"Groundswell" Against Commissioners 

Courthouse, jail projects might spark recall

click to enlarge The proposed $83-million courthouse project would block the view of Pikes Peak from the Pioneers Museum
  • The proposed $83-million courthouse project would block the view of Pikes Peak from the Pioneers Museum

Despite warnings about outbreaks of disease, complaints that disabled people will lose access to transportation, and threats of a recall election, the El Paso County Board of Commissioners is set to vote Monday to slash services to pay for an expansion of the county jail.

Coupled with controversy over the site commissioners have chosen for a new county courthouse, the move could spark an attempt to recall at least one commissioner -- Board Chairman Tom Huffman -- and possibly others, say critics of the commissioners' recent decisions.

"All over the community, people are talking about it," said Walter Lawson, an activist with the Council of Neighborhood Organizations. "They're mad as hell. It's kind of a public groundswell building."

The commissioners have enraged many constituents in recent weeks, beginning with the announcement that they plan to build a seven-story courthouse addition on Tejon Street in downtown Colorado Springs. The $83-million project would destroy the pedestrian mall between the existing courthouse and the sheriff's office, and it would block the view of Pikes Peak from the Pioneers Museum, a historic landmark that was built as a courthouse in 1903.

Citizen activists and city officials complain that the County went through no public process in picking the site, which was locked in last Thursday when the County sold bonds to finance the new building.

Further angering many, after voters on Nov. 5 rejected a proposed tax increase to expand the county jail, the commissioners announced that the jail would be expanded anyway, by cutting existing county services and projects.

The County estimates it needs $2.9 million per year to pay for construction and interest on the jail project over the next 25 years, plus another $2.9 million per year to staff and operate the expanded facility.

To cover those costs, County Administrator Terry Harris has proposed reducing the county's road and bridge fund, mass-transit subsidies that support bus service to the Security and Widefield areas, as well as cuts in the county Health Department and parks and open space.

Defensive and flippant

At a commissioners meeting last Thursday, dozens of county residents packed the hearing room to denounce the proposed cuts.

People with disabilities complained they would have no transportation as a result of the transit cuts. Advocates for county parks and open space said the cuts would halt many projects under way, including the planned purchase of Section 16, a long-coveted open-space area. And Rosemary Bakes-Martin, the county's health director, said Health Department cuts might weaken efforts to prevent communicable-disease epidemics.

Commissioners were at times argumentative, defensive and even flippant in response to the criticism. At one point, they threatened to end the meeting if people in the audience wouldn't stop applauding each other's comments.

Following the meeting, Huffman said he wasn't swayed. The critics don't represent a majority of constituents, he maintained.

"As difficult as it may be not to succumb to political pressure, it's my job to represent the majority," Huffman said. "You can't fill my room with 100 people and get me to do the wrong thing just because 100 people are yelling at me."

The only dissenting commissioner so far has been Jeri Howells, who said the courthouse project proceeded too fast and that the commissioners should respect the voters' rejection of the jail expansion. Two other commissioners, Ed Jones and Duncan Bremer, are term limited from office and will step down in January, when Jones will head to Denver to be sworn in as a state senator.

City failed to intervene

Meanwhile, opponents of the courthouse location last week formed a political action committee, the Coalition to Change the Courthouse Site.

The committee's efforts, as well as a recall of county commissioners, may be necessary since city officials failed to intervene in the courthouse project, argued Lawson, of the Council of Neighborhood Organizations.

Several City Council members have recently criticized the proposed courthouse site. At one point, they discussed possible legal action against the County, fearing that the County was planning to proceed with the project without going through the city's normal development application and review process.

However, the City dropped the threat after commissioners wrote a letter last week promising they would follow the normal process.

That doesn't reassure Lawson, because county officials have made it clear they may not abide by the outcome of the city's process. Under state law, the County can override the outcome of that process.

Lawson argues city officials should have more seriously explored the possibility of seeking an injunction to stop last week's bond sale.

"They've blown it badly," Lawson said.

Never tried to be sneaky

Huffman, meanwhile, insists the County has done nothing wrong.

"We followed the process from the beginning," he said. "We never tried to sneak anything in."

He said the courthouse plans were discussed openly in regular commissioners' meetings and in meetings of the Justice Advisory Committee, which are attended by City Councilman Jim Null.

But Null, who is running for mayor next April, said it was never made clear in those meetings that the county has settled on a specific site.

Once the commissioners made their decision, the City had few options for stopping them, Null said. "I think the City did what it could do."

Lawson said a recall election might be the only option left. Someone seeking to recall a specific commissioner would need to gather petition signatures equal to 25 percent of the number of people who voted in the commissioner's district the last time the office was up for grabs. In Huffman's case, that would be approximately 8,600 signatures.

Jim Alice Scott of the Committee for Responsible County Government, a watchdog group frequently critical of the commissioners, said she would support a recall.

"People are appalled at what they've done and feel that they have totally ignored the voters," Scott said.


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