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  • Dylan Anderson

Complaint alleges Yampa Valley Housing Authority messaging about Brown Ranch violated fair campaigning law

YVHA Executive Director says organization followed the law and that they “never ask anyone to vote yes or no on annexation.”


Two Steamboat Springs residents allege the Yampa Valley Housing Authority improperly used resources to support Steamboat Ballot Measure 2I and the upcoming Brown Ranch annexation vote in a seven-page complaint filed with the city of Steamboat Springs this week.

 

The complaint, brought by Steamboat residents Dave Barnes and Kelly Phillips, alleges violations of Colorado’s Fair Campaign Practices Act and includes more than 80 pages of internal emails obtained through a public records request.

 

Like a similar complaint filed earlier this month that the city is still reviewing, Barnes and Phillips point to various iterations of a factsheet the housing authority produced about Brown Ranch, saying that it is “one-sided” and “explicit advocacy.”

 

The complaint does not include examples of YVHA spending money on messaging that explicitly tells voters to support either Ballot Measure 2I or the annexation vote.

 

But the new complaint includes more than the earlier document, alleging that sharing newspaper editorials supportive of the project on the Brown Ranch website and positive references to Brown Ranch on the YVHA website have also crossed the line of the fair campaigning law.

 

The complaint alleges YVHA’s newsletter has flouted campaign rules too by sharing opinion pieces supportive of Brown Ranch, encouraging supporters of the project to attend a city council meeting and sharing a statement thanking Steamboat voters for passing Ballot measure 2I. The complaint lists community presentations YVHA has given in town and the hiring of a communications consultant as other potential violations.

 

“This was not an effort to present neutral or balanced information as the law requires and YVHA’s council and (the City Clerk’s) Office advised YVHA staff,” the complaint reads. “It was instead a coordinated effort to push a particular policy view and to respond to, as one YVHA Board Member put it in an email to staff, ‘the opposition.’”

 

In a response to questions from The Yampa Valley Bugle, YVHA Executive Director Jason Peasley said they have followed the law and that they “never ask anyone to vote yes or no on annexation.”

 

“Our communications are strictly related to the ongoing project planning of developments that YVHA is undertaking to further our mission to deliver housing solutions for the community,” Peasley said. “Our communications have focused on the Community Development Plan for Brown Ranch and our ongoing planning related to the development of affordable and attainable housing for our community.  We do not ask anyone to vote on annexation in our communications.”

 

Peasley added that YVHA ran the organization’s communications plan by City Attorney Dan Foote before making updates to their website in an effort to not flout the Fair Campaign Practices Act.

 

The complaint comes as the city has received two others already, the first of which has been dismissed and the second the city is still reviewing. It also comes about a month before Steamboat voters are set to go to the polls to decide the fate of Brown Ranch in the March 26 up or down vote on annexation.

 

In addition to points made in the complaint, the document includes internal emails between YVHA officials and executives with The Michaels Organization that Barnes and Kelly obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act Request. The Michaels Organization is YVHA’s development partner for Brown Ranch that will assist with construction of horizontal infrastructure like roads and rental housing.

 

The emails, which have been reviewed by The Yampa Valley Bugle, depict the developer’s desire to take an active role in messaging around Brown Ranch, stave off fears about a big, out-of-town developer and build support for the Brown Ranch in the community.

 

Peasley said Michaels offered to share communications tools at their disposal, but that YVHA declined that offer, and instead they have “relied on our own local knowledge to explain what YVHA does.”

 

The complaint is just that at this stage, and has yet to receive a decision to its validity or merits from the City Clerk’s Office.

 

“The city has already dismissed the first allegation against us,” Peasley said, referring to an allegation submitted by Steamboat resident Ken Mauldin that the city dismissed earlier this month. “We will continue to respond to the complaints, and we believe that there have been no violations by YVHA of the Fair Campaign [Practices] Act or the city’s election code.”

 

Steamboat’s election code incorporates the state’s Fair Campaign Practices Act, which generally prohibits government bodies like YVHA from spending money “to urge electors to vote in favor or against any … local ballot issue.”

