El Paso County taxpayers better watch out; your oh-so-conservative county commissioners, card-carrying Republicans all, want to hit you with a big fat property tax increase. And this time, they're serious.

Recently they met for several hours with Maria Garcia Berry, the state's most accomplished lobbyist. By employing Maria's company, CRL Inc., School District 11 managed to pass its first bond issue in a generation a few years back. Tellingly, CRL's clients over the years have included most of the big corporate players in Colorado politics. CRL keeps a low profile -- not easy, given Ms. Berry's flamboyant personality -- but they're extraordinarily effective.

I don't know what Maria told the commishes, but if they want some freshly minted taxpayer dollars, they'll keep their mouths shut and do whatever Maria tells 'em to do. Given the opportunity, she might craft a campaign so subtle and deadly that all of our lunatic taxophobes will have their own individual epiphanies, a come-to-Jesus moment that'll force 'em, willy-nilly, to vote yes. No? You don't think so?

You don't know how lobbyists, and especially Maria Garcia Berry, get things done.

Good lobbyists don't use bribes, threats, intimidation or massive campaign contributions to get their way. They use a kind of political jujitsu, tailored to a particular individual, a particular group or a particular electorate. A few years ago, while I was on the City Council, Maria had occasion to lobby me. Let me tell you about it.

One of her clients -- US West, as I recall -- was interested in our local telecommunications policy. Maria's office called and scheduled a lunch at the Brown Palace. I was suspicious, but flattered that Maria thought I was important enough to spend time with. Maybe I was a power player after all.

Arrived at the Brown -- but no Maria. Instead, one of her assistants, Beth Woodward, would take her place. Was I peeved that Maria had blown me off?

Well, no ... Beth, a beautiful woman then in her mid-20s, is a Colorado Springs native and an old friend's daughter. It was a fun lunch -- we talked about the Springs, our families, her career; gossiped about politics. We never mentioned Maria's client. The next day, Maria called to apologize for missing lunch, saying, "Well, I'm sure that you and Beth had a terrific time -- you've known her since she was a teen-ager, and you probably could have spent all afternoon gabbing. And by the way [she continued], you know we're working with US West and they're really interested in [whatever the ordinance was]. If you want more information, or if you want to talk to one of their guys, let me know -- hey, and whenever you're in Denver let me know, and you and I and Beth will have lunch."

I can't remember how I voted. What I do remember is how skillfully Maria deployed her assets. I would have been careful and guarded with Maria, but I was open and helpful with Beth. I gave her information -- about my colleagues, about city politics -- that I would have instinctively withheld from her boss.

I didn't feel lobbied; I felt as if I were reconnecting with an old friend and making a new one. I felt like Sally Field: "You really like me!!"

Alas, Beth left CRL in the mid-'90s, and since I lost that election in '97, I haven't heard from Maria. She must have lost my number, right?

So maybe Maria can make county government look like a worthy recipient of taxpayer dollars, but I doubt it. Just in the last few weeks, we've seen the commissioners fight bitterly with other elected officials over a sweetheart deal that cost the county 200 Gs. We've seen scheming commissioners screw up the Health Department beyond recognition. We've seen the county buy a furniture store, spend millions to remodel it for record storage, and then casually admit that they don't need the space after all. Face it: El Paso County is to local government what Enron is to multinational corporations.

Interestingly enough, The Gazette's investigative bulldog, Pam Zubeck, has been devoting an awful lot of attention to the county lately. To refresh your memory, Zubeck blew the lid off the shenanigans at the County Pension Fund a few years ago, and Mike Witty, the fund's administrator, is still cooling his heels in the slammer over that particular deal.

Retired dentist/Commission Chair Tom Huffman reportedly will no longer talk to her -- written questions only. But I'm sure that county officials have nothing to hide; they're all nice guys.

Just like Mike Witty.

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com


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