Water issue raised again

Former councilman files complaint with state

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— Despite the failure to approve the Steamboat Springs Water Authority in Tuesday's election, disagreement between the city and the opposition continues.

Former councilman John Ross filed a complaint with the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, stating the city has violated fair campaign practices.

It is a complaint City Council President Kathy Connell said is unwarranted and could cost the city thousands of dollars.

Ross would not comment on the details of the violation except to say he believes the city violated a clear provision in the Fair Campaign Practices Act.

City Attorney Tony Lettunich said Ross' complaint alleged the city violated the act when City Manager Paul Hughes wrote a joint letter with Mount Werner Water District Manager Bob Stoddard.

In the letter, Hughes and Stoddard explained the history of the two entities, the power of the proposed water authority board and why rates were different.

That letter was then copied, circulated by council members at a local supermarket and published in Steamboat Today.

Under the Fair Campaign Practices Act, up to $50 of public funds can be spent on a ballot issue, Lettunich said.

That provision allows city staff or elected officials leeway if they unintentionally use a piece of city paper, send a fax from the city or write with a city pencil.

But Lettunich said the letter was written on Hughes' personal time and he did not use city resources to write the letter.

Lettunich also said it is legal for City Council members to campaign on their own time and with their own money.

"It is not a substantive complaint," Lettunich said.

In what she called a campaign full of misinformation, Connell said the letter was a chance to get information out to the public.

"(The complaint) is a challenge of integrity, and my integrity is something I don't take lightly," Connell said. "We were trying to get the information out to the people because it is such a complex issue."

Lettunich said the complaint filed at the secretary of state's office will be sent to the division of administrative law, which will hear the case.

A hearing date will be set Friday.

Lettunich said a hearing has to occur after the first 30 days a complaint is filed.

But Ross said he would like the hearing to wait until after the busy ski season, sometime after March.

Even if the complaint is unwarranted, Lettunich said a lack of funding in the secretary of state's office prevents the office from investigating cases and dismissing those that are frivolous.

That means hearings are required for all complaints.

The cost of a hearing could be a burden to taxpayers, Connell said.

She said the cost of hiring outside legal counsel and the price of the city manager, attorney and council members traveling to Denver for the hearing could be between $3,500 and $6,000.

Connell said she is disappointed in Ross' failure to inform her of the complaint, even though she said as an ex-councilman he knows the costs of the hearing.

"The loser is not me. The loser is not John Ross. The loser is the community," Connell said. "That money can't go into the city budget, and it takes away from the real needs in our city. It could have been handled so simply."

Ross said the cost of defending the complaint is minimal compared to what the city spent in campaigning for recent ballot issues like a taxing district for downtown businesses, the 3-2-1 tax and the water consolidation agreement.

"That is a drop in the bucket compared to the time and money from taxpayers and city given to those three issues," Ross said.

Lettunich said the complaint could possibly be resolved through a summary hearing.

That means the city would state in a document and a judge would agree the facts in the complaint are true, but the facts are not in violation of the Fair Campaign Practices Act.

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