Aspen has city rules preventing employees and elected officials from accepting certain kinds of gifts. At the same time, employees accept expensive passes to one of the biggest events of the summer.
The municipal government receives about two dozen passes to the Food & Wine Classic held in June, which City Attorney Jim True describes as “incredibly important to the City.” Passes are expensive, fetching fourteen hundred dollars. The chamber of commerce receives many pairs which are then passed on to the city of Aspen.
“We received 11 sets of passes,” says City Clerk Linda Manning. “So we had a lottery drawing this year for distribution, so employees could sign up for a pair of passes.” City representatives say the passes have been given to the government for so many years it’s hard to remember when the tradition started. True believes that longevity shows the passes are not about influencing officials or city staff to treat Food & Wine differently than other special events.
He’s sure the passes meet city’s ethical guidelines, too, describing Aspen’s code this way: “The code says fairly clearly that a member of the city shall not accept a gift of substantial value or of substantial economic benefit, that would tend to improperly influence a reasonable person to depart from the faithful and impartial discharge of his duties.”
Some other local officials have questioned whether the city is influenced simply by allowing the event to affect town as much as it does. But the practice does meet the letter of the law regardless. “The code also goes on to say that certain gifts are not deemed to be gifts of substantial value,” says True. “Those include tickets to sporting, recreational, educational, and cultural events in the Roaring Fork Valley.”
Those tickets are excluded because they only good for a weekend, and when it comes to Food & Wine in particular, it’s helpful for City staff and leadership to see how the festival is run. A key part of it is on City property, streets are closed off, and other changes are made in town to help the event go smoothly. True says he recently reviewed the Food & Wine passes to make sure they are acceptable, and this summer, the City switched to the lottery method, instead of handing passes over to department heads. Some tickets are still set aside for certain people, like the City Manager’s office and city council members.
The Colorado Municipal League in Denver agrees that Aspen’s acceptance of the passes is in good legal standing. When asked why staff-- and officials-- don’t just pay for their own pass to Food & Wine, True says that’s an option, but the usual 22 passes make it possible for far more staff and officials to attend.