DENVER, CO – Democrats Sen. Mary Hodge of Brighton and Rep. Cherylin Peniston of Westminster are co-sponsoring a bill to strengthen and expand ethics provisions of Amendment 41 to local government officials and employees, including school district boards. If passed, it will also place restrictions on the employment of their family members.
Promoted by Common Cause and wealthy Democrat Congressman Jared Polis, then a State Board of Education member, Amendment 41 was passed by voters in 2006. The ethics reform laws prohibit state officials and government employees from accepting gifts valued more than $50 and all gifts from lobbyists. The Independent Ethics Commission is empowered and funded to enforce and interpret the laws.
“In my travels around the district, my hours in the grocery store, people come up to me and they say, ‘Adams County is corrupt. Elected officials are corrupt. What are you going to do about it?’” said Hodge.
In response to those allegations, Hodge said Senate Bill 146 “will clarify and strengthen our ethics laws.”
“My concern is not with the legislation; my concern is with the message,” said Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction).
“I don’t believe that these constituents are right. I don’t believe that of my county commissioners. I don’t believe that of my city council. I don’t believe that of my school board – and I certainly don’t believe that of this body,” said King. “In fact that could not be further from the truth.”
“I’m not saying anybody is guilty,” explained Hodge. “All I’m trying to do is resolve the problem or clarify.”
Sen. Kevin Grantham (R-Canon City) expressed concerns about the clause prohibiting family members from working for companies that are the only source for goods in small communities. He questioned how fair it would be to deny a 16-year-old son of a government official or employee the right to work for a business contracted to supply tires for a town’s vehicles.
“An overzealous watchdog could make it into something it actually isn’t,” said Grantham.
Hodge said the bill emanated from the ethics scandal that rocked Democrat Adams County elected officials, including violations by County Tax Assessor Gil Reyes and County Commissioner Alice Nichol, who allegedly had secured a high paying position for a relative and had a government contractor repave her residential driveway.
Nichol announced her re-election bid on Feb. 17, the day SB 146 passed unanimously on reconsideration of the third reading in the Senate, and moved to the House for consideration.
A week earlier, Adams County unveiled its new Transparency Portal – a website link to budgets, contracts and finance reports – “to provide responsive and effective leadership by supporting open, transparent and accountable government.”
“The bill is well intentioned, but I’m not certain this bill addresses the problems in Adams County,” said Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs), who cited the county’s nepotism in hiring employees and lax contract procurement.
“This bill may be wide of the mark for what needs to be done in Adams County,” speculated Gardner. “Counties can tighten their own rules…Adams County has been doing business like a ‘good old boys and girls’ network. The time that was acceptable is long gone.”
Whether or not the bill adds costs to enforce the broadened ethics laws or conflicts with local government control, it will be hard for legislators to reject, particularly in an election year.
“No one is going to vote against it,” predicted Gardner. “But is it the right solution to set ethics standards?”