Forum showdown pits voter group against the city

City allows then denies use of its facilities for candidate forum
News  /  News

Photo from city of Colorado Springs Facebook page.

UPDATE: This story has been updated with a comment from the city.


Two months after allowing the League of Women Voters of the Pikes Peak Region to book the Hillside Community Center for a candidate forum, the city has informed the League that city code prevents the use of its facilities for “campaign-related activities.”

In a lengthy letter that reads like a legal brief, the League disputes the city’s decision, accusing it of “retaliating” against the League after it and other nonprofits filed a lawsuit last summer against the city in an effort to move April city elections to November. The plaintiffs contend that would lead to higher turnout by people of color and save the city money.

Shelly Roehrs, a League spokesperson, tells Sixty35 by phone that her group booked the Hillside center Dec. 12, 2022, for the March 18 mayoral forum that will focus on water, environment and transportation.

But on Feb. 12, she says, she got a call from Josh Gainey, parks operations administrator for Hillside, saying, “We have a problem. We have to cancel your event March 18.”

A few days later, Gainey told Roehrs to disregard that message and that “everything is good.”

Roehrs says since the League had paid a $160 deposit and signed a contract, she asked the city to put the OK in writing.

“Then we got an email earlier this week from Josh saying, ‘Sorry we’re going to have to cancel,'” she says.

Then she received an email from Kim King, recreation and administration manager, that stated, “Following up on an email sent to Josh Gainey earlier today, the Parks Department recently received a legal opinion reviewed and approved by City Attorney Wynetta Massey.  Based on this opinion, City Code 5.2.303 regarding the use of city resources for campaigning does not allow the use of community centers for any type of campaign-related activities.

“I’m sorry for our lapse in updating our website which is being addressed immediately.  Please accept our apology for any inconvenience in shifting venues for your upcoming event,” King wrote.

Roehrs says the League doesn’t endorse candidates but the forums are designed to have candidates speak to voters on city issues. “I just want to educate the public and empower the voters in that area,” she says.

In her letter to the city, Roehrs says, the decision “is at odds with the City Code, likely runs afoul of the First Amendment, and raises concerns about illegal retaliation.  We insist you reverse course and permit the event to proceed.”

The letter notes that the city code portion cited by the city prohibits the use of city resources to “support or oppose, directly or indirectly, a person running for office.” But she argues the League’s event is designed to “educate the public,” not to endorse a candidate.

Moreover, she cites IRS rules for nonprofits that states that “a forum held for the purpose of educating and informing the voters, which provides fair and impartial treatment of candidates, and which does not promote or advance one candidate over another, would not constitute participation or intervention in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.”

Roehrs cites a section of city code that says, “City resources may be used to answer questions related to election issues if the questions have not been solicited by a person in his or her capacity with the City.”

The League’s event “plainly” falls within that exception, she argues, because questions will be posed by local nonprofits and citizens.

Taking the argument a step further, Roehrs says the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech “prohibits content discrimination by the City.

“Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s public forum doctrine, once the government opens a space for public use, the First Amendment prohibits it from limiting that use in a way that discriminates against certain content,” she says.

Perhaps one of the strongest points for the League’s argument is one it does not make. That is, the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, a nonprofit sanctioned and funded by the city, held three candidate forums in 2017 at all three of the city’s community centers, Hillside, Deerfield Hills and Meadows Park. The Westside community center also was the setting for a mayor and Council candidate forum in 2019.

In her letter, Roehrs accuses the city in its about face of “content discrimination” and as retaliation “against the League for its ongoing lawsuit regarding election timing.”

“While we certainly hope that is not the case, we ask that you provide more details about the decision-making process that led to this eleventh-hour about-face,” the letter says. “As detailed above, an event where the public has the opportunity to hear from all candidates for public office is not an event in which candidates are supported or opposed. Rather, it is an event on matters of public concern. City law permits the League to use the event space, and the First Amendment requires it.”

Roehrs tells Sixty35, “I just want to be able to educate the citizens in the community.”

She stopped short of saying the League might sue the city over denying the use of Hillside, calling such a move “a very scary place.”

Roehrs says the League has done preliminary work to find another location but adds, via email, “By cancelling our event, the city created a lot more work, stress and additional costs for an organization working to empower voters and defend democracy.”

We’ve asked the city to comment on the League’s letter and will update when we hear something.

Here’s a statement just in from a city spokesperson:

“The Fair Campaign Practices Act, specifically at City Code § 5.3.303, prohibits the use of City resources for campaigning purposes except in very limited circumstances. The use of City-owned community centers by individuals for the purpose of campaigning for an elected City office does not fall within any of the exceptions contained within the City Code. The use of City facilities for Mayoral and City Council candidate forums has been requested by multiple parties over the course of this election cycle and has been consistently declined by the City. Candidates are free to utilize traditional public forums such as sidewalks and parks for campaign-related activities.”

Editor’s note: Sixty35 Media is partnering with the League on podcast interviews with all candidates in the city election.

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