Noted: Tensions grow between Council and mayor's office 

City leaders battle again

City Councilors want to hire an outside attorney to examine issues involving separation of powers between Council and the mayor's office. And neither Mayor Steve Bach nor City Attorney Chris Melcher is happy about it.

"That undercuts this office, and doesn't respect the charter, and doesn't respect the people," Melcher snapped Monday at City Council. He recently gave an "advisory opinion" to Council saying the mayor could ignore many budget vetoes.

Melcher also released an opinion saying Council must approve moving money from department to department, but that the mayor decides how funds within a department are spent except in the case of a "major legislative budget determination," such as a new fire station. Melcher says he was advised on the matter by internal and outside attorneys.

But Councilor Jan Martin said the issues warranted a second look, since Bach hired Melcher and can fire him at any time.

"I'm not saying that you're not looking out for our best interests, but I do believe there are some competing ones here," Martin said, adding that "we are building a foundation for this new form of government, [and] I'm not particularly comfortable with one person setting that foundation."

A majority of Council agreed to move the item forward over Melcher's objections. Bach promised to veto the action, meaning Council would need six votes to override the veto.

"It's a waste of taxpayer money," Bach said. He suggested Council might send voters a charter amendment for separate attorneys, "one for the mayor and one for the City Council." — JAS

More pay for lawmakers

State legislators from El Paso County will get a compensation boost, effective next session. Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, says the increase will come in the daily per diem paid to legislators who live outside Denver.

Morse says the per diem will increase from $150 to $183 a day. He points out that the issue actually should have been settled in 2007, when legislators voted to tie per diems to a federal standard.

The bill that would facilitate funding now is being sponsored by Morse and Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, and already has cleared the Republican-controlled state House. Despite a political brouhaha around the scheduled increase, Morse thinks it's a necessity, saying, "There are a lot of reasons you might not want to serve at the Capitol. Not being able to support your family should not be one of them."

Per diems aside, legislators make $30,000 in salary annually. — CH

Marijuana vote coming

The release from Secretary of State Scott Gessler's office was as dry as it gets: An initiative "concerning 'Use and Regulation of Marijuana' was found to be sufficient as required by statute." But what it really said was that Coloradans will vote in November on whether to legalize limited marijuana possession.

After initial signature counts from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol fell short, a second push brought in 4,000 more than required, moving Amendment 64 to the ballot.

The amendment would allow possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, and growing up to six plants by adults 21 and older. — BC

DA gives Memorial input

District Attorney Dan May wants to make sure City Attorney Chris Melcher doesn't forget a certain issue in negotiating a lease for city-owned Memorial Health System. That would be preserving the hospital's Forensic Nurse Examiner (FNE) program, which helps gather evidence in sexual assault cases.

The program, May writes in a Feb. 23 letter to Melcher, "is vital to the successful identification and prosecution of the perpetrators of these violent crimes," which also include child abuse, elder abuse and human trafficking. It includes making a forensic nurse available around the clock.

May calls FNE's contribution to victims and prosecution "immeasurable," saying that in 2011, more than 1,300 patients were seen. But he's concerned that the issue hasn't come up in discussions with University of Colorado Hospital.

Asked about retaining the program, UCH spokesman Dan Weaver wouldn't commit. "Many of the decisions about specific programs at MHS will be part of the lease negotiations with the city," he said in an e-mail. Responding to an e-mail question, Melcher declined to comment but added, "I know that Council will give very serious consideration to any comments or suggestions from the community and the community leaders." — PZ

Dems flex their muscles

Don't count out that "other party" in El Paso County just yet. Last Saturday, 337 people showed up at Cheyenne Mountain Resort to help local Dems raise roughly $50,000, at the inaugural Will Rogers Dinner & Gala — what used to be the St. Patrick's Day Gala.

Peak Dems executive director Christy Le Lait says keynote speaker Jim Hightower, whose column appears in the Independent, helped turnout, but notes that attendance has been growing anyway at the Dems' galas. Last year, 240 people attended.

"I think it has now become OK to not only vote Dem, but come out of the closet and say, 'I am a Dem. I am going to the Dem Gala,'" says county party chair Kathleen Ricker. "We have people who own businesses supporting us, and not afraid to do that ... we have made ourselves part of the community — not a fringe group."

