Psychotherapist Charles Knoeckel spins a good yarn about his brief stint as a Colorado Springs Planning Commissioner. It's a telling look at how politics is often played in this town.
In 1996, Knoeckel was appointed by the City Council to fill out a vacant term on the Planning Commission -- the nine-member, City Councilappointed political board that rejects or approves development projects.
Now, for as long as anyone can remember, the city's Planning Commission has been composed of a majority from various segments of the development community -- that is, real-estate investors, developers, realtors, contractors and design professionals. People generally agree that developers tend to be, well, staunchly pro-development.
But Knoeckel was none of those things. At the time he was a photographer, and quickly established a reputation as someone who wouldn't roll over for developers -- a troublemaker, in other words.
"I was generally for thoughtful growth and development, and tended to be more pro-neighborhood rather than pro-development," Knoeckel said.
With an attitude like that, you can be sure that Knoeckel soon incurred the wrath of powerful developers. Sure enough, one day in 1997, Knoeckel said he and City Planner Quinn Peitz, who works for the city and is not a political appointee, were chatting.
Knoeckel said Peitz told him that a prominent developer had vowed that when Knoeckel's term expired, the developer would personally ensure Knoeckel was not re-appointed to a four-year term.
"As a matter of fact, Quinn and I had a bet: Quinn said, 'Oh no, that won't really happen,' and I said, 'As a matter of fact, I think this developer will keep me off the commission,'" Knoeckel said.
Knoeckel declined to identify the developer. However, that year, 1997, every single developer-selected City Council candidate was elected to office. And poof! Knoeckel was off the board.
"In fact, Quinn still owes me a dinner over that one," Knoeckel said.
Five years later, many City Hall observers are heralding the current makeup of the Planning Commission as the most neighborhood-friendly group in its history.
Only five of the nine have direct ties to the development world. Yes, that means the majority of the planning commission still works for the development industry. And the potential for continued rubber-stamping is not lost on many citizens.
To site a specific, but typical, example earlier this year, the Park Hill Neighborhood Association was battling a residential subdivision proposal on the city's East Side.
In a series of letters to the City Council in January, the association complained that it had been treated shabbily by the planning commission, while the project developers got full respect and consideration. A second letter questioned how a majority of the board was composed of developer interests "who obviously have a bias toward their own industry and self serving purposes."
"We were absolutely appalled at the makeup of the planning commission," said Marjorie Smith, secretary of the Park Hill Neighborhood Association. "Of course they are going to approve all of their projects, no matter how ugly, stupid or ill-advised."
In addition, the neighborhood group was incensed by the project developer's loud complaints that the city had dragged its feet while reviewing the plans, and his insistence that the planning process had gone amuck.
In fact, that mantra -- that the city moves too slowly -- is echoed by developers all over town. Indeed, it served as the basis for Deputy City Manager Dave Nickerson's recent stern order that city staff process all development projects with minimal delay (as detailed in this space last week).
But when the neighborhood group did a little investigating, they determined that it was the developer himself who had stalled the project, not the city's staff, at whose feet he had laid blame.
Neither the mayor nor City Council ever responded to the neighborhood association's complaints, Smith said.
However, this year several of the planning commissioners' professional relationships got so snuggly that the mayor and Council finally had to take some action.
Specifically, two of the planning commissioners, Cedric Johnson and Val Snider, had gone to work for a third commissioner in the development business, Roy Clennan, who owns Freedom Financial and Freedom Real Estate.
As a result of the relationship, in August the City Council adopted an amendment to the City Charter, which specifically prohibits their political appointees from working for each other.
Some relationships, apparently, are too cozy even for the City Council to ignore.