 

There are a few exceptions to that rule that are allowed, like the YVHA Board was allowed to pass resolutions in support of Ballot Measure 2I and in support of Annexation. Government bodies are also allowed to produce a “factual summary” that “must include arguments both for and against” and cannot contain a conclusion on how to vote on a particular issue.

 

YVHA has not produced a document that is labeled as a factual summary on either the 2I ballot measure or the annexation vote. Peasley said they do not talk about the annexation vote in communications or community presentations.

 

“We do not talk about the annexation vote — pro or con,” Peasley said. “There are two campaigns, Let Steamboat Vote and House Our Community, debating the merits of Brown Ranch. We believe voters can decide for themselves and get information from both campaigns.”

 

YVHA is allowed to share communications about Brown Ranch generally. In a December memo, housing authority lawyer George Eck shared guidance with the YVHA Board about the Fair Campaign Practices Act in regard to the upcoming vote on annexation, including an opinion on the law from City Clerk Julie Franklin.

 

“The City will interpret (the law) to apply to communications and public outreach that principally relate to the potential issue election,” the memo reads. “The city will interpret (the law) to not apply to communications that principally relate to ongoing project planning.”

 

The memo also says the city interprets the law to prohibit YVHA funding or staff time going toward “communications that show Brown Ranch, the annexation of Brown Ranch, and/or the annexation agreement in a favorable light in the context of the potential Referendum Election.”

 

“The city understands that there is inevitably a lot of grey area, and that under an extremely aggressive interpretation of the statute, (which they have not taken) almost anything YVHA could be perceived as electioneering,” Eck wrote in the memo. “Context is key.”

 

The City Clerk’s Office is expected to make an initial decision on the new complaint within 10 days of its filing earlier this week. There is potential for an additional 30-day review before the city reaches a final decision on the complaint.


The Brown Ranch Annexation Agreement (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)


Five areas under scrutiny


The complaint alleges five areas of messaging that may have violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act.

 

The first says that statements included on the Brown Ranch website that say the project is “an opportunity to house our local workforce, our retirees, our neighbors and our families,” is an example of advocacy that allegedly flouts the law.

 

The complaint goes on to point to the Brown Ranch website’s news page, which has shared several newspaper editorials that were supportive of Brown Ranch. This page also shares news articles about the project — including those published by The Yampa Valley Bugle — but has not shared opinion pieces opposing the project.

These are a violation, the complaint alleges, because YVHA spends money to host and update the website.

 

“These stories, among others remain on the website, and, given the upcoming March special election, are communications that urge Steamboat Springs electors to cast their ballots in a manner to support annexation of Brown Ranch,” the complaint alleges.

 

The second piece of the complaint is about YVHA’s periodic newsletter, pointing to five newsletters sent between Sept. 6 and Nov. 8 specifically. The alleged violations include sharing an editorial written by the YVHA Board sharing a series of statements about Steamboat’s housing landscape and Brown Ranch, asking readers to come support Brown Ranch at a city council meeting, and sharing a statement from YVHA thanking voters for passing ballot measure 2I.

 

The complaint points to another newsletter sent on Sept. 14 sharing a resolution passed by the YVHA board supporting Ballot Measure 2I. The Fair Campaign Practices Act explicitly allows organizations to pass such a resolution and disseminated them through usual channels.

 

The complaint also points to a photo shared in a newsletter of the groundbreaking of YVHA’s Mid Valley project, in which a “Yes on 2I” sign can be seen. That newsletter also included a quote from City Attorney Dan Foote about financial protections for the city in the annexation agreement, which they allege was “cherry-picked” to spur support for the project.

 

The third piece of the complaint targets YVHA’s main website, saying that statements calling Brown Ranch an “opportunity of a lifetime” and that it will “preserve the Steamboat character we cherish” don’t offer “each side of the debate.” The complaint also takes issue with a factsheet posted on the YVHA website it says also fails to present opposing viewpoints.

 

The fourth piece alleges that community presentations given by YVHA about their work and Brown Ranch are “advocacy to support the annexation of Brown Ranch.” The complaint takes issue with statements like “building more homes” is the “solution” to housing issues and that “Brown Ranch reflects the community’s vision for the west side” of Steamboat.

