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The grassroots group advocating for campaign finance reform in Thornton did not collect the required signatures to put the issue on the ballot. That doesn’t mean their fight is over.
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The grassroots group advocating for campaign finance reform in Thornton did not collect the required signatures to put the issue on the ballot, but that doesn’t mean their fight is over, organizers say.
The group had 21 days to collect 8,565 signatures for a referendum starting June 4. According to Roberta Ayala, a sponsor of the petition, the group only collected a few thousand.
According to Thornton's city charter, however, the deadline to collect sigantures is rolling. The group has 180 days to collect the signatures but all the signatures must be within a 21-day window.
For example, if 500 signatures were collected on day one and then the group collects more signatures on day 22, then the signees from day one would not count but those on day 22 would.
Ayala said she has lived in Thornton her whole life and has never seen a grassroots initiative before this one.
“I've never seen a singular issue that has had this much support, and so I'm hopeful we'll either reach our goal or that council will be willing to start listening to the residents that are interested in doing something about it,” she said.
So far, the group received positive feedback from residents.
“I've been talking to a lot of residents these last few weeks and most of the people have been appalled to learn that we don't have basic reforms in place,” Ayala said. “We’ve had overwhelming support in just a short amount of time and that shows this is an issue that residents really do care about.”
City Councilor Julia Marvin said the ordinance would limit contributions to $400 for council candidates and $800 for mayoral candidates, create more frequent reporting deadlines and more disclosures on campaign materials, would ban corporate, special interest and union money and make it easier to understand rules that govern making donations.
Support has come from City Councilors Kathy Henson, Karen Bigelow and Marvin. Marvin said changing the rules around acquiring signatures and the amount of time is not off the table for future ballot initiatives.
Both Marvin and Kate Miya, another organizer, described how difficult the process of collecting the required signatures in a short time has been in the past.
“We’re looking at trying to gather something like 12,000 to 14,000 signatures in 21 days, and that’s pretty much impossible,” Miya said.
In an interview, City Councilor Eric Garcia said he doesn’t support reform but would be open to negotiation to put contribution limits of $1,000 or $1,500 in place.
“I've spent 20 years of my life building relationships with the right people, the right places to be able to get bigger donations,” he said.
As to who those relationships have been with, Garcia said he hasn’t started raising money for his campaign yet. He faults the other councilors who support reform for going door to door to raise campaign funds.
“You know, they're mostly focusing on individuals knocking from door to door when it comes to raising money,” he said. “When it comes to financing it, with me coming from a nonprofit, you have to get out there, you have to build relationships.”
He said he doesn’t see a conflict of interest when it comes to a corporation or person making a large donation to a candidate.
“Whether I worked out there to build relationships and go after 10 corporations or whether (I) went after 50 donors of individual smaller donations, there's no conflict of interest. There's no difference,” he said.
Bigelow disagrees. She said there is a very large difference and a conflict of interest, pointing to Westminster.
“In Westminster, they passed an ordinance that says if anyone donates more than $99 to a campaign, then when that developer or business comes in front of council, then (the councilor who received the donation) has to recuse themselves from that vote,” she said.
She noted that’s not the rule in Thornton.
“The problem is when that business comes before the council, those people do not have to recuse themselves," she said. "It's completely legal for them to then vote on that business and that's where I see a large conflict of interest in our city."
Mayor Jan Kulmann doesn’t support the initiative but, in a written statement, said she supports more transparency.
“You see this happening in my primary now. SuperPACS are trying to rig the election for my opponents," she wrote. "Generally, I support more transparency around these groups so voters know what their intent is. I prefer the candidate have accountability and responsibility than have outside groups take control."
Kulmann stopped short of supporting the effort, saying she cannot separate the petition itself from the tactics of the people collecting signatures. Kulmann did not provide specific instances of signature seekers bashing candidates, however.
“Unfortunately the group has lied to many citizens and used the platform for signature gathering as a way to bash those on council they disagree with," she wrote." It’s hard to have real conversations when that happens."
Henson said Kulmann is among the majority of the council who refuse to talk about the subject.
“Let's not forget also that 200 residents signed a letter asking our council to have a discussion about our campaign finance rules, and they flat out refused to even engage in it,” she said.
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