The Douglas County School District’s legal fees to appeal its court-ruled violation of the Colorado Campaign Fair Practices Act now total about $113,470.
A Denver judge ruled in December 2013 that the district violated the act and attempted to …
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A Denver judge ruled in December 2013 that the district violated the act and attempted to influence the outcome of the November 2013 school board election. The finding focused on a district-financed report praising reform efforts that was emailed to potential voters.
The four reform candidates won the election.
School board candidate Julie Keim, who lost her bid for a seat on the board, filed the initial complaint in October 2013. The judge’s favorable ruling applied to only one of several claims in Keim’s complaint.
DCSD was not fined for the violation because Keim did not request any penalty.
Since December 2013, the district has paid legal firm Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, Schreck $103,223 to challenge the finding.
“It is an unfortunate expense forced upon the district by a politically motivated lawsuit and a ruling that simply had no basis in fact,” DCSD spokeswoman Paula Hans wrote in an emailed response. “The decision creates new law in Colorado that will severely hinder our and every other governmental entity’s ability to communicate effectively with citizens on important policy issues.”
Keim said the matter should have ended with the judge’s ruling, and said DCSD is trying to make the issue “bigger than it is”.
“They’re using more public money to fight something that shouldn’t even have risen to the level it did the first time around,” she said. “They got a slap on the hands; that’s all they got. There was no reason for DCSD to appeal the judge’s decision. I cannot understand why the public is not more concerned about this use of funds meant to educate our children.”
Keim’s case has so far tallied about $25,000. Donations covered about $14,000 of that amount, and Keim said she’s paid the balance out of personal funds. Two attorneys are donating their services to respond to the appeal on Keim’s behalf.
The case has generated interest from other entities. Colorado Counties Inc. and the City of Arvada jointly filed an amicus brief urging a reversal of the judge’s decision, citing concerns about its potential “chilling” effect on communication with constituents. Colorado Counties is a nonprofit association that urges counties to speak as one voice on common issues.
The brief argues, among other things, that the judge’s ruling has broad ramifications that could allow disgruntled candidates to interpret a variety of local government communication as favorable to incumbent candidates.
A staff attorney at Colorado Ethics Watch said it intends to file an amicus brief in support of Farrell’s ruling by the September deadline.
The judge’s finding against the district applied to the paper titled “The Most Interesting School District in America?” written by the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess as part of a contracted deal with DCSD. In mid-September, the district emailed a link to the paper to 85,000 parents and community members - all potential voters in the Nov. 5, 2013 election. DCSD later revealed it had contracted with Hess to write the paper.
Administrative Law Judge Hollyce Farrell found “the Hess report was commissioned and published as a means to support the reform agenda and any candidates who would further that agenda,” the ruling read. “The ALJ finds that the district spent public funds to influence the outcome of the board election when it commissioned and paid $15,000 for the Hess report.”
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