City, ACLU reflect on campaign spending limit provision
November 6, 2009
The Craig City Council was an even split on a ballot question in Tuesday's election that asked voters whether they wanted to delete a city charter provision on campaign spending.
The rule stated that municipal candidates could not spend more than $500 of their own money on their campaigns.
Mayor Don Jones and councilors Jennifer Riley and Joe Herod voted to keep the provision, while councilors Ray Beck, Gene Bilodeau and Terry Carwile voted to delete it.
Councilor Byron Willems said he did not vote.
"The whole election was a waste of everybody's money," Willems said.
Craig officials already voided the spending limit this summer after resident Francisco Reina filed a civil suit against the city for charging him with spending more than was allowed in his April campaign for council.
The city dismissed its citation against Reina and settled with his attorneys — who were led by the American Civil Liberties Union — to never again enforce the spending cap, unless the U.S. Supreme Court reverses a 1976 ruling that states such limits violate the right to free speech.
However, the city cannot change its charter without a popular vote, one city officials said cost about $8,000.
In effect, Willems said, the city paid for an election that doesn't matter.
"That's kind of dumb, but that's what government is good for," he said.
It seems most of Craig agreed.
The majority of council members said they received no calls or comments from residents in the run-up to the election, with the exception of Carwile's sister who he said wanted to make sure she understood what the ballot question meant.
The election ended up with an 11.5 percent voter turnout, one of the lowest in Moffat County history.
"Before the election, people were upset we even had to put it on the ballot," Herod said.
Despite the city's agreement to not enforce the spending limit, Herod said he voted to keep it because he believes in its principle.
"I feel like the people in the community should be equal in running for office," he said.
Money seems to wield too much influence in politics, Herod added.
"If you look at other communities, people actually do go in and spend to win elections," he said. "My thing is the reason President (Barack) Obama got elected was because he had more money than anyone else.
"Votes aren't bought with cash, they're bought with advertising."
Herod, who also owns a gun store, said he is a strong supporter of the U.S. Constitution and understands the free speech issues surrounding the city's spending limit.
But he also thinks there are some things Craig can decide for itself.
"I'm all for the Second Amendment, gun rights. I'm all for freedom of speech," Herod said. "But I think there should be local control of some things."
Although the election would seem to show that a majority of residents agree with the councilor, the majority is not always right, said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado.
The U.S. government, he said, is designed to protect the rights of everyone.
"People have a constitutional right under the First Amendment and also under the Colorado Constitution to express their views on their candidacy," Silverstein said. "If that requires more than $500, that is their right.
"You can't subject constitutional rights to a majority vote. That's why they're in the Constitution. These are the highest laws we have."
The three councilors who voted to delete the provision did not cite freedom of speech as their reason.
For Beck and Bilodeau, the chief concern was leaving the limit in the charter could open the city up to more legal challenges in the future that will cost taxpayers money.
"If it stays on the books, I believe that it still leaves the city of Craig vulnerable to something down the road," Bilodeau said.
Carwile said that he believes the legal experts who have said the city's spending limit is unconstitutional.
"There's no point in having it in there if it's unconstitutional," he said.
However, all three also said they think that money can degrade the democratic process, and they would not be opposed to controlling its influence.
"I respect the freedom of speech," Carwile said. "But, I also wonder where the line is. I think there really needs to be some sort of a constriction on what influences the elections."