Recent Colorado Springs election results were less about the issues on the ballot and more about the voters handing City Council members their heads. It was a performance review.
Other people have furnished laundry lists of the offenses these votes avenge. But last week, Independent executive editor Ralph Routon's column offered good advice: Let's now look forward to what we should do in the future. Allow me to offer a few suggestions for City Council, city staff and the citizens:
• Show respect. The wishes of the citizens shall not be ignored or circumvented. City Council and enterprises should not exploit loopholes to do end-runs around the will of a clear majority (particularly if that will has been codified by a vote).
For example, "no borrowing without voter approval" means don't use certificates of participation to borrow without a vote. City Council should be proactive about receiving complete information and all points of view. Let's have a Council that's more curious and open-minded; not one that sits back and only learns what it's force-fed by lobbyists.
• Embrace transparency. If you're doing the right thing, it can withstand public scrutiny. If you have to hide an activity or policy, deny its existence, or spin it, then you shouldn't be doing it.
Go out of your way to inform the public, completely, in unbiased fashion. Public communication efforts by the city and its enterprises should focus on informing, not persuading, the citizens. Let us make up our own minds. Let individual Council members and other members of the community try to persuade us, but let official city and Colorado Springs Utilities communication be neutral. Newspapers shouldn't need attorneys, and citizens a crowbar, to get information out of the city. No more secrets!
• Be honest with yourselves, too. Recent Councils have subscribed to the myth that city expansion provides a positive return on investment for the community. The past 20 years suggest that is not the case. Whether citizens buy into the myth or not, city and Utilities staff, and City Councilors, need to start doing more complete accounting.
There are countless examples of the city choosing to forego future tax revenue in order to subsidize new development. All the costs of these activities are never publicized or even analyzed, and tax revenue foregone is often not counted or considered. These giveaways are never on the radar screen when it's time to balance next year's budget. I'm betting most of us can live with a vacant field until market conditions are such that a developer doesn't need handouts from us to build a new subdivision, hotel or shopping center.
• Think long-term. We've been anchored to the past for too long. Don't wait until the next election is looming to deal with the funding dilemma. Forget the Band-Aids and put together a new, complete strategic plan for funding the city budget. Begin now. Be bold. Develop a fair, sensible strategy. Take time for public input and discussion. Explain the strategy's wisdom long before voters need to approve any tax changes.
Don't limit your thinking here to what the special interests put on your plate. Look at successful models employed by other communities. Consider new ideas such as a land tax, fees that cover the full cost of land-use review and engineering, impact fees, tap fees that recover full costs, etc.
Think outside the box. One small example: shift more of the public-safety funding burden to lawbreakers (user pay) by greatly increasing fines for second and third traffic offenses. Public discussion of this idea might reveal only a few objectors — the ones who put our lives in danger every day through habitual speeding and red-light roulette.
• Consider community. Many show up only when their pet project is on the chopping block or when something ugly is proposed for across the street. Citizens need to engage in city-wide strategy. If we don't show up to advocate for sound city policy, those who profit from maintaining outdated policies will be at the table and get their way.
Council needs to treat all points of view with respect, encouraging an informed and participating citizenry.
It's time for an end to arrogance, polarization and disrespect.
Instead of pockets of special interests, let's become a community working together.
Dave Gardner, local filmmaker and 2009 City Council candidate, is a longtime opponent of uncontrolled growth. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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