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HRC tells us about Council 

Between the Lines

We've been hearing for months, actually several years, from multitudes of cynics insisting how awful the City Council has become.

You know the litany: They've lost touch. Nobody trusts them anymore. They're only thinking of themselves. They don't listen. They've wasted millions. They're responsible for every problem the city has.

That last one always gets me. Really? Council's at fault for the economy going to hell and taking sales-tax revenue with it?

Still, the furor has continued. And after two-plus years of being battered mercilessly, you'd figure the nine elected leaders would be ready to quit trying. Then you watch City Council spend more than an hour in fervent debate before making an admirable decision, voting 6-3 to bring back the Human Relations Commission, and you realize not all is lost.

Even before the human relations (or human rights, if you prefer) issue came up Tuesday, Council took another bold action, giving final approval to a process for registering medical marijuana dispensaries. Setting up a legal structure gives the MMJ industry true legitimacy, a meaningful outcome.

But most of the medical marijuana debate took place two weeks earlier, so the vote (by the same 6-3 margin as before) became anticlimactic. On this day, the Human Relations Commission would provide the best barometer of how much City Council truly cares in June 2010.

And did it ever.

There had been whispers Council might shoot down the HRC revival. Never mind the 7-2 vote to put it on Tuesday's formal agenda. With so many other troubles, starting with the drastic budget cuts, some were rumored to be waffling. They wouldn't want to anger the residents more by being sympathetic to other races, the poor or (gasp!) gays, right?

Never mind that bringing back the Human Relations Commission would send a positive, cost-free message to so many citizens who have been trampled and beaten down by hard times. And there's another factor, something nobody likes to acknowledge. That would be the dark side of Colorado Springs: far too many narrow-minded people who still spew racism, discrimination and intolerance on a whim.

That's why the HRC organizers, though ready to battle discrimination against anyone, chose to single out groups who suffer most in this city — because of their race, national origin, economic condition, sexual orientation, political affiliation, resident or public assistance status, religion or physical/mental disabilities, among others.

For some reason, that was a problem, especially for Councilors Tom Gallagher and Sean Paige.

"I don't need a list," Gallagher said. "Naming those groups means a hidden agenda. I'd like to believe in this community we've gotten beyond that."

Wrong, Tom. All you had to do was see the anti-Hispanic venom after our June 3 cover story ("System failure") and other reports about a local 3-year-old Latina's family winning a $1 million settlement from Memorial Hospital because they weren't forewarned in their native language about the little girl's kidney removal. That ugly outpouring was just another revelation of how intolerance is alive and well in Colorado Springs.

Still, some on Council chided HRC organizers for not involving the public more, and nitpicked details of the proposed ordinance. It could have become a train wreck, damaging the city's image even more.

But Council's moral sensitivity awakened. There was Jan Martin, firmly making the point that "it's not like this is a secret," saying she hadn't received a single negative e-mail, and adding, "This list is an important part of our acknowledgement and recognition of underserved people in our community."

Yet Paige insisted the city should "talk about unity and get beyond divisions."

Then came Vice Mayor Larry Small, who has emerged as this Council's conscience. He talked at length about the real need for an HRC, helping people realize support is available, and how "we really can't legislate solutions to social problems — they have to be solved by people coming together like this."

Small finished, Paige admitted he was moved, the opponents went silent and the ordinance passed. Not 9-0, but 6-3 was sufficient, even with a second vote in two weeks.

If you saw that, you had to come away believing the majority of City Council still hasn't given up trying to make Colorado Springs a better place.

Whether those cynics believe it or not.

routon@csindy.com

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