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Lawyers protest "secret government" 

Torqued by their perception of imperialism and secrecy in city hall, former city attorney Jim Colvin and local attorney Bruce Wright have teamed up to battle efforts to stifle public participation in government.

At issue is a change in procedure -- adopted after a heated exchange last month -- that allows the City Council to enact policy by consensus before the public has a chance to air their views.

In the past, the city's rules required a public hearing be held before a vote was taken,

Now, Wright said, 'The problem is that the mayor is allowing the [city] manager to develop policy for the city behind closed doors. Then they bring [the policy] to council during the informal meeting, where public input is not allowed.

'By the time any formal input is allowed, the decision is already made and the public has been effectively cut out of the decision-making process,' he said. 'That's not the way we used to do things, and it's a major shift for the city.'


Out of the loop

Colvin and Wright sited three specifics as examples of how the city has acted before opening the debate to the public.

The city's creekside overlay ordinance prohibits people from building within 2,000 feet on either side of designated stream banks. That proposal represented a major open-space provision that was developed virtually without any public input, Colvin said. "It was done totally in secret," Wright added.

Another hot issue was the recent debate over who would be required to pay for improvements at the intersection of Woodmen Road and Academy Boulevard. Last November, frustrated property and business owners -- who ultimately may be required to pay for the improvements -- packed the council chambers during two seven-hour marathon sessions and complained about the lack of notice they'd received.

Both Wright and Colvin have clients who are directly affected by the proposed impact fees. Wright said, "We were outraged we were not allowed to be part of a study we were paying for."

Finally, last month -- again during an informal meeting -- the City Council agreed to spend $300,000 for part of a study to widen Woodmen Road east to Lexington Boulevard. The study, Colvin claims, all but seals the deal to make the roadway into a major arterial connecting the eastern and western parts of the city -- with little notice, public input or substantive discussion.

"By the time you have a study like this done, you are going to do exactly what the study says to do," he said. "Council should be making these decisions up front."


Kumbaya Council

Colvin cited the council's commitment to getting along as part of the problem.

"What's driving this different way of doing business is when this council came into existence three years ago they agreed that they wanted to be the get-along harmonious council and do things in fairly orderly fashion," he said. "Which is all great and good, but I think they've been taking it too far."

The council adopted the new rules of procedure in early January, two months after the city implemented a policy to restrict members of the news media from obtaining information directly from city employees. That policy -- which city manager Jim Mullen did not bring to the City Council for review or formal approval -- is designed to force the news media to obtain government information from the city's public relations department or a select group of city managers.

Before the council adopted the latest policy related to public input, both Mullen and Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace rejected the accusations of government secrecy surrounding the issues that Colvin and Wright cited. Mullen said he was "amused" by Colvin's remarks.

But Councilman Richard Skorman noted that "sometimes we set direction in meetings, sometimes without a lot of input. We should be more liberal in getting public input."


Accusations "ludicrous"

Yet Makepeace said it was "ludicrous" to imply that the city was more open during her predecessor, former Mayor Bob Isaac's era, when Colvin served as the city attorney.

"We have had more public process in the last couple years than in the last couple of decades," she said.

Isaac, who served five terms in office before he resigned halfway through his final term in 1997, had the reputation of controlling City Hall with an iron fist.

Wright called Isaac a "masterful politician who had the ability to push his agenda." But, he said, Isaac incorporated community consensus when it came to major political issues, including adopting flexible zoning ordinances and the hillside overlay comprehensive plan that were adopted during his tenure.

"He was astute enough to realize that they should be done with community consensus rather than forced on the people by a bureaucracy," Wright said.

During the tense discussion in January, a clearly indignant Makepeace lashed out at Colvin and Wright for their assertions. The exchange grew somewhat personal after Wright addressed her as "Mary Lou." The mayor informed him in severe tones that her proper title is either "Madame Mayor" or "Mayor Makepeace."

Wright quickly apologized, and later said he has no problem calling her whatever she wants him to.

"It reminds me of a line from Shakespeare: 'Methinks the lady doth protest too much'," Wright said. "If there was nothing to what we were saying, then why does she get so upset?"

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