In a unanimous vote Monday, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission sent a strong message to “home rule” cities and towns that don’t have ethics policies, as well as to those that believe their policies are up to snuff.
The commission voted to accept jurisdiction over an ethics complaint involving a Weld County commissioner, Julie Cozad. The complaint, filed by Johnstown resident Ellen DeLorenzo, alleges Cozad and her husband attended a January 2017 fundraising event as guests of Noble Energy. Seats at the Noble table cost $2,500 each, although seats at other tables could be had for $275 each.
According to the complaint, Cozad consulted with County Attorney Bruce Barker, who advised her that if she reimbursed Noble just for the cost of the two meals, at $75 each, there would be no ethical violation. She also made an additional donation to the charity for whom the event was held.
DeLorenzo’s complaint pointed out that another county commissioner attended the same event and paid $550 for two seats. DeLorenzo noted that Cozad’s table included a representative of Noble Energy and that the company was involved in a land-use issue presented to the commission three weeks later. Cozad did not recuse herself from that discussion, DeLorenzo said, despite also being an employee of a company (Tetra Tech) that was involved in the same land-use issue.
In a letter to DeLorenzo, Barker said there were no discussions of county business at the Noble Energy table, and that neither Cozad or her husband “received anything of value at the Gala for which they did not pay for themselves. As a result, I do not find that Commissioner Cozad violated” the Weld County code or state statutes, he wrote.
The commission has grappled with how to deal with home rule (self-governing) county and municipal ethics codes several times in the past year, most recently over a complaint involving a now-former member of the Glendale City Council. The constitutional amendment that created the commission, Amendment 41, provides an exemption to commission oversight for home rule entities that adopt their own ethics codes.
The problem is that some ethics codes, according to the commission, lack a definite policy regarding the amendment’s gift ban. Amendment 41 prohibits gifts valued at more than $50 (adjusted for inflation) to anyone covered under the state ethics law.
Both La Plata County and the city of Durango have ethics polices that forbid public officials from accepting gifts worth more than $50.
Weld County’s ordinance, adopted in 2007, states that county employees cannot accept bribes, money, property or services of value in the course of employment. The expectation is that county commissioners would also abide by that policy, according to Jason Dunn, an attorney who represents Cozad.
The ethics commission adopted a policy statement in 2016 that spelled out what a home rule entity’s gift ban policy must include. Dunn told Colorado Politics that Weld County’s ethics code addresses gifts, conflict of interest and expectations of conduct. “It’s not clear” what exactly is missing, Dunn said, but added that the comments from the commission appear to say that the county doesn’t have a gift ban.
But Dunn explained that the commission appears to want ethics codes that mirror Amendment 41, which is far more than just a gift ban.
The city of Durango has an independent ethics board and a process for filing complaints.
La Plata County has been revising its ethics policies the last few months after a complaint filed this past summer. The Board of County Commission expects to adopt the updated ethics codes, which includes best practices recommended by the Eagle County Attorney’s Office, within the next few weeks.
Whether Weld County will challenge the commission’s interpretation is up for discussion, Dunn said, noting that both Colorado Counties, Inc. and the Colorado Municipal League have weighed in on the matter and appear to favor Weld County’s position.
Both CCI and the Municipal League, in briefs filed with the commission, wrote that the position statement conflicts with the state constitution. The position statement “also improperly asserts Commission jurisdiction over ethics complaints against the officers and employees of home rule entities that do not have ethics provisions essentially identical” to Amendment 41, the Municipal League brief stated.
The Commission’s improper exercise of jurisdiction over Weld County “impacts all home rule entities that have legislated on the matter of ethical behavior for local officials and employees because it sets a precedent that the Commission will act without jurisdiction against any home rule official or employee,” the brief said. The Commission is acting beyond its authority, the brief continued, “because no constitutional or statutory provisions delegate to the Commission authority over home rule municipalities or counties which have elected to govern ethics as a local matter.”
On Monday, commissioners asserted that Weld County does not have a gift ban in their opinion, and voted unanimously to investigate the Cozad complaint.