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Anti-tax crusader's complaint about unlawful campaigning by Colorado Springs schools to get a hearing

September 28, 2017 Updated: September 29, 2017 at 4:32 pm
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Colorado Springs School District 11 Administration Building (Image via Google Maps)

A complaint filed by the author of Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights and a former Colorado Springs City Councilwoman alleging Colorado Springs School District 11 violated campaign finance laws will be heard by an administrative law judge.

The Secretary of State's Office this week forwarded paperwork submitted by TABOR author Douglas Bruce and Helen Collins, who served on City Council from 2013 until April, to the Office of Administrative Courts, said Melissa Polk, legal unit manager for the state's election division.

The matter now will be set for a hearing, she said.

This is the third time Bruce, a former state legislator and former El Paso County commissioner, has accused D-11 of breaking Colorado's Fair Campaign Practices Act.

Outcomes have been split. A judge dismissed the case and ordered Bruce to pay D-11 $1,000 in attorney's fees in 2004. But in 2008, Bruce prevailed, and D-11 paid a civil penalty of $1,000 to the Secretary of State's Office.

This year's objection claims the district spent money on a postcard to promote ballot issue 3E, which seeks a $42 million annual mill levy override for D-11 to hire more staff such as school counselors and nurses, increase salaries, decrease class sizes, improve technology and student safety, repair school buildings, fund charter schools and make other improvements.

By law, taxpayer dollars cannot be spent to support school-funding initiatives; money for campaign promotion must come from an issue committee, which raises donations from individuals and groups.

D-11 officials and a volunteer group campaigning for the measure, Friends of D-11, dispute the claim.

"District 11 taxpayers have a right to know exactly how their money will be spent," said campaign manager Anthony Carlson, adding that the district has been nationally recognized for its financial accountability and transparency programs.

"The literature created by the district is just another example of how seriously the district takes its responsibility to educate and remain accountable to taxpayers," he said.

A statement from district leaders said while D-11 understands it is not permitted to spend taxpayer funds on promoting election questions, "We believe the information on this document is factual and is important to the education of the measure, as opposed to the 'promotion' of the measure."

The district designed and printed the material before the election question was set, the statement continues. The total cost was $312.49.

"We continue to believe that voters have a right to be well-informed and educated about factual matters," the statement said. "We never suggested that voters should vote for this initiative."

Bruce said the postcard is "clearly advocacy," as it does not reflect the pros and cons of the issue.

The postcard reads "What District 11 can do with a $42 million mill levy override," and breaks down how the money would be spent, such as $17.5 million for capital improvements and $1.75 million for reducing class sizes. The estimated monthly cost to property owners also is shown.

The complaint states that Collins went to the district administration building on Sept. 13 and saw the literature at the front desk.

"They are using public money to campaign for a tax increase, which is illegal," Bruce said.

Accusations of political candidates or government entities not properly following campaign and political laws are common, Polk said.

Bruce has filed other complaints in past years, including against the city of Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak Library District, Memorial Hospital and several individuals.

Bruce is well-known for his anti-tax stance. Colorado voters approved the constitutional amendment known as TABOR, which Bruce wrote, in 1992. It restricts government revenue and requires voter-approval of expenditure of excess revenue.

Bruce also has had issues with the law. In 2012, Bruce was convicted of three felonies: tax evasion, filing a false tax return and trying to influence a public servant. He spent time in prison and was released early, for good behavior. While Bruce has said he regrets having spent time in prison, he still maintains his innocence.

Three times during his parole hearing last summer in Delta, Bruce said he wanted to "lead a quiet, peaceful, law-abiding life."

When asked about that on Sept. 14, during a news conference Bruce held to decry three financing proposals that will be on the Nov. 7 ballot, he said he is allowed to exercise his free speech rights under the First Amendment.

Asked further whether he's violating his parole terms by becoming politially active again, Bruce said, "Because I went to prison, does that mean I have to be silent for the rest of my life? What am I violating? Don't I have freedom of speech?"

Bruce also has publicly denounced a city of Colorado Springs stormwater fee proposal, which he calls "fraud," because it would free up money for hiring more police and not benefit drainage improvements, and a proposal by the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority to divert some money to help jump-start a future Interstate 25 widening from Monument to Castle Rock.

Gazette reporter Conrad Swanson contributed to this article.

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