Amendment 54 ruffles feathers among Jeffco officials

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By AJ Vicens

A state constitutional amendment that bars sole-source government contract holders from contributing to political campaigns caused some consternation at the Taj Mahal on Feb. 12, with county elected officials saying the ban is too broad.

Amendment 54, which was approved by Colorado voters in November 2008, prohibits contractors with more than $100,000 in contracts with any government entity from contributing to political candidates, political action committees or political parties. It also applies to the immediate family of the contractor.

Joanne Kortendick, an assistant county attorney, briefed the county's elected officials on the provisions of the amendment and how they should handle it.

Jeffco Commissioner Kathy Hartman, who is on the board of directors for the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, said the new law directly impacts her family.

"None of them can contribute to any campaign anywhere in the state of Colorado," Hartman said. She added that the law might spur resignations on the center's board.

"Two board members are ready to resign because they are members of organizations who made donations. It's so broad that I'm afraid to take contributions from anyone because nobody knows."

Hartman said that Acting County Attorney Ellen Wakeman told her Amendment 54 would prevent Hartman from donating to her own campaign should she run for any political office in the future.

"That's hogwash," said Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey.

Hartman said the law would work against nearly every nonprofit the county works with.

"All of our nonprofits are toast under that," she said. "The list is going to be huge."

Kortendick said the amendment has a "chilling effect" on people who serve on nonprofits that work with state and local governments, as many of them are also involved in politics.

Jeffco Assessor Jim Everson told his fellow elected officials that the wording of the amendment puts the onus on contractors to exclude themselves from donations. If elected officials don't knowingly take a donation from a contractor who's ineligible under Amendment 54 to donate, there's no violation, Everson said.

"You have no duty to find out (if donors fall under the amendment) under the law," Everson told the elected officials.

Storey immediately shot that idea down.

"It's implied," Storey said.

"It doesn't say that," Everson responded.

Jeffco Sheriff Ted Mink turned to Storey, who was sitting to his right. "You lawyers jack everything up," Mink said jokingly.

Kortendick said that while the amendment clearly appealed to voters, the full implications weren't known.

"When you see ethics in government on the ballot, you'll vote for it," she said. "(The voters) have no idea how, practically, these things can be a big detriment to them too. Be careful what you vote for."

She added that there are two lawsuits against the amendment already, filed by labor unions and directors of nonprofits who say their 1st Amendment rights are being violated.Kortendick said that the Jefferson County attorney's office is drafting language to add to every county contract that would limit the county's liability if a contractor didn't properly remove themselves from bidding on projects.

Margaret Chapman, the county's public trustee, kept her thoughts concise.

"Hire a lawyer and listen to him," she said.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.