Several speakers, including Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, beat the drum for President Obama's re-election campaign. Peak Dems also recognized several volunteers: Kayla Stretcher, Rising Star; James Howald, Volunteer of the Year; and Linda Dyer, Democrat of the Year. — PZ

RTA renewal advances

County commissioners and Springs City Council on Tuesday approved preliminary projects to be covered by an extension of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority tax for capital projects. More than half of the 1 percent tax is earmarked for new construction, but that earmark expires at the end of 2014, prompting officials to eye a November 2012 ballot measure. Voters approved the tax in 2004, with the rest of the collected funds going to maintenance and repairs.

The county's list of specific projects, which totals $413.5 million, includes improvement of Highway 105 east of Monument, from Interstate 25 to State Highway 83. The city's list includes Hancock Expressway realignment and a study to connect Platte Avenue with I-25. It totals nearly $400 million.

Included for priority funding: extending Centennial Boulevard south from Fillmore Street to connect with I-25 at the Fontanero exit, and rebuilding West Colorado Avenue from 31st Street west to the U.S. 24 overpass. Both lists will include designated matching funds for state and federal grants, says county spokesman Dave Rose. The RTA board meets in mid-March to further refine the ballot issue. — PZ

Enviros: What the Hick?

Thirteen conservation groups put Gov. John Hickenlooper on the hot seat this week, after he appeared in radio and newspaper ads paid for by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the industry trade group. The radio ads say there hasn't been a single case of groundwater contamination in Colorado from drilling.

"That assertion misleads the public by ignoring the high incidence of groundwater contamination from spills and releases of toxic chemicals at or near drilling sites," the coalition wrote in its Feb. 27 letter.

In a newspaper ad that appeared in the Gazette last Sunday, Hickenlooper's picture appears over a statement that says advances in hydraulic fracturing "now enable us to safely harvest" oil and gas while creating jobs. It also says the state recently passed "the toughest Hydraulic Fracturing Disclosure Rule in the nation."

"We are disappointed that the Governor lent his voice to a trade association advertisement that fails to tell the full story and leaves Coloradans with a false sense of security when it comes to groundwater contamination," Elise Jones, executive director of Colorado Environmental Coalition, said in a release. The group urged Hickenlooper to withdraw the COGA ad, but that doesn't seem likely. — PZ

A boon for business

At the behest of the business community, City Council on Tuesday approved a dramatic drop in water development charges for commercial customers ("Trickle-down theory," News, Feb. 2).

For example, the charge for a 4-inch line will slide from $334,543 to $154,847, a drop of 54 percent. Utilities finance and planning chief Bill Cherrier said the discount would encourage commercial development while not costing ratepayers, though Utilities could lose nearly $1 million on only 10 hookups, according to his presentation.

The change comes after Council methodically had raised commercial hookup fees as part of an effort to make development pay for itself. Doug Quimby, Chamber of Commerce and EDC board chair, said the new adjustment would "end the competitive disadvantage that we have," referring to other Front Range cities' lower charges.

Council also voted to suspend normal rules so the price breaks become effective Thursday, March 1, raising speculation of who might be waiting in the wings with a hookup request. The final vote was 6-0 with Scott Hente, who's a developer, not participating, and Merv Bennett and Lisa Czelatdko absent. — PZ

No wind for now

The mix of energy sources fueling Colorado Springs won't include as much wind as Springs Utilities previously planned. The Utilities Board, comprised of City Council, decided last week that it wouldn't buy 50 megawatts of wind, as had been planned for months. Council members blamed the fact that wind costs are higher than coal costs.

"The Board asked us to continue to look for ways to obtain contract/subscription wind power for our customers who have higher renewable energy goals," Utilities spokesman Dave Grossman says by e-mail. "Even without this wind purchase, we expect to reach our 2020 Energy Vision goals," requiring the city to get 10 percent of power from renewables. — PZ

Urban Renewal board grows

Despite concerns from City Councilor Bernie Herpin on one appointment, Mayor Steve Bach's choices of David Neville, Jim Raughton, Wynne Palermo and Robert Shonkwiler for the Urban Renewal Authority board were approved Tuesday by Council, for terms starting April 1.

The mayor focused on the board's vacancies after recent run-ins with the authority and concerns about its finances. In all, 36 people applied for the four positions.

Neville is a real estate attorney; Raughton has worked in planning, higher education and real estate development; Palermo is a Realtor and volunteer; and Shonkwiler is retired from a career in planning and development that included helping create Boulder's Pearl Street Mall.

Shonkwiler also serves on the city's Planning Commission, and the two roles can intersect. Herpin wanted Shonkwiler to resign from the planning commission to accept the Urban Renewal position, but that push failed. Shonkwiler says he will recuse himself when necessary. — JAS

Compiled by Bryce Crawford, Chet Hardin, J. Adrian Stanley and Pam Zubeck.

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