INSIGHTS: Proposed transportation tax hike pondered in a chamber of secrets

Author: Joey Bunch - April 30, 2018 - Updated: April 30, 2018

Kelly Brough transportationKelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, talks at the Capitol April 9, urging lawmakers to pass a major transportation bill, pending in the House. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

In November, Colorado voters could be asked to approve as much as a penny-per-dollar sales tax to support transportation. Taxpayers will have to trust that the debate that led to the request was thoughtful and the tax hike is, indeed, necessary, before the ad campaign begins.

They will need to believe this tax hike was not dictated by business interests in Denver. And they need to know the role played, either passively or aggressively, by the people they elected to represent them.

They’ll have to trust a press release.

Negotiations are going on behind closed doors. Even the names of elected officials who attend the private meetings are being kept secret.

A few days after Gov. John Hickenlooper declared Colorado Journalism Week at the state Press Association’s annual convention, where I spoke on media ethics, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce demonstrated why a determined press is necessary to press the case for transparency and accountability from those we elect.

The chamber has been organizing conference calls and sharing a phone number for “stakeholders” to call in. The press and, by proxy, everyday citizens who ultimately could pay a proposed sales tax don’t qualify as having a stake, at least not yet.

That call-in number was shared with me by others listening in who are concerned about Denver interests controlling the process with a heavy hand and arguably sidestepping the state’s Sunshine Law, which holds that the public’s business must be done in public.

I listened to the call and followed up with a request to talk about it. I was emailed a statement from Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver chamber, that vaguely reflected what I heard. When I told the chamber’s spokeswoman I heard the meeting for myself, she accused me of spying and called me unethical.

The original email about the call said nothing about it being private, and no one asked who was listening in. The next group email stressed that the call was by invitation only. The next call was rescheduled as an in-person meeting at the chamber office. Participants were warned in another email that the press — namely, me — might be waiting outside to ask them questions, and were reassured that the meeting was legal.

The chamber swears there was not more than one elected official from any one board or commission at any one meeting or call. That would technically comply with the letter of the law if we were talking about a local ordinance, but not the spirit of transparency for a statewide ballot question.

“We can guarantee you we’re not in violation of the Sunshine Law,” Brough told me in the lobby. “Guaranteed. We’d never do anything that was.”

Do you want to know if your mayor participated? Hire a lawyer.

Roger Sherman, the political consultant for the chamber-led coalition, said my lawyer could review the list of elected officials with the chamber’s lawyer to determine if the Sunshine Law was broken. You’ll have to trust that they wrote down all the names, or that some elected officials weren’t listening in on a call.

Sherman would not comment on the transparency.

Understand, this is not about one meeting or even one issue; it’s about protecting a public-private process that benefits both sides. The chamber gets political clout in exchange for taking the political heat.

Neil Westergaard, the retiring editor-in-chief of the Denver Business Journal, raised similar questions about the shell-game process in the way the Amazon HQ2 pitch was written outside the public view.

“The public won’t know anything about Denver’s bid until it’s too late to change it,” he wrote in October.

He explained, “The Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., an arm of the Denver Metro Chamber, is acting as the clearinghouse for the Denver region’s Amazon bid. It’s privately funded organization, not subject to Colorado’s Open Records Act.”

Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said business officials don’t have to respect the Sunshine Law, but elected officials should.

“While the chamber group may be under no Sunshine Law obligation to open its meetings on a possible transportation tax ballot question, providing a list of elected officials who are involved in the process would assure the public there are no violations, that the meetings don’t, for instance, include multiple state lawmakers who are making transportation policy and should be conducting their deliberations in a public setting,” he said.

Jon Caldara, leader of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, has led efforts against proposals to hike taxes for transportation; the legislature has more than enough money to fund transportation, he contends. He has a proposal called Fix Our Damn Roads to force the legislature to fund roads without raising taxes.

“The Denver chamber is known first and foremost as the incubator of tax increases for public works projects that benefit a certain class of insider,” he told me. “If they cared about mobility and not just squeezing more cash out of working families, they’d join us in demanding the state fix our damn roads without a tax or fee increase.”

Tom Norton finished up his last term as Greeley’s mayor in January. He also served in the state Senate and later was director of the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Norton was one of the people on a call-in phone line who spoke at the closed-door chamber meeting. Though he’s no longer an elected official, Norton said office-holders are open and accountable when they choose to tell folks back home what they said in private meetings in Denver.

“If you have a reporter in the room, you can’t talk,” he said, raising his voice. “All (reporters) want is to raise hell and make somebody look bad in their newspaper and sell newspapers.

“That’s not how you get things done.”

All the press can do is knock on the closed door and shine a light on the darkness. You know what else has a closed door? The voting booth.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.