AURORA | The mayor of Aurora has sued the city he represents over changes made by city council affecting campaign finance, a bill he voted against.
Mayor Mike Coffman has filed a lawsuit against Aurora and the city clerk, aiming to reverse recently enacted campaign finance rules.
In the suit, Coffman alleges the new finance structures infringe on his free speech and choke his ability to effectively raise money for himself and other municipal candidates and causes.
“That new law prohibits Mayor Coffman (and others like him) from doing anything effective to campaign for another candidate or in support of a ballot issue. In essence, it unconstitutionally restricts the rights to free speech and association for both candidates in the current election cycle and others who could potentially run in some future election,” the lawsuit says of the rules.
The nine-page complaint was penned on Coffman’s behalf by attorney Dan Burrows, who is affiliated with the Lakewood-based Public Trust Institute, a conservative non-profit group “created to uphold our state’s constitution and defend the principles of individual freedom and personal responsibility on which Colorado was founded,” according to the group’s website. The suit was filed in Arapahoe County District Court shortly before 10 a.m. March 17, a clerk confirmed.
Specifically, Coffman’s lawsuit takes issue with rules in the new law that prevent candidates from becoming involved in each others’ campaigns — including fundraising. The mayor is technically still a candidate for a 2023 reelection bid, although he hasn’t publicly announced whether he’ll run.
The lawsuit drew immediate criticism from some city council members.
“We have the city’s mayor using taxpayer money to sue the city on an issue that provides for transparency and accountability in elections — and it’s an issue that as mayor that he can’t vote on,” said Council member Nicole Johnston, a chief author of the campaign finance reform measure. “The mayor is suing the city, using taxpayer money, to make it easier for him to keep himself involved in dark money politics that have plagued city elections.
“It’s unfathomable that he would spend scarce city resources on this issue instead of addressing real city problems,” she added.
The lawsuit was filed by a group of political activists. Aurora must pay to defend the measure.
The lawsuit immediately raised ethical questions about how the city council would handle advice and details of a lawsuit in executive session filed by a member of the council, Coffman.
Coffman says in the lawsuit that he already supports a candidate in the 2021 city council race and wants to help funnel money into the person’s campaign.
He told the Sentinel that candidate is Dustin Zvonek. He’s a candidate for an at-large seat who was Coffman’s spokesperson, campaign manager and aide when he represented the 6th Congressional district in Congress.
Zvonek also worked with the conservative political group Americans for Prosperity and Unite for Colorado, whose expenditure committee has helped fund political campaigns for conservative candidates but does not disclose its own donors.
The origins of Coffman’s disagreement with the campaign finance rules lay in the politics surrounding the expansive campaign finance reforms that will now govern the 2021 election cycle, which is beginning to heat up.
A majority of city lawmakers in November approved a plan penned by council members Nicole Johnston and Juan Marcano with the help of left-leaning campaign finance advocacy groups.
Marcano said that process also included legal reviews from city staff and the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center. He said the rules are constitutionally sound.
“There was nothing that raised a flag,” he said.
Coffman, a Republican who has held a slew of public offices in the state since the 1980s, has pitted himself against Johnston, Marcano and other council Democratic council members, saying they pushed the recent financial retooling “to shut him up,” according to the complaint.
“The Mayor’s political opponents convinced the City of Aurora to pass a law to entrench the current power structures and sideline people, like Mayor Coffman, who want to change the system,” the suit alleges.
The new municipal finance law created a cap on the amount of money that a committee or an individual can contribute to a candidate. Corporations, business entities and political groups have to register with the city and set up a special entity to contribute money and resources or donate directly to a candidate.
Sponsors said the rules are intended to make it easier for Aurora residents to track the dark money contributions that have flooded races in recent years.
Plus, contributors and candidates can face steep fines if they intentionally flout rules.
Coffman voted against that proposal after pushing his own plan for more relaxed rules, but he’d failed to earn enough support from other lawmakers.
Both Coffman and the prevailing duo had agreed that campaign finance in Aurora was out of control.
The 2019 election that brought Coffman to the helm of city government clocked in as the most expensive in Aurora history. The mayor’s race alone eclipsed more than $1 million in spending, much of it in the form of large donations from individuals representing oil and gas, development and big political interests from both sides of the aisle.
Coffman netted 223 donations of more than $1,000 in his mayoral bid, according to the suit.
He edged Democratic challenger Omar Montgomery by some 200 votes.
Coffman’s counsel have 63 days to serve their suit on Aurora city attorneys and Clerk Kadee Rodriguez.
City spokesperson Ryan Luby said attorneys are still reviewing the suit.
“The Aurora City Attorney’s Office (CAO) is still reviewing the lawsuit, so it would be improper for us to comment on it at this time,” Luby wrote in an email. “However, the CAO defends any policy or law that is supported by the City Council as a body.”