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Can They Do That? 

Council miffed by commission's vote to shelve view-protection ordinance

Confusion, dismay and insinuations about illegal backroom deals were among the reactions of Colorado Springs City Council members this week after the city's Planning Commission voted to shelve a measure intended to preserve the view of Pikes Peak from the Pioneers Museum downtown.

The Council last month asked the Planning Commission to review and make a recommendation on the proposed measure, designed to stop a planned expansion of the El Paso County Courthouse from blocking the view of the mountains from the 100-year-old museum building.

Neighborhood organizations, historic preservationists and several city advisory boards back the measure. An organization of downtown businesses opposes it, as do developers planning a downtown urban renewal project, who argue that restricting building heights in the area could impact the project.

But when the ordinance came before the Planning Commission last week, commissioners declined to hear and weigh the two sides' arguments, as they had been asked to do. Instead, they voted 4-3 to postpone the matter "indefinitely."

The move -- described as highly unusual -- vexed several Council members.

"Aren't they required to do what we directed?" asked Councilman Scott Hente, during the Council's meeting Monday.

"I'm concerned that the Planning Commission would take this tack," said Councilman Tom Gallagher.

Lunch break

Though it's unclear whether a majority of the City Council actually supports the proposed view-protection measure, the elected body last month asked planning staff to continue their work on developing the ordinance, which had begun under the previous City Council.

The Council asked its appointed Planning Commission to review the staff proposal in time for the Council to act during its June 24 meeting. The timing is important, Council members have said, because the county is expected to submit a plan for its courthouse expansion in a few months.

A public meeting on the courthouse plans is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. next Tuesday, June 17 at the Weber Street Center of First Presbyterian Church, 105 N. Weber.

But planning commissioners who voted to postpone the matter said the public hadn't had enough opportunity to comment on the ordinance.

"I felt that it deserved a full airing in public, and it didn't appear to me that that had happened," said Commissioner Steve Obering, who made the motion to postpone.

That assertion, however, was refuted by Walter Lawson, a citizen activist who favors view protection. Lawson said the ordinance has been discussed at 22 public meetings -- including a hearing on May 29, where dozens of people showed up.

"It just isn't true that nobody has had a chance to comment," Lawson said.

And in voting to shelve the issue, the commission actually prevented members of the public, who had showed up at the meeting, from making comments, critics noted.

"They didn't let any public input happen," complained Councilwoman Margaret Radford, who backs the ordinance.

Lunch break

Citizens who attended the commission's meeting also pointed out that Obering moved to postpone the view-protection ordinance immediately after commissioners returned from an extended recess, during which they hobnobbed over a catered lunch in a City Hall conference room. That prompted Radford to raise the question of whether commissioners had made a backroom deal to kill the ordinance.

"There was a perception [among people attending the meeting] that some sort of deal had been made at lunch," Radford said during Monday's Council meeting.

Obering, in an interview, rejected the insinuation. Some commissioners chatted about the ordinance during lunch, but "it wasn't a group discussion," he said. "There was no meeting."

Commissioner Robert Wignall also said no illegal meeting took place. His account differed from Obering's, however, in that he said there was no discussion of the ordinance during lunch, whatsoever.

"I do not recall a word of it during the lunch break," Wignall said. "We don't discuss any of the items over lunch."

The two also denied that the vote was an effort to kill the ordinance. Obering said he hasn't made up his mind about the measure, and Wignall said he actually backs it.

Vote or send it back

Planning Commissioners Steve Shuttleworth and Jan Winkler joined Obering and Wignall in voting to postpone, over the objections of Commissioners Paul Johnson, Val Snider and Mark Cunningham.

Commissioner Steve Blanchard was absent, and Commissioner Chuck Murphy recused himself from the vote upon a recommendation from the city attorney's office, based on the fact that he has campaigned actively for the view-protection ordinance. But observers questioned that reasoning, saying Murphy had no financial stake in the matter and therefore no real conflict of interest.

City officials typically only abstain from voting if they have a potential stake in a decision, or if they have publicly expressed opinions about certain matters considered to be "quasi-judicial," a definition that doesn't apply to the view-protection ordinance.

"He shouldn't have had to recuse himself," argued Sallie Clark, a representative of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, which backs the ordinance.

Clark, a former City Council member, said that by refusing to act, "the commissioners basically abrogated their responsibility to the Council."

Ultimately, the Council might vote on the ordinance without a Planning Commission recommendation. Council members agreed to keep the measure on their agenda for June 24, when they could either vote on it or send it back to the commission.

In the meantime, Radford asked the commission to submit a letter explaining its action.

"When we ask them to take a matter up," she said, "they should take it up."

-- tlangeland@csindy.com

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