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What Money Can Do to a Local Election

Outside money can change the dynamics of an election. Often it gives outside attention to minority viewpoints. It sometimes makes claims about a situation that aren’t true — or at least are more complex than a simplified call to action. Occasionally it evens the playing field in an authoritarian environment. It can also amplify the voices of those outside the service area who have something to gain — often financial — from the arrangement. But properly reported according to bylaws, outside funding isn’t illegal.

Sangre de Cristo Electric Association headquarters in Buena Vista. Photo by Jan Wondra

The Sangre de Cristo Electric Association (SDCEA) board election has already pitted a vocal minority (many of them solar panel residents and second-home-owners) against SDCEA. There is a large, silent majority of SDCEA members who may or may not be engaged.

Ark Valley Voice was told that outside grants and donations may have a funding role in the 2023 board election for the Sangre de Cristo Electric Association open board seats, so we looked into it.

What we learned was at first “no”, then “sort of”‘.

But it appears that the candidates themselves followed SDCEA rules in support of their campaigns for the SDCEA board.

Two board candidates running for reelection, Michael Robinson and Joe Redetzke said they funded their campaigns themselves. This is true. However, Robinson listed all his expenses, but didn’t include that total as a personal contribution of more than $100.

Redetzke said he had nothing to do with an ad paid for and run in Custer County news media by four SDCEA members, so he couldn’t say what they spent. But he listed the names of those who he had learned had placed the ad.

Both candidates endorsed by the Ark Valley Energy Future group (AVEF) Jeff Fiedler and Mark Boyle, said they were funded by AVEF. Each said they’d put some money in. Neither the AVEF 2022 annual report nor the AVEF IRS Form 990-N (e-Postcard) report provide any indication of that organization’s fund sources and AVV notes that such details are not required for filers with gross annual receipts less than $50,000.

Ark Valley Voice received unconfirmed reports that AVEF had hired Joel Duyr, a consultant from a grassroots campaign organization known as the Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action. Other sources told Ark Valley Voice that a group called We Own It (short for We Own Our Cooperatives ) was involved with AVEF and that there was support from a group known as POW (“Protect Our Winters“).

We reached out to We Own It Founder and Executive Director Jake Schlachter, who said that he and the organization he leads have had no contact with AVEF. We reached out to AVEF and the organization’s secretary Deb Hannigan confirmed that, adding:

“We have not hired any consultants and we have gotten nothing from Western Colorado Alliance. We are a local nonprofit organization formed by Sangre de Cristo members and are proud to be supporting candidates, one member at a time, who we can trust to work as partners on lowering costs and growing opportunity.”

According to the campaign finance records submitted to SDCEA by the candidates running against each other, their campaign contributions totaled:

Candidate          Personal    Contributors

Mark Boyle             $  500         $3,676.86

Jeff Fiedler              $  500         $3,176.87

Joe Redetzke          $1,520.75       0

Michael Robinson $1,442            0

Hannigan had initially said that there wasn’t any outside funding for AVEF-endorsed candidates. Within a few hours, she amended the comment, telling us that the POW organization made a film endorsing Fiedler, but did not contribute directly to Fiedler’s campaign and they don’t know how much it cost to produce.

“SDCEA has checked and confirmed with their legal department that our financial disclosure of AVEF and POW Action Fund support was in compliance with bylaws.” She added, “Jeff followed this process carefully because the endorsement of him by POW came as a surprise to him. He did not fund it or solicit their help; it was a decision made and a film created by that organization alone in accordance with their own mission.”

It would appear that all candidates have individually followed the SDCEA rules, and additional funding was not under their control. Candidates running to unseat current board members spent more than double the incumbents. Time will tell which made the better investment.

Earlier Hannigan had confirmed that “AVEF does receive donations and apply for grants, which we use in accordance with our mission,” So future campaigns may see more outside influence.

Editor’s notes: Ark Valley Energy Futures is a Colorado 501(c)(3) [EIN 88-0543162] In its self-reported income for fiscal year Dec. 31, 1222, it claimed estimated revenue of $12,000, no expenses, and assets of $5,000. This journalist lives in rural Chaffee County and is a member of the SDCEA.