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Gag order alleged in Wal-Mart debate

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Woodland Park's city attorney has advised officials to ignore the public's comments and concerns about a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter until just minutes before they are scheduled to officially weigh in on the matter.

The request by Erin Smith, the city's attorney, asks both the Woodland Park City Council and the Planning Commission to halt letters, e-mails, phone calls or conversations with the public outside formal public hearings. Anti-big-box activists liken it to a gag order.

"It's creating an atmosphere of closed-door politics within the city," said Erik Stone, spokesman for Citizens for Responsible Growth, which is opposing the proposed Wal-Mart in this mountain town 20 miles west of Colorado Springs.

In effect, Stone alleges, the gag order cuts off communication between members of the public and city officials until Feb. 10, when the Planning Commission will decide whether to push forward Wal-Mart's development plan. The City Council would then take the matter up for consideration in March, when Wal-Mart's lawyers and other representatives would be on hand to talk about their proposal.

Level playing field

Not everyone views the city attorney's advice as a bad thing.

Joseph Napoleon, the city's planning director, says he believes the advice allows a level playing field with regard to discussions concerning the superstore. "It's only fair that [Wal-Mart] be present to respond to any comments or questions," Napoleon said.

The city's mayor, Gary Crane, rejected the assertion that the lawyer's advice constitutes a gag order.

"In a small town like this," Crane said, "where this is the biggest news in years, you can't not talk." Rather than zipping his lips, Crane says he has kept a log of his e-mails and conversations about the issue and submitted it to the city. Members of the public, he maintained, can still weigh in with their opinions.

Wal-Mart's desire to build its latest superstore has created deep divisions in the city of 7,300. Critics say it would harm local businesses and alter the city's quality of life. Proponents argue that tax revenues, jobs and a convenient place to shop make it a smart move.

In part to deal with the avalanche of input, the planning department has set up a room containing all the documents from the plan, Napoleon said, and his staff is available to answer questions from the public.

Take it to a vote

But Stone, of Citizens for Responsible Growth, maintains that the deck is already stacked against the opposition. Through freedom of information requests, Stone said, the group obtained documents that show the city's planning department has been in discussion with Wal-Mart about the project for two years. The public learned about the proposal only last fall.

Since then, opponents gathered around 760 certified signatures on a petition asking for a six-month moratorium on the project. That's enough to require action by City Council, and if the elected body rejects the moratorium, a public vote.

But if the City Council rejects the moratorium at its February hearing, it will have up to 150 days before the proposal goes to a public vote -- giving Council enough time to approve Wal-Mart's construction beforehand.

"I have no reason to doubt that Council will put it off for 150 days," and pass Wal-Mart in the meantime, Stone said. What the group wants, he said, is a full public reckoning about the project.

"If it comes to a referendum, and the citizens step up and approve Wal-Mart," he said, "then our group will be satisfied because the people have spoken."

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