One of the positive things about having lived in the Roaring Fork Valley as long as Bill Kane has is that the Basalt mayoral candidate’s local connections run deep. During his decades in the private and public sectors he’s worked with or met just about everyone there is to meet, so when he went seeking endorsements for a newspaper ad, Kane had a host of acquaintances from whom to choose.
To tout his stances on the environment, affordable housing and other issues, Kane reached out to his friends Chris Lane, CEO of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies; Suzanne Stephens, executive director of Aspen Valley Land Trust; Gail Schwartz, interim president of Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork; and Cristal Logan, vice president in charge of Aspen Community Engagement for the Aspen Institute.
All four had nice things to say about Kane and why they thought he would make a good mayor, and Kane ran the endorsements alongside the quartet’s pictures and those of other prominent Basalt citizens in two different ads that ran in the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal and The Aspen Times.
In addition to the pictures and endorsements, the ads featured each person’s name, their title and their place of employment, which would seemingly be standard practice and no big deal, but in the case of the four aforementioned nonprofits, it could have been a very big deal indeed.
According to the National Council of Nonprofits, “In return for its favored tax-status, a charitable nonprofit promises the federal government that it will not engage in ‘political campaign activity,’ and if it does, IRS regulations mandate that the charitable nonprofit will lose its tax-exempt status.”
Nonprofits are allowed to engage in lobbying and legislative activities, but the placement of the organizations’ names in the ads could be construed as them throwing their support behind a particular candidate – in this case, Kane – which would be a violation that could result in them losing their status as 501(c)(3) nonprofits.
Though attempts to reach Stephens were unsuccessful, the other three nonprofit heads made sure to clarify that their endorsements of Kane were strictly personal and had nothing to do with their organizations.
“My endorsement of Bill Kane for mayor of Basalt was made in my personal capacity only,” said Schwartz, a former state senator and Kane’s onetime boss years ago at Sno-Engineering, Inc. “I made it very clear to the campaign to only use my name, to make no reference to my title. Despite that, my title was mistakenly added before the ad ran, and I did not catch it. It should not have happened.”
Said Logan via email, “I was not speaking on behalf of the Aspen Institute when I gave my personal support of Bill Kane for mayor of Basalt. I made that clear to him verbally, and I knew he wasn’t construing it as support from the institute.”
Lane said, “I’ve known Bill for about 25 years, maybe longer, and my endorsement of him was coming from me alone. I did not consult with the ACES board about this, and I want to make it clear that ACES, as an organization, is not endorsing him.”
When he became aware of the issue, Kane sent out apologies to both Schwartz and Stephens and claimed that he would have the organization names removed from any future versions of the ads.
“It was my mistake,” said Kane. “I put their names and their job titles in the ad copy I sent to the young lady who’s helping us (make the ads), and I never reviewed it before it went out. I sent them (Schwartz and Stephens) emails on March 19 apologizing, and I sent copies to my fellow mayoral candidates Bill Infante and Rob Leavitt explaining what happened. I take full responsibility for everything. Those titles will be taken off if the ads run again. It’s not comfortable for those organizations, but it was an honest mistake.”
Kane was tangentially involved four years ago in a situation that traversed similar legal ground when he helped out with former Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens’ 2016 campaign for mayor. Stevens found himself pitted against incumbent Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, who ultimately won the election, but during the course of the campaign, signs promoting Whitsitt were placed on the Basalt River Park parcel, which was owned by the nonprofit Roaring Fork Community Development Corp.
A local political activist brought the signs, which violated the same nonprofit laws as Kane’s ads, to the Stevens campaign’s attention, and Kane was part of the email chain discussing the possibility of bringing legal action against Whitsitt.
“This is way too hot and would not play well as it is likely to be portrayed in the local press,” said Kane in an email to others involved with Stevens’ campaign. “I think a polite request to the town to remove (the signs) would be the right tenor given the high emotional pitch we seem to be achieving.”
The Town of Basalt also found itself in a brief legal bind Saturday courtesy of an online comment that seemed to come from the town’s official Facebook page.
The imbroglio began Saturday morning when Infante, a current Basalt town councilman who is running for mayor, put a post on Facebook reminding Basaltines to vote on April 7. Later that day, in the comment section below the post, a comment appeared from the Town of Basalt that read “Vote Rob Robert Leavitt!!!!”
Colorado state law forbids municipalities, much like nonprofits, from engaging in campaign activities, meaning that the post, which did, in fact, come from the town’s official FB account, was illegal. The only problem was that, at least initially, no one on the town’s end seemed to know who made the comment.
A concerned citizen sounded the alarm about the comment, which was subsequently removed, and Town Manager Ryan Mahoney was forced to do some sleuthing to figure out just what happened.
“It looks like it was this guy Cam Burns,” said Mahoney. “Years ago Cam helped the town set up its Facebook page, and he ended up still being an administrator on there. He went to post a personal thing and didn’t realize he was doing it from the town’s page.”
According to Burns, a longtime valley local who currently lives in Carbondale, he volunteered to help town clerk Pam Schilling create Basalt’s Facebook page about “10 or 12 years ago.” Burns was never paid for his time or the picture of Midland Avenue shops that still adorns the page, and he was never removed as an administrator.
“No one seemed to care because I didn’t ever post anything,” said Burns. “Here we are 12 years later, and I actually posted something, but I forgot I was an administrator on the page. I’ve been logged in to that page ever since I helped set it up. It was just me posting as a citizen, and I apologize to anyone for that lapse in thinking.”
However, when asked if Burns had inadvertently posted anything else from the town’s account over the last decade, Mahoney said, “Not that I’m aware of, but he shot me an email letting me know he’d made that mistake.”
Following the accidental comment, Burns was removed as an administrator from the town’s Facebook page, and though Mahoney brought the situation to the attention of town attorney Jeff Conklin, he said he doesn’t anticipate any legal repercussions from the snafu.
“I think the outcome of the election will also probably dictate some of that,” said Mahoney. “If Rob Leavitt doesn’t win then I think it’s moot.”