Monday morning, one of Colorado Springs City Council's newer members visited the Independent offices and talked about feeling frustrated with how the past eight months have gone.
"What people don't realize, what people need to know," Lisa Czelatdko said fervently, "is that a lot of us really are doing our best to help the city ... and we're trying to get it right."
Several hours later, Czelatdko and five of her Council colleagues proved that on one important issue. They basically told Mayor Steve Bach and City Attorney Chris Melcher to forget about their idea of "free-speech zones" in downtown Colorado Springs, by refusing to address the issue behind closed doors.
It was totally the right decision. It also was an appropriate reality check for the mayor and his still-developing administration dotted with newbies to local government — serving all the people.
Amid the busy holidays, many people might have missed how the free-speech zones came to light. That story was broken by the Indy's J. Adrian Stanley, who found out all she could while people were hard to reach (and offices often closed) in late December. Her story, "Not in our downtown," in our Dec. 29 issue, described how the city attorney was looking into a city ordinance limiting free-speech activism, in direct response to the Occupy Colorado Springs protest at Acacia Park and outside City Hall.
Other media have done their own versions since, following up on the Indy's reporting (never giving Stanley credit, which is sadly typical), but we're still wondering how it would have come out if not for her first story.
It was obvious that City Council had little idea what was in the works. The research was being quietly developed at the behest of Bach, apparently to appease downtown interests. As Council President Scott Hente succinctly puts it, "I know of no Council member who asked for this."
And it wasn't handled properly, just as other matters (budget vetoes, public appearances, etc.) have been fumbled — understandably or not — since the change in city government took place last summer.
At some point, the excuse of Bach and others being new to the job doesn't apply anymore. In fact, that time might have come Monday. Council didn't simply refuse to hear the city attorney's side in closed session because of a procedural disagreement. It went much deeper.
"We already have a free-speech zone — it's from sea to shining sea," said Hente, an Air Force Academy grad who worked his way up to lieutenant colonel and served in the first Gulf War of 1990. "And I didn't spend 21 years in the military defending our rights only to get elected and work to get rid of them. And yes, you can quote me on that."
It could have helped if Bach had been around for that discussion. But he had departed by then, after orchestrating an unusual ploy on a different topic. Bach asked Council to pass a resolution supporting state Sen. Kent Lambert's latest bill that would allow local governments to change the terms (employers' and employees' contributions) for the Public Employees Retirement Association. The bill, after failing twice previously, has been revised again, and Bach obviously thinks an insignificant gesture from our City Council would have an impact on the Legislature.
Bach even brought in ex-Mayor Lionel Rivera to lecture Council on the PERA bill's importance, as if the city's financial future depends solely on that legislation. Council went along and approved the resolution Tuesday, but that doesn't mean the state bill will pass. Several lawmakers already have indicated that Lambert's bill probably won't survive. And the PERA issue, by various accounts, isn't as much of a problem for the city as other matters, such as the pension plans for police and fire.
Nor does the PERA resolution's passage mean we've seen the last friction inside city government. Tied to the issue of free-speech zones was a related question of whether to prohibit panhandling in the downtown business area. It wasn't killed, but Council didn't care to discuss that in private, either.
In other words, when you hear that Council is "trying to get it right," believe it.