Editor’s note: The complete near 1,600 page CORA request of emails from Boulder County can be accessed by clicking here.
BOULDER – The three women who make up the Board of Boulder County Commissioners have started a new organization hoping to shape Colorado into a more progressive state.
Although they are doing it with the help of other like-minded commissioners across the state, Counties & Commissioners Acting Together (CCAT) is being paid for using mostly Boulder County taxpayer money.
According to a document prepared by Aponte & Busam Public Affairs, CCAT is a “group of counties and individual commissioners across Colorado working to provide a unified, nonpartisan and independent voice at the statehouse.”
Complete Colorado previously reported on one of the group’s efforts as it pertained to The Sustainability of Rural Colorado Act.
Boulder County Commissioners Elise Jones, Deb Gardner and Cindy Domenico started the effort last year after Boulder County left Colorado Counties Incorporated (CCI), a separate membership organization that advocates on behalf county governments.
Nearly 1,600 pages of emails obtained by Complete Colorado through a Colorado Open Records Act request and other documents show dissatisfaction among some counties within CCI. The progressive commissioners’ belief is that not all interests are considered when deciding whether to support legislation.
The emails also documented Boulder’s role in CCAT and the group’s intent.
Lynn Padgett, a former commissioner in Ouray County, said in an email to CCAT members that CCI was no longer supportive of good county government.
“I think where CCI is failing, is losing its focus on advocating for REAL (responsive/efficient/accountable/locally-designed with state/federal partnerships) county government – policies and programs that allow us to best provided essential, scalable county services.” Padgett said in the email. “I see CCI supporting loss of local control on pet subjects and advocating for what a certain county wants and ideals over practical solutions. I see CCI sole sourcing appointment recommendations of commissioners (of the same flavor as the majority of their board) to stat commissions and committees – commissioners that get CCI a difficult and detrimental reputation.”
CCAT’s mission is to change that. However, it appears, Boulder County taxpayers are bearing the brunt of the financial obligation.
According to the emails, only seven of Colorado’s 64 counties are in full support of CCAT and aside from Boulder, only six other individuals or counties are helping to pay the $70,000 cost for Aponte & Busam, a fee that was scaled back from the original $100,000 requested in its proposal.
Commissioner Tim Mauck, who is the sole commissioner representing Clear Creek County pledged $8,000. Ben Tisdel, the sole commissioner from Ouray County pledged “approximately $2,000.” Pitken County kicked in $8,000 and San Miguel County promised “approximately $2,000.” Gilpin and Grand Counties each offered $1,000.
Michelle Krezek, Commissioner’s Deputy for Boulder County Commissioners did not return requests for updates.
Boulder County approved the contract with Aponte & Busam at its Feb. 7 regular meeting. The full meeting minutes and audio can be found here. The topic is at the No. 10 slot and at approximately the 20:30 mark in the audio.
“This is the coalition that we helped create,” Jones said at that meeting. “In order to help advocate at the state legislature and other agencies to advocate for climate-friendly policy. It makes sense for the county to be the fiscal agent.”
An email from Jones to invited counties and commissioners says dues are optional.
“As you know, we don’t want cost to be a barrier to anyone, so if a county cannot contribute they still can join,” Jones said.
The $70,000 expenditure was for 12 months that encompassed the 2017 legislative session, it is unknown if Boulder will pay to continue the effort for the 2018 session or if dues will become required to continue membership.
In additional to the cash outlay, Boulder County also uses staff resources to manage CCAT. Mark Ruzzin, the county’s senior political analyst acts as a pseudo-director for the organization.
The exact timing and details around CCAT’s formation as well as how much information it will release about itself are still unclear.
At one point, Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Jackson questions if the existence of CCAT was public information.
“I’ve been asked by a state Democratic (sic) party candidate if there is a progressive group of counties,” Jackson said. “I told her that such a group is in formation, but didn’t say more.”
It does not appear CCAT attempted to hide its formation, but it did not publicly announce its formation or financial commitment either. Because commissioner meetings are generally during the day, few people attend unless there is something controversial.
The group has debated how much and when to share with CCI. Not all commissioners involved with CCAT have left CCI.
It held its first summer retreat in June the two days following the annual CCI retreat, at the same location and after asking the conference center to extend the CCI-negotiated rates for lodging.
“I want a little time to think about ‘telling CCI;’ not opposed, and we have clearly had less formal meetings before and or after CCI conferences,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards in an email. “It’s when we are all in the same place. But I think the how and when to mention it and not have it seem like a ‘big deal’ needs a little thought.”
The group’s marketing material says it is non-partisan. However, the emails tell a different story. Interviews for a lobbying firm to represent the group (Aponte & Busam Public Affairs was eventually selected) were held at the Colorado Democrat Party offices at 789 Sherman St. in Denver.
As for the political ideology of the group, the term “progressive” is used more than a dozen unique times. Jones makes it clear in several emails that it’s the “progressive” member numbers that are important.
“I thought we weren’t going to bother individual commissioners (since they’d have to pay out of their own pockets) and just focus on the progressive majority counties,” Jones said.
Jessica Pace from the Western Leaders Network, an advocacy group dealing in public lands, water, energy and climate change, writes on another occasion:
“I was going to forward the letter to the CCAT list since that’s the target group of signers (progressive county commissioners).” The letter she referenced was one of many progressive advocacy projects CCAT supported.
Finally, Jones explicitly outlines who CCAT is targeting for membership.
“To that end, several of us have been tasked with following up with all the progressive counties,” Jones wrote.
Krezek did say in an email to Complete Colorado that the group is open to anyone, with one caveat.
“The group is open to other commissioners who are interested in and supportive of the mission of this group,” Krezek said.