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Jumping ship 

Citing undue developer influence, city planner quits

When Alece Otero started working as a planner for the City of Colorado Springs two years ago, "I thought I'd work here forever," she said. "I thought this was a great job, a great opportunity."

Charged with reviewing applications from real-estate developers who wanted to build new subdivisions or commercial complexes in the city, Otero says she tried her best to help plan a "well-functioning" community.

But soon, Otero says, she began feeling that her employer didn't necessarily care about her professional expertise. Rather, she claims, her bosses just wanted her to speed up approval of developers' projects -- even if it compromised standards for sound community planning.

She finally got fed up.

Last week, Otero wrote a blistering resignation letter to her supervisor, Paul Tice, in which she said the city's planning process has been hijacked by powerful developers.

"The current direction of the city is not for the long-term vision," Otero wrote. "Sometimes keeping your job isn't worth disregarding the moral and ethical commitment we owe future generations."

When asked to comment, Planning Director Bill Healy said he disagreed with Otero's assessment. Her criticism marks "the first time that we've heard any dissatisfaction from individual planners," he said.

However, her remarks reflect what neighborhood activists have long been claiming: that developers, who bankroll the election campaigns of most City Council candidates, exert undue influence over planning decisions.

In an interview, Otero claimed she's not the only planner feeling stifled. "Quite frankly, most of the planners that are in this department would prefer to leave," she said.

In fact, Otero -- who has taken a job in the private sector -- is the third city planner to leave in four months. Planners Gary Park and Angela White have also departed, though Otero is the first to publicly criticize the department.

Integrity compromised

Otero specifically cites a memorandum issued last fall by Deputy City Manager Dave Nickerson -- in which Nickerson chastised planning staff for not approving developers' applications fast enough -- as an example of the pressure she claims is forcing planners to compromise standards. (See "Public Eye," Sept. 12, 2002, online at www.csindy.com.)

"The development community wants their applications processed quicker and quicker and quicker, and eventually you compromise the integrity of input from outside agencies, from neighborhoods, from surrounding property owners," Otero said.

In other cases, she says, the city manager's office specifically "advises" the planning department to support certain projects.

"It's a fine line between keeping your job and keeping a moral, ethical commitment to your career," Otero said.

She says the pressure has gotten worse since a new and particularly development-friendly City Council came into power in April.

Though she's held government jobs elsewhere, most recently in Jefferson County, "I just never assumed that anywhere was this developer-controlled," Otero said.

Favoritism denied

Nickerson and Healy, however, dismiss Otero's views as the opinion of just one person.

"I have no idea what she's basing that opinion on," Nickerson said. "I don't share that opinion."

The city is indeed trying to speed up its review of development applications, but not at the expense of compromising standards, both Healy and Nickerson insist.

"I'm personally of the opinion that we can create a quality product in less time than we're taking right now," Healy said.

They also deny that the city manager's office is influencing the planning department or that any "favoritism" is practiced.

"The notion that we have played favorites, or directed approval on various things, I would absolutely disagree with," Nickerson said.

Nickerson says his memorandum last fall was simply intended to drive home the point that development reviews should be conducted in a timely fashion.

"The development industry is an important part of our economy in this community," he said.

Terje Langeland

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