated $190 million budget gap for 2021, on top of a $220 million shortfall for 2020, the mayor’s office wasn’t happy with the council’s decision.
“Reserving funds for an election three years away when we have these challenges today is counter to the city's current priorities,” Hancock’s spokesman Mike Strott told Colorado Politics an email late Monday night.
In an Oct. 9 letter to Hancock, Council President Gilmore and President Pro Tem Torres recommended on behalf of the council pulling funds from several pots, including the police department and the Fair Elections Fund, to support their priorities, such as the expansion of the Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR program, that sends some 911 calls to mental health professionals instead of police. Other budget requests include a rental registry, digital inclusion program and an expansion of the city’s Office on Aging.
A week later, the mayor sent a letter responding to the council’s requests that agreed to pull the roughly $2 million from the Fair Elections Fund to support some of the council’s requests. Hancock did not agree, however, to defunding the Denver Police Department.
“The greatest disappointment is that we tried to be partners in this process with the administration," Gilmore said Monday. Yet, despite Hancock's team sitting through the council's 19 budget hearings, "great allowances" were taken, she said, by "utilizing the Fair Elections Fund for all of our asks."
Drawing from the Fair Elections Fund comes across as “tone-deaf to the public," who is calling for “more investment in the community” over armed police officers, she said. “We’ve got to look at where we’re going to pull those funds and be responsive to what our constituents and communities have been telling us.”
With Flynn bill's off the table, it's now up to Denver City Council members to find a new way to fund their priorities.
The Hancock administration “can’t make any more changes to the budget because it has been submitted to Council for their consideration,” Strott told Colorado Politics in an email. “So as of right now, their recommended changes are not funded. Any changes to the budget now have to come from Council in amendment form (including identifying the source of funding to offset it).”
The council has a short window to get it done. On Nov. 2, members need to vote to amend the budget. The mayor can reject an amendment, but that rejection can be overridden by the council with nine votes. The entire process must be completed by Nov. 9.