The City of Centennial does not have financial records regarding a 2016 petition on Arapahoe Road development because under campaign rules, there was no required filing, according to Allison Wittern, city spokeswoman.
Supporters or opponents of a ballot question — in this case, asking voters to support or decline the council's move to allow car dealerships — must register as an “issue committee” under state and municipal law if they are:
• A group of two or more individuals, a business, or both, and
• Have accepted or made contributions or expenditures of $200 or more to support or oppose that ballot question; or have printed more than 200 petition sections (copies of a petition) or more than 200 petition sections have been accepted.
According to Lynn Bartels, spokeswoman for the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, reporting requirements kick in once a petition is submitted for approval to be circulated — in other words, when people are allowed to collect signatures. Payments before that point would not require reporting, according to the office.
During the 2016 push, the city received 167 petition sections, whereas 253 packets were submitted for the current petition, according to the city clerk's office.
The amount of monetary contributions and expenditures reported by No New Dealerships on Arapahoe, the issue committee supporting a petition against additional car dealerships in central Centennial, is zero.
However, an enigmatic Delaware-based company, Sequoia Community Partners LLC, spent more than $107,500 to provide “in-kind” support to the committee, including $96,000 that went to a firm gathering signatures for the petition.
That's according to the campaign-finance report dated Nov. 1 for the No New Dealerships on Arapahoe committee, which aimed to stop a 5-4 Centennial City Council decision to allow new car dealerships on the Central Arapahoe Road Corridor — roughly between Interstate 25 and South Parker Road. The petition was deemed sufficient by the city clerk Oct. 24 after garnering roughly 4,700 valid signatures, more than 600 above the threshold that petitioners needed to clear, according to results from the city clerk's office.
The conflict echoes the previous fight over development on Arapahoe Road in 2016, when resident Jill Meakins and now-Councilmember Tammy Maurer pushed a petition that stopped the city from allowing more car dealerships, among other types of businesses. That 2016 effort was not required to reveal finances.
Some residents have expressed the desire for different kinds of development — theaters, restaurants or other shopping, for example — in the nearly built-out stretch of the city, where car dealerships are the defining feature of the thoroughfare for several blocks. Former Mayor Cathy Noon has argued medical uses would be preferable.
Now, the council could choose to repeal the ordinance allowing new dealerships and possibly pass some kind of compromise, or the city's voters will approve or vote down the ordinance in a special election, likely in March. What the city will do next was to be discussed at the Nov. 5 council meeting, according to Allison Wittern, city spokeswoman.
It wasn't immediately clear who's behind Sequoia Community Partners.
The campaign-finance report, posted on the city's website, details activity by No New Dealerships on Arapahoe between Sept. 10 and Nov. 1. It shows the committee taking in, and spending, no monetary contributions or loans. But the total it received in non-monetary contributions — bills paid for directly by another entity, according to Katie Kennedy of Denver, the committee's registered agent — is $107,540.
Those contributions came from Sequoia Community Partners LLC, an entity listed at 251 Little Falls Drive in Wilmington, Delaware. That's the address of Corporation Service Company, a business that serves as a registered agent — a party that acts as a business's legal contact for the government.
Sequoia Community Partners doesn't appear to have a Colorado location, online contact information or records with the Colorado Secretary of State's office. More than a million businesses are incorporated in tiny Delaware, where laws and policies provide privacy protection and other benefits to businesses.
The campaign-finance report lists Sequoia as making a $1,540 payment to Denver-based Campaign Products of the Rockies for petition printing, $96,000 to Lakewood-based Rocky Mountain Voter Outreach for signature gathering, and $10,000 to Denver-based CRL Associates for consulting.
Those totals seem standard for what the usual cost of a petition would be, Kennedy said. Kennedy isn't in charge of the payments and can't speak to who Sequoia is, she said.
Kennedy, of Strategic Compliance LLC, has had wide experience as a registered agent — she oversees campaign-finance compliance, serving about 80 groups in Colorado, she said. That includes big-name organizations like the Senate Majority Fund, the Colorado Republican Leadership Fund, the Fix Our Damn Roads committee — a prominent group that supports current state ballot Proposition 109 — and Stapleton For Colorado, the candidate committee to support Walker Stapleton for governor, according to Colorado Secretary of State records.
Claims of influence
The company that owns a piece of land intended for a Mercedes-Benz outlet on Arapahoe Road claims some pushback against car dealerships is a ploy by an outside interest — namely, another Mercedes-Benz dealer in Littleton.
Ron Ferris, CEO of the company looking to open the dealership near East Arapahoe Road and South Potomac Street, has claimed that most of the people collecting signatures for the 2016 petition regarding Arapahoe Road development were paid for, essentially, by Mercedes-Benz of Littleton. Mercedes-Benz of Littleton filed a lawsuit in late 2016 over the potential Centennial dealership, alleging it would bring unfair competition.
Ferris has also claimed the Littleton dealership was behind a mailer around this spring that opposed Centennial's current green-lighting of dealerships, too. Ferris is CEO of Pennsylvania-based Bobby Rahal Automotive Group.
Ferris said Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a law firm that has represented the Littleton dealership, pulled the strings in supporting the pushback in 2016 and earlier this year.
“I've had no communication with a law firm for another dealership,” Meakins, the 2016 petitioner, said in a previous interview.
Around the time of the 2016 petition, Maurer, the other petitioner, said she had a private financial backer who provided funds for an attorney to draft the petition and for a company, Black Diamond Outreach, to collect signatures.
Meakins said that to her knowledge, a law firm was not involved with Black Diamond, and she said there's no truth to the idea a law firm sent out mailers she was involved with.
Mercedes-Benz of Littleton, in August, did not respond for comment after a phone call and emailed questions about Ferris' statements. Lara Day, spokeswoman for Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, said the firm doesn't disclose its clients and did not have further comment on Ferris' statements.
Day and Mercedes-Benz of Littleton could not immediately be reached by phone or email Nov. 2 on whether the law firm or dealership made any payments toward the 2018 petition costs.
Rocky Mountain Voter Outreach, the company that provided signature-gathering services for the 2018 petition, is listed at the same address as Black Diamond.
Both entities are listed on their websites at 141 Union Blvd., Suite 300, in Lakewood. Phone numbers for both companies lead to the voicemail box for the same person, who said in a phone call that the companies are separate. She referred the Centennial Citizen to call Steve Adams, one of the owners of Rocky Mountain Voter Outreach and former president of the Colorado AFL-CIO union group. Adams did not return a call.
Kennedy, who said she has experience as a registered agent regarding petition efforts, guessed that the companies have the same ownership but said they have different management.
Michael Glass and Rhonda Livingston, the two Centennial residents who brought the 2018 petition forward, could not be immediately reached by email Nov. 2 as to who Sequoia Community Partners is and where the money for the petition costs came from. CRL Associates also could not be immediately reached by phone or email Nov. 2 on those questions.
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