Erie town attorneys refute that Mayor Justin Brooks committed an ethics violation by advocating for Being Better Neighbors organization.
The complaint was filed by Ryan Kenward, a former Erie Trustee and Home Rule candidate. Kenward alleged that during an April 7th DEI meeting, Brooks inappropriately pushed the Committee members towards a vote on funding for BBN Pride and Juneteenth events. DEI stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The ethics complaint was filed just as the time frame for reporting a complaint was about to expire. The rules say that any complaint must be submitted within one year of the alleged violation. Kenward provided a transcript of the meeting, although no official transcript was created.
The alleged controversy revolves around the subject of the vote to fund BBN events such as Erie Pride and Juneteenth. BBN is a non-profit organization that promotes DEI work. Brooks is a volunteer for Being Better Neighbors. At that time, Brooks was a Town Trustee and served as the liaison to the Erie DEI board. Kenward believes the ethics violation came from then-Trustee Brooks advocating for BBN by asking the board to take a vote on funding before the board’s term limits expired.
During the open discussion on April 7th, Brooks suggested that the board vote now so as not to delay projects further. Brooks reasoned that voting today will give a head start to the next board stating, “…if you defer the decision today, they’re going to spend their first meeting trying to figure out what they’re going to do as a board, and they will run out of time, and they won’t be able to get this work done.” After discussion, the DEI board themselves decided to take a vote and approve funding for the BBN events.
The meeting can be watched in its entirety online.
Erie Town attorneys Kendra Carberry and Daniel Harvey of Hoffmann, Parker, Wilson & Carberry, P.C. released a statement in support of Mayor Brooks that reads, “In his capacity as a member of the BBN [Being Better Neighbors] Board of Directors, Mr. Brooks did not, and currently does not receive any compensation whatsoever.” They state Mayor Brooks never voted on any issues and did not push anyone on the DEI board into voting a certain way.
The Colorado Independent Ethics Committee determined that the complaint was non-frivolous, which means they will examine the evidence. The IEC website further clarifies what “non-frivolous” means in this context, stating that “A frivolous complaint means a complaint filed without a rational argument for the IEC’s involvement based on the facts or law.” This means that the committee will not hear any complaint outside the purview but will look into any complaint that falls under their jurisdiction. The term has no bearing on the merits of the ethics violation itself. Frivolous and non-frivolous have different meanings when used in this sense. Examples of frivolous complaints are “(1) a complaint that raises no Article XXIX ethical issues, such as a complaint about a county’s zoning decisions, or (2) a special district’s decision to increase rates charged to consumers.” Frivolous has no indication of the merit of evidence presented.
The IEC voted unanimously to hear the complaint, with Commissioner Kao absent. Commissioner Ioannides provided the following to YS, “Commission members do not provide comments for the media on cases pending before the IEC because the IEC is a quasi-judicial body and providing comments to media could compromise the commissioners’ objectivity and neutrality.”
Per a 9News article; Erie mayor accused of directing town funds to his nonprofit, but claims may lack evidence. “Jane Feldman, former IEC executive director, said the IEC may have made the “non-frivolous” assessment without all of the information. The complaint was filed on Feb. 6, the IEC decision was made on March 21, and Brooks’ attorney filed their response on April 24.
Feldman said it looked like the IEC took the complaint into consideration without much digging.
“They take complaints at face value and then do investigations later on,” she said. “It’s a terrible system.”
Feldman called for a shift in the system like a police investigation, where a complaint is investigated, and then IEC staff would decide whether it has merit.
Dino Ioannides, current IEC executive director, did not immediately respond to Feldman’s criticisms. He wrote in an email Monday that he could not answer any “specific question” because there has not been any public discussion about the case”
The Town attorneys also state that the entire complaint is moot as Mayor Brooks is allowed to advocate for a non-profit while holding office according to Colorado statute C.R.S. § 24-18-109(5)(a). The statute reads that “…it is neither a conflict of interest nor a breach of fiduciary duty or the public trust for a local government official who is a member of the governing body of a local government to serve on a board of directors of a nonprofit entity.” This appears to refute the basis of Kenward’s claim, although Kenward’s complaint itself is vague and could possibly refer to 5 separate provisions, according to Town attorneys.
