By Dusty Berger
Sampson v. Coffman posed the question of whether people who oppose the annexation of their neighborhood into a nearby municipality must register as an issue committee with government authorities. 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 70583 (D. Colo. Sep. 18, 2008). Senior District Judge Matsch concluded that the plaintiffs were not required under Colorado law to register as an issue committee until the municipality’s governing board had voted to conduct an annexation election and published notice of the election required under Colorado law. The judge also concluded that, under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Colorado could not require the neighborhood annexation opponents to register until the notice of election was published.
The defendant, J. David Hopkins, a resident of the plaintiffs’ Parker, Colorado-area neighborhood, began circulating a petition for the Parker Town Council to annex the “Parker North” neighborhood into the Town of Parker. The plaintiffs, a group of six other Parker North neighborhood members, opposed the annexation through coordinated letter-writing and talking to people in their neighborhood. The group printed yard signs opposing the annexation and established a neighborhood e-mail discussion group on Yahoo! to discuss the annexation. After the plaintiffs began urging neighbors to withdraw their signatures from the annexation petition, Hopkins filed a complaint under Colorado law with the Secretary of State alleging that the plaintiffs were an “issue committee” that had failed to register with the Douglas County Clerk and follow other statutory requirements. Hopkins used his complaint with the Secretary of State to deter others from joining the plaintiffs in opposing the neighborhood’s annexation into the Town of Parker. The plaintiffs filed their own complaint in federal district court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.
The court interpreted Colorado law as requiring an issue committee to register only after there is a ballot question related to the committee’s issue. When Hopkins filed his complaint, the Court concluded, no ballot question yet existed. Under Colorado law, a municipality may consider a proposed annexation when a petitioner submits a petition of 10% of the landowners in the area proposed for annexation. If the municipality wishes to proceed with the annexation, it may schedule a special election for qualified electors in the area to vote on the annexation. This process culminates in the publication of a notice of election. At the time of Hopkins’ complaint to the Secretary of State, the Parker Town Council had not yet decided whether to hold an annexation election, and, accordingly, had not yet concluded whether to publish a notice of election.
In addition to concluding that the Colorado campaign finance law did not apply to the plaintiff’s activities until the annexation election had been announced, Judge Matsch also concluded that (1) any registration and reporting requirements in the law that purported to apply before the announcement were invalid under the First Amendment and (2) the registration and reporting requirements did not violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights after the election had been announced, because of Colorado’s compelling interest in protecting the integrity of the electoral process and ensuring transparency in the organized opposition to the annexation.
The court’s decision was a substantial victory for those who engage in politics at the local level. The court recognized that “[n]o reasonable person would believe that simply sharing their views with neighbors and expressing them in the manner shown in this case would result in their being hauled before an administrative law judge to defend themselves against general accusations of law violations and be exposed to monetary penalties and publicly condemned as law violators.”
Here, the court’s decision ensures that all participants in the discussions about annexation can participate without having to satisfy the requirements of campaign finance laws until the municipality’s legislative body approves the annexation and publishes the notice of election. This decision allows all parties to freely petition the legislative body during its deliberations without fear that an opposing party will use the campaign finance laws to silence their speech. This freedom comes at the cost of depriving the public of information about the funding and operation of the organized supporters and detractors of annexation. But, according to the court, the public’s interest in this information is insufficient to warrant restricting citizens’ freedom of speech until the election is actually scheduled.