Stop playing with parks ownership 

Something stinks worse than the detritus festering in the trash at America the Beautiful Park. It’s wafting from the direction of City Hall. It’s warm, kind of smoky, and fetid with the transfer of power from the people to the select few.

It’s City Councilor Wayne Williams’ 11th-hour proposal to silence voters’ voices on major sales of parklands, and place the decision solely in the hands of Council. Granted, the idea would require a super-majority of the board — six (or seven, as some suggest) votes from nine members — but it would also mean taxpayers wouldn’t have a say when Council considers the sale or swap of major tracts of publicly owned land.

Here’s a hypothetical that Council President Richard Skorman presented to the Indy’s Pam Zubeck in this week’s cover story about Protect Our Parks (POPs, see p. 20): “Down the road, during a bad economy, maybe we’ll ask if we should sell some part of Garden of the Gods to a zip-line company.” 

Under Williams’ proposal, if just 66 percent of Council signed off, buh-bye public park, hello commercial enterprise. 

There is precedent. Remember Strawberry Fields, the 189 acres of breathtaking land adjacent to North Cheyenne Cañon that the city handed over to The Broadmoor and billionaire owner Philip Anschutz in 2016? 

Yeah. You didn’t get to vote on that, did you? 

Back in March, we asked Williams — then a candidate for Council, after serving as a county commissioner, county clerk and recorder, then secretary of state — where he stood on POPs. At the time, Save Cheyenne had proposed a ballot measure giving voters the right to decide on big land swaps. 

This is exactly what Williams wrote in our questionnaire:  “As an El Paso County Commissioner I worked to add more than a thousand acres of park land and open space. I’ve reviewed both the POPs Ballot Research & Analysis and the City Attorney’s Legal Analysis. I do believe the present ballot language is overbroad and should be both clearer and more narrowly focused.

“There are times when a private nonprofit or other government might appropriately take on a long-term agreement. For example, El Pomar’s World Arena took over the management of the Pikes Peak Center and added a number of significant improvements. Norris Penrose is another example of a transfer that resulted in significant improvements for the public. POPs limits such agreements to ‘short-term’ which would preclude investment. City parks are often adjacent to similarly used school district recreation property like Lulu Pollard. The present language appears to forbid or limit consolidation and long-term joint efforts.”

For the record, we didn’t endorse, but we did recommend Williams for one of three at-large Council seats. 

That initial, “overbroad” proposal was scrapped, and a committee of some of the city’s heaviest hitters — including the League of Women Voters, Aiken Audubon Society, Palmer Land Trust, Parks Advisory Board, Councilors Skorman and Bill Murray, Parks Director Karen Palus and mayoral Chief of Staff Jeff Greene — came up with a compromise measure that gives Council the authority on smaller exchanges but requires voter approval for major transfers.

Still, apparently Williams knows best. 

While a super-majority vote may appear to be protecting parklands, it’s really wresting the decision from the people who own the land. We taxpayers control the purse strings; