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The spirit of 86ed 

Since taking office, Mayor Steve Bach has pushed his "Spirit of the Springs."

It sounds punchy, and Bach has tried to portray it as such, hosting a festival with cheerleaders and a bouncy castle in its honor, and using the concept as a launching pad to hire an "economic vitality specialist" and to appoint volunteers to a "Streetscapes Solution Team."

The colorfully worded concept is actually simple and old: He wants people to care about their community; participate in it; volunteer their precious time to make it better.

Many members of our community have been doing that for years, often by volunteering for a city task force, committee or commission, or by starting their own grassroots effort to solve a city problem.

Nowadays, not all of them are feeling the spirit. And who could blame them?

The city tends to form these transitory groups fairly regularly. The groups might look for a better way to fund a service, search for efficiencies in laws or budgets, or figure out what to do with some enterprise. But, after months working to produce reports full of suggestions to make the city better, some of these volunteers have watched as their work has been filed onto a shelf to collect dust.

For example: You may recall the mayor calling for a new City Charter Review Committee. What he didn't mention was that previous groups have already dedicated countless hours to amending the charter. Little has changed, and carefully gathered data is now outdated.

Remember Great Parks, Great Communities? City Council seemed appreciative of that grassroots effort to fund parks maintenance back in 2009. But this year, when the group tried to present its proposal for a ballot issue in the November election, Bach and the El Paso County commissioners announced they wouldn't support it. The whole effort was a loss.

Then there's the most obvious example: the Memorial Health System Citizens' Commission.

Its work went from being applauded to being publicly ridiculed. A new task force, formed to create an action plan based on the commission's recommendations, has instead veered wildly.

We spoke with four volunteers to get their take.

'Into the weeds'

The first thing that you hear is that helping out can be a ton of work.

Bob Lally, chair of the Memorial Citizens' Commission (2010) notes that from February to November last year, the group had more than 50 open meetings, heard from around 75 subject matter experts, and conducted four town hall meetings.

"Nine volunteers put thousands of hours into this research," Lally says.

Sarah Jack, member of the most recent City Charter Advisory Committee (2004-5), recalls 10 months of grueling meetings. Debates persisted among 26 diverse members including Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College; Joe Woodford, a noted local libertarian; and moderate Jan Martin, who now serves on City Council.

"It was hard to get consensus," Jack says. "...You had so many ideas, it was hard not to get into the weeds."

Dan Stuart, chair of the Sustainable Funding Committee (2008-9), attended not only his committee's meetings, but all the meetings of three subcommittees, cutting substantially into his free time and his law practice.

For Susan Davies, who headed the grassroots effort of Great Parks, Great Communities through the Trails and Open Space Coalition, the group became a huge part of her work life and her personal time, as she hosted countless meetings, created special committees, raised money, and commissioned polls.

Out of favor

For some, the work paid off. For others, not so much.

In Jack's case, for instance, the Charter Committee was able to agree on some less-than-radical alterations. City Council, however, wasn't particularly receptive. A few housekeeping items made the ballot, along with a proposed increase in pay for Council and the mayor. Voters passed most of those items, but not the pay increases.

"I do think in some ways we were political cover for that particular Council," Jack says, noting the public was unhappy and wanted to see the prospect of changes on the way.

Her advice to any future commission: "I would get some commitments from Council that they will take their recommendations seriously and let the voters decide if they're good recommendations."

It was a similar story for Davies. Once county commissioners expressed their distaste for a ballot measure to create a tax for regional parks maintenance, her group's work was flushed.

Davies feels like she was the victim of a political sea change. When her group first formed, politicians were interested in it because the recession had decimated parks budgets. But by 2011, budgets had recovered somewhat, and there was a political push led by Jeff Crank of Americans for Prosperity against new taxes.

What's more, Davies says, despite asking city and county leaders repeatedly to help the group shape a ballot proposal, she never got any advice.

"The hard part is when you tell them over and over, 'Tell us what you think,'" she says.

Davies says the process did teach her something: "The policy-makers never promise to honor the work."

On the bright side

Not all of these stories end tragically. Stuart was really happy with the positive reception that the Sustainable Funding Committee received from City Council.

The committee was the subject of much press and a lot of Council attention — Councilors even sat in on the group's meetings. The committee's suggestions were, in some cases, implemented as soon as they were identified, sans a final report.

Although all the specific suggestions were not immediately adopted, Stuart feels the wider themes of the committee's work were absorbed.

"Over the next five years, 10 years, [we hope they'll] take it as a road map," he says. "...If you look at the Council today, it's a lot different than it was two years ago. If you look at the staff, a lot of people that were even working with us aren't there anymore."

Surprisingly, Lally, too, looks on the bright side. He says he's weathered the public criticism his Memorial group has received. And despite evidence to the contrary, he still thinks the work done will be honored.

"The body of work that the citizens commission did — that I was fortunate enough to chair — if you look at where they are today, and the conversation the [task force] is having today, it's the same conversation," he says.

Whether their work came to something or not, most volunteers seem to come out saying they valued the experience.

They met interesting people. They enjoyed giving something back. They learned some things about their city.

Even if they also learned, as Lally puts it, "This is a contact sport."

stanley@csindy.com

  • When it comes to volunteering with the city, you may want to look before you leap.

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