Kenward himself ran for office several times without success, including for Town Trustee and Home Rule Charter Commissioner. During his campaigns, he refused to directly answer questions from Yes on Home Rule Committee. Kenward called affordable housing a “loaded term” in his answers during the 2022 Erie Trustee election to other media outlets, clarifying that he is not in favor of subsidized housing.
The ethics complaint is not the only obstacle that Brooks and other DEI and affordable housing advocates have faced. Erie Planning Commission Chair Kelly Zuniga faced harsh criticism from Town Administrator Malcolm Fleming and four of the six Trustees regarding her lack of communication and effort towards including DEI and affordable housing issues in the Comprehensive Town Update.
“The Planning Commission’s action reflects a clear disregard for the board and staff’s efforts to be inclusive and equitable and to seek out diverse perspectives as we engage the community,” Town Administrator Fleming noted during the April 25th meeting. The Trustees and Town Administrator laid out a compelling argument and eventually passed a resolution clarifying that the Planning Commission did not have the authority that Zuniga believed it did.
Zuniga questioned the necessity of DEI programs and their effectiveness in reaching out to residents stating that they would need to knock on every single person’s door in town if DEI efforts were taken to their logical conclusion of inclusiveness during an April 5th Planning Commission meeting.
Town Trustee Andrew Sawusch has also pushed back against affordable housing and DEI inclusiveness during town meetings with lengthy and sometimes contentious arguments. Sawusch has also been accused of “serial texting” with trustees outside the town meeting by Mayor Brooks, where some of Sawusch’s verbose statements took place.
Kenward, Zuniga, and Sawusch all ran for office during the 2022 election cycle, with only Sawusch winning the Trustee seat by six votes over the next candidate. Dark money from unknown sources was filed in support of their campaigns. There appear to be ties from developers to this particular set of candidates via the group Erie for a Strong Future. ESF supported all of the aforementioned candidates.
Each of the candidates — Kenward, Zuniga, and Sawusch— expressed similar views on affordable housing and DEI work in their own ways. Zuniga, with the slow progress on the Comprehensive Town Update and pushback on DEI community engagement, Kenward via the current ethics complaint, Sawusch speaking against DEI during Town Meetings.
During their election bids, the candidates expressed views on DEI to YS. Regarding DEI, Zuniga stated, “I also don’t think it is one of the roles of government to be teaching people how to think or speak.” Kenward spoke of his reservations as well, “I think the intention behind DEI is good, but I’ve noticed there seems to be a lack of focus on diversity of thought.”
When the actions of Kenward, Zuniga, and Sawusch are examined as a whole, there appears to be a pattern of pushback against programs that feature DEI and affordable housing options for Erie in opposition to what Mayor Brooks and the majority of Trustees were voted in to accomplish.
Sawusch has not responded to our request for comment as of publication. Kenward stated that any comment would be via his attorney, but a statement has not yet been provided. Zuniga told YS in part, “I can understand why Justin would want to divert attention away from the ethics investigation. It doesn’t look good that he’s funneling Town money into an organization that he runs, even if the Town attorney rationalizes it for him with legal loopholes.”
Editors note: Based on our research, Mayor Brooks did not funnel money into any organization. Numerous nonprofits receive money from the Town of Erie including the for-profit Erie Chamber. Additional note: It is customary to refer to an elected official by their title and last name, ie. Mayor Brooks.
Even though Erie’s government is committed to inclusivity and diversity, and the Comprehensive Town Plan encourages affordable and diverse housing options, there is a concerted effort to stifle programs that would make these ideals a functional reality. Mayor Brooks, the majority of the Trustees, and town staff have all attempted to work towards attaining more diversity, equity, and inclusivity by updating the Town Comprehensive Plan, working with the DEI task force, and helping make events like Erie Pride and Juneteenth a possibility.