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Public process or window dressing? 

T he controversial County Courthouse project that helped spawn the failed recall campaign of two commissioners in December is once again the center of public distrust of El Paso County government.

That's the claim made by members of Together for Effective Alternatives (TEA), a county government watchdog group. According to TEA spokesperson Jan Martin, the county's public process for site selection and design of its proposed $34 million judicial building is merely "window dressing" for its efforts to build "what they want, where they want."

"Our primary concern is that the county assured us that there would be an open and fair process," Martin said. "But the county has determined to look at only two sites -- one on Tejon Street and the other on Cascade Avenue." Both would impede the views of Pikes Peak, and, in a recent desirability study, received the lowest scores on impacts to the plaza and views of Pikes Peak.

At a public hearing last month, representatives of county-contracted architects the DLR Group and the Denver-based Design Collaborative, presented the rankings of nine proposed courthouse sites.

The rankings were the result of weekly work sessions between representatives of three county-contracted firms that compose the "design team" and the county's eight-member appointed executive planning committee for the jailhouse/court site.

The sites were evaluated on a host of criteria including cost, distance from existing judicial buildings, and impacts to both the view of Pikes Peak and the current judicial plaza on Tejon Street.

Two proposed sites tied for the highest score, receiving 38 of a possible 50 points. However, one of the high-scoring proposed sites -- at the southwest corner of Cascade Avenue and Vermijo Street -- was rejected for further consideration in favor of another site that received a lower score of 36 for overall desirability.

Michael LeBoeuf, an architect with the DLR Group and a member of the design team, said the Cascade and Vermijo site was rejected due to its smaller size, as well as the costs associated with its multistory construction, and its lack of a direct connection to existing judicial buildings.

However, LeBoeuf would not say why the Cascade Avenue plaza site -- which had received a higher overall score -- was not being considered.

Designs of the two plaza-located sites will be presented at the third public process meeting, tentatively scheduled for mid-September.

"The public process is ultimately to make sure that the process moves along, keeping everyone informed and answering questions," LeBoeuf said. "Is it to have a given individual tell us to build a round or a square building? No."

The controversy over the new building arose last year after voters rejected a ballot initiative for a jail expansion. Shortly thereafter, county commissioners announced plans to build the jail, as well as a courthouse. The move enraged many in the community who were taken by surprise. County officials subsequently promised a better public process to keep citizens informed, and appointed an eight-member team comprising county and city employees, as well as the district attorney and a district judge to work with their contracted design team.

Despite the county's touting of a public process, the group's regular meetings, held on Wednesdays, are not open to the public. LeBoeuf, whose firm specializes in building courthouses, described the need for privacy in planning as "not unusual" due to their many security concerns.

However, TEA member Rene Hartslief believes that the process should be more open, and wants to know why the design team has summarily rejected the optional sites that wouldn't block the views.

In a letter dated Aug. 19, 2003, executive committee member Ned Fenlon, who is also the county facilities manager, told Hartlief that these meetings were not public record.

"Meetings of this administrative group are not open to the public; there are no posted notices; there are no minutes available to give you; and there are no records kept of meeting attendees," Fenlon wrote.

Hartslief said she is considering taking legal action against the county. "If there's nothing sinister going on at these meetings, why don't they disclose the information?" Hartslief said.

-- John Dicker

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