Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Colorado Springs Council refers two measures to voters to protect parkland

Posted By on Tue, Aug 13, 2019 at 6:14 PM

click to enlarge Garden of the Gods Park - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Garden of the Gods Park
In a "unprecedented" move, Colorado Springs City Council moved to refer competing measures to the Nov. 5 ballot on August 13.

First, Council voted to refer a measure that would allow citizens to decide whether they want a chance to vote on future sales or trades of city parkland. The measure comes in the wake of the city's controversial 2016 land swap of city-owned Strawberry Fields, a 189-acre open space tract next to North Cheyenne Cañon Park, to The Broadmoor. (In exchange, the city received about 400 acres of wildlands and trail easements.)

Council also voted to refer a competing measure that would leave those decisions in Council's hands and require a 6-3 majority to approve such conveyances, either through sales or trades.

Favoring the first measure were Council President Richard Skorman and Councilors Jill Gaebler, Tom Strand, Bill Murray and Yolanda Avila. It was opposed by Councilors David Geislinger, Wayne Williams, Andy Pico and Don Knight.

The 6-3 measure was opposed by Avila, Gaebler and Murray.

"Welcome to messy democracy," Skorman said after the vote at 5:35 p.m.

But Council must vote a second time in order to refer each measure. That vote is expected next week, and it's unclear whether both measures will ultimately come before voters.
That's because City Attorney Wynetta Massey told Council the city has never had two competing measures on the same ballot, and she wasn't sure how to reconcile the two. She also said she would be "uncomfortable" trying to decipher what message the voters intended if they approve both measures.

Kent Obee, leader of nonprofit Save Cheyenne which advocated for voters weighing in on parkland conveyances, said he was "delighted and relieved" by Council's decision to submit the Protect Our Parks (POPs) measure, which would allow voters a say in conveyance of parkland to other entities.

That relief comes after nearly four years of advocacy by Save Cheyenne, which formed amid debate over the controversial trade of city-owned Strawberry Fields.
click to enlarge North Cheyenne Cañon Park - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • North Cheyenne Cañon Park
Save Cheyenne challenged the deal in court but lost in late 2018, triggering efforts to get the POPs measure on the ballot. In January, Council refused to refer it to the April city election, but told backers to participate in a city working group to come up with a mutually agreeable measure. That group included city officials, Council members, the Trails and Open Space Coalition, League of Women Voters, Sierra Club and others and spanned about four months.

In late May, Councilor Williams suggested a substitute measure that would keep trades and sales in Council's hands but require a 6-3 majority to dispose of parkland.

In a twist, during the Aug. 13 debate, Williams said that the Council supermajority measure wouldn't necessarily have to replace the POPs measure, should they both pass. Instead, he called the dual measures a double layer of protection for parkland transfers and added that offering both measures "gives voters an opportunity to decide." (A marked change from his earlier stance that voters shouldn't get a say in parkland transfers.)

Mayor John Suthers told Council he opposes allowing voters to weigh in on parkland exchanges or sales, saying, "I think you are wholly capable of deciding what's in the best interest of the people." He also said there might be urgency to a swap that would be undermined by having to take the deal to the voters for approval.

Murray called Williams' push to get the supermajority measure on the ballot, favored by Suthers and the Parks Advisory Board, "subverting the majority of this Council."

The discussion grew contentious several times as POPs opponents — notably Williams and Geislinger — repeatedly argued against referring it to voters, saying not enough definition had been given to which parks would be subject to a vote of the people should a sale or swap proposal arise and that a longer and wider public process is needed.
Reminding the audience he's a lawyer, Geislinger said Council could enact a parks preservation list following the Nov. 5 election that contains a fraction of the parks that POPs backers hope to protect.

"It’s not every park; it’s the parks City Council elects to put on the list," he said. "I don’t know what parks I would take off the list. I don’t know what parks other members would take off the list. I don’t know what parks the Parks Department say should come off the list. I am a lawyer. People know I’m a lawyer. Language matters."

He also said, "We haven't talked to the citizens about what they want."

(It's worth noting that during an Aug. 12 work session on the POPs measure, Parks Director Karen Palus said the city held many public meetings spanning "eight or nine months" about the city's trade of Strawberry Fields. But that process actually spanned just over four months. The exchange was introduced by a news release issued Jan. 14, 2016, and Council voted 6-3 to approve the swap on May 24, 2016.)

Williams disputed that constituted a robust public process. "There's a very large difference in an interested stakeholders meeting and a public meeting."

He also said decisions on parkland should remain with Council, not the voters. "I believe in the constitutional principles this nation was founded on, and I don’t think a representative democracy is a bad thing," he said. He noted the POPs measure wasn't supported by the Parks Advisory board or the Trails and Open Space Coalition, which instead supports the 6-3 Council majority option.

Others countered Geislinger's and Williams' arguments, saying POPs supporters were invited by the city itself to participate in the working group and that the City Attorney's Office and Parks Department fashioned the wording that defines which parks are subject to voter protection.

Responding to Williams', Geislinger's and mayor's Chief of Staff Jeff Greene's pitch for a longer public process, Obee noted that Council referred a sales tax measure for roads and a Taxpayer's Bill of Rights retention issue to the ballot earlier that day after virtually no public meetings.

"Parks belong to the citizens," Obee said. "What we’re asking you to do is just consult with the citizens if they would like to have a say in the disposition of their parkland. Maybe they’ll say they don’t. I do think here in Colorado there are some issues that are so important you do need to go back to the voters. This is one of them."

Judith Rice-Jones with the League of Women Voters reminded Council of numerous instances over the years in which Council wanted to dispose of key parklands but were blocked by citizens via lawsuits or opposition actions. Among those: elected officials' desire to tear down the old courthouse, which today is the Pioneers Museum; a move to sell Rock Ledge Ranch; attempts to use a portion of Monument Valley Park, and later, the Fine Arts Center property, for road extensions.
click to enlarge Strawberry Fields open space - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Strawberry Fields open space
"Honor the vision of Gen. [William] Palmer," she said, referring to the city founder's bequest of hundreds of acres as parkland. "Vote for option 1 [POPs}."

As to which parks would be covered by a vote of the people, Skorman recited the city's definition as stated in the ballot measure and noted, "It’s every park that’s been dedicated and is in use. Why all of a sudden does Council want to go back and change, add and delete? The work has been done and it’s been done in all the other places that have put this in place. When a new park is in use, it will be put on the list."

Skorman also noted voter protection already exists for land purchased using Trails, Open Space and Parks tax money, because that provision was contained in the ballot measure.

POPs supporters noted 80 to 90 percent of cities in Colorado have vote-of-the-people protection for sales or trade of parkland.

Donna Strom said she couldn't "for the life of me" understand how all those cities could make parks protection work through a vote of the people and Colorado Springs insists it cannot.

Avila made short work of the debate over how much public process is enough, saying, "By putting it on the ballot, we are doing the ultimate public process."

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