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Dispatches from the unlikely intersection of you and your government

When I was asked to advise readers on how to navigate local government, I thought, "No problem." I've covered local government as a reporter off and on for nearly 20 years.

But then I saw what the editors wanted you to know: whether you can get a dose of medical marijuana when you have a headache, who to call when someone is blaring German techno at 2 a.m., what to do when your pipes freeze. You get the idea.

OK, OK. I'll answer the first question now, but the rest will come later, after you eat your broccoli.

Getting a "dose" of medical marijuana isn't as easy as popping an aspirin. First you have to obtain a doctor's recommendation, and then apply to the state for an MMJ card. Best-case scenario is you get it in a few weeks. If you don't receive it, or a denial, within 35 days, you can take your proof of mailing and your doctor's recommendation to a dispensary and plunk your money down.

Either way, it's a long time to wait to cure a headache, and the process itself might give you a bigger one. But the system has worked for many very thankful patients.

Oh, one more thing: Expect to pay. You're going to be out some $200, unless you can prove you're on food stamps. Even then, the doctor's visit will still run you $90 to $150.

For complete information on the process, go to cdphe.state.co.us/hs/medicalmarijuana/index.html. And for more information on the scores of medical marijuana centers in and around Colorado Springs, click here and browse away.

Do's and don'ts

Now that that's out of the way, let's move on to the basic information about local government that you might want to know about it. That is, what the city and county do and don't do.

Starting with Colorado Springs government:

By June, the city will have a strong mayor, due to a change in government approved by voters last year. The mayor will run city operations from street repairs to police and fire. The nine-member City Council will control the budget and oversee the city auditor's office.

The city provides services related to parks, recreation, street work, police and fire protection, and bus service. That's all covered by taxes, except that bus fares partially fund transit.

By charging fees, the city also runs a couple golf courses, cemeteries, the Colorado Springs Airport, Colorado Springs Utilities, Memorial Hospital System, the Colorado Springs Senior Center and parking garages.

If something is really eating you, you can show up at a Council meeting and sign in for a three-minute rant. If something is devouring you, you can take out a petition and gather adequate signatures to place a measure on the ballot to change a city ordinance or the City Charter. The number of signatures is based on turnout at the last election, but it's going to be something in the thousands. For more specific rules, call the office of the city clerk, at 385-5901.

Moving on to El Paso County government: You can sign in to talk at meetings of the Board of County Commissioners, without being timed. But if you want real change through a ballot measure, you can talk until you're blue in the face without results. That's because state law bars citizens from petitioning county government. The county commission, a five-member board, alone can submit measures to voters.

The county provides services related to road and bridge work (not the dental kind), large regional parks, elections (except city elections), vehicle registration, tax collection, property value assessment and law enforcement, including the jail, using property and sales taxes. Development review is funded with fees.

Parkways and pipes

When it comes to day-to-day needs in the city — when you can catch a bus in your neighborhood, or where to pay a traffic ticket — most of what you need to know can be found at springsgov.com. And the same is true of the county's website at elpasoco.com, where you can research how much your neighbor's house is worth by clicking on the assessor link, or find out complete results of past elections simply by clicking on the clerk and recorder's election vault link.

But there are a few things you might not know about, or easily find online.

First and foremost, there's the fact that the city and Utilities pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in liability claims, like when that crater of a pothole eats your bumper.

To get a claim started, call Risk Management at 385-5960. Don't expect to talk to a person, but expect a call back. Be ready to document whatever your claim might be. I had a personal experience with this several years ago, and I have to tell ya, the city was responsive and the process was painless. (The county also has a claims office, which can be reached at 520-7486.)

If, after your call, that cavern at the end of your city street still isn't fixed, you can report it to the city by calling 385-6808 or e-mailing streetdivision@springsgov.com. The street department fixes thousands of potholes a year, with the number fluctuating depending on how bad the winter was. In 2007, a particularly harsh winter, it filled 57,830 potholes; in 2009, it was just 14,012.

The city tries to respond within a week or so to citizen reports but doesn't always meet that goal.

"I know the request list is several weeks long," city spokeswoman Mary Scott said in March, "though a large pothole on a heavy-traffic road automatically moves up the list once reported."

So that's roads. On to Utilities:

As noted by many in the national media, the city darkened roughly 9,000 of its 25,000 streetlights to save money in 2010. Earlier this year, Council decided to spend $500,000 to reactivate 5,800 residential streetlights, which was finished Feb. 23, but many lights along major thoroughfares that aren't at intersections will remain turned off. The city pays the electric bill, while Utilities pays for installation, maintenance and repairs. To report a broken or burned-out light, call 448-4800.

If your problem isn't a busted streetlight, but one that's working too well (i.e., sharing your pillow at night), city officials say they'll consider applications to turn a light off on a case-by-case basis. Call 385-2852.

It's easy to spot a streetlight, but what about underground utility lines? Whether you're planning a do-it-yourself home project that requires some excavation or hiring a professional, always call 8-1-1 at least three days before digging. For free, Utilities will locate your underground lines and pipes so you're not out an extra, unexpected bill.

One more Utilities-related scenario: If your pipes freeze, you can try calling 448-4800. Though Utilities' website makes it clear that your pipes are your responsibility, one of our editors contacted its offices several weeks ago with fantastic results. He reports the Utilities crew came within minutes, not hours, and helped him thaw out the problem pipe.

However, if your pipes freeze and break, call a plumber.

About your police

A final potpourri of issues worth a mention:

• If you're looking for a place to hold a class reunion or family picnic, consider reserving a city or county park. Prices tend to be quite reasonable, which is one reason why those facilities get snapped up quickly. Plan ahead and call 520-7529 to reserve a county park facility; claim dibs on one of the city parks' available pavilions by booking though springsgov.com.

• Wanna avoid a $20 ticket for over-parking at a meter? Buy an Easy Park card that automatically deducts only the amount of time you used. Cards are available at all three city parking garages, at the Parking Administration Office (130 S. Nevada Ave.) and at easypark.springsgov.com. Or call 385-5681. They can be reloaded at kiosks at the parking garages and five locations around downtown.

• Now, about that German techno fan next door. You can call the police, but be aware they might not come for a good long while. Noise complaints aren't at the top of the cops' list. In fact, it takes the police more than 10 minutes on average to get to priority calls — including, say, someone breaking into your house — although they note that, 60 percent of the time, they actually respond in under eight minutes.

That said, police spokesman Sgt. Steve Noblitt says loud music calls are considered crimes in progress and police will respond if the caller promises to sign a complaint and go to court.

On a similar note: To keep their decks clear of less important calls, police now require online reporting for minor crimes not in progress, including gas drive-offs, vandalism, theft and minor traffic crashes.

All this said: How the city carries out its mission operationally could change dramatically, depending on who's elected mayor.

Who knows? Maybe he'll be like Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, who's anywhere and everywhere, using Twitter as his dispatch device to respond to citizens' calls. Even helping people shovel snow.

We can only hope.

Click here for a map of Colorado Springs!
  • Dispatches from the unlikely intersection of you and your government

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