 

“The presentation may not explicitly say, ‘Vote to support annexation,’ but in content and tone, the YVHA’s presentation will be understood as urging voters to do exactly that,” the complaint says.

 

Lastly, the complaint contends that the hiring of a consultant to help YVHA with communications as elections were ongoing in itself is a violation.

 

Not only does the housing authority assert that these are not violations of campaign practices law, they say their messaging strategy was previously reviewed by City Attorney Dan Foote.

 

“Before we even started our communications about YVHA and our developments at Mid Valley and Brown Ranch, we wrote a communications plan that included typical communications tools that any organization uses such as websites, social media, fact sheets, and presentations and asked the City Attorney to review it before we moved forward,” Peasley said. “After it was approved, we updated both the YVHA and Brown Ranch websites.”

Representatives from the Yampa Valley Housing Authority celebrate the groundbreaking of the organizations Mid Valley project in October. The existence of a "Yes on 2I" sign at the event is mentioned as part of the complaint. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)


Internal emails between YVHA and The Michaels Organization


In addition to the five areas Barnes and Phillips allege YVHA violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act, the complaint includes internal emails sent between YVHA officials and executives with The Michaels Organization they argue show YVHA staff’s intent to “advocate in favor of the project and urge its approval.”

 

In one email included in the complaint, Bruce Morgan, a senior vice president for Michaels, says he would like to make a “concerted, directed effort to get the word out and really control the messaging related to Brown Ranch,” while mentioning both the 2I ballot initiative and a potential annexation vote.

 

Morgan’s comments came a week after Steamboat Springs City Council referred measure 2I to the November ballot and months before annexation would be sent to a vote.

 

“This needs to be a professional push to let the voters know that Brown Ranch isn’t about housing the poor people on the back of the rich residents of Steamboat … especially as we get closer to both the STR tax ballot initiative and even more so as it relates to the annexation initiative,” Morgan wrote in a Sept. 13 email.

 

The documents also include a text message between Morgan and Peasley an hour after Barnes sent his Sept. 13 email, where Peasley says “the PR move is awesome,” and that “YVHA can’t advocate but we can pump out public info that the public or a PR firm could use to support the cause.”


Peasley then connects Morgan to YVHA Board President Leah Wood, who is not under the same restrictions as Peasley when it comes to election advocacy under the Fair Campaign Practices Act.

 

Morgan then replies to Peasley that the PR effort is “full steam ahead” and that he had reached out to Wood.

 

Peasley said Michaels did offer to assist with communications “that explain how affordable housing works since it is so different than typical market housing, but we have not used them.”

 

Emails from January show Michaels and YVHA also coordinated to give presentations about Brown Ranch to various community groups. These January emails do not mention the March annexation vote. The only mention of the annexation vote in the slides of the presentation comes as part of a timeline laying out key dates for Brown Ranch from the past few years.

 

The presentation does have several slides about housing in Steamboat Springs and the Brown Ranch plan. These include plans for phasing, what types of homes the development will offer and other amenities Brown Ranch includes like an indoor sports barn.

 

“YVHA takes very seriously our mandate to provide affordable and attainable housing, as well as to educate the public on what we do and how we do it since our housing developments are so different from market-rate housing,” Peasley said. “Our community presentations focus on the facts about planned housing developments like Mid Valley and the Brown Ranch. … We do not talk about the annexation vote - pro or con.”

 

Many of the details included in the presentation are things that Franklin, the city clerk, had expressly said YVHA could talk about in her memo about the Fair Campaign Practices Act.

 

“A focus on the details of ongoing project planning and development, on the other hand, such as terms of agreements with development partners, phasing plans for housing and offsite infrastructure, unit types and delivery schedules, planning related commercial development, design and programming of the Sports Barn facility, fundraising strategies, ongoing housing demand analysis, etc. would tend to indicate a principal purpose of ongoing project management and development,” the memo reads.


Top Photo Caption: A rendering of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority's Brown Ranch. (Yampa Valley Housing Authority/Courtesy)


Read the complaint:

YVHA Campaign Violation Complaint (Compressed)
.pdf
Download PDF • 27.33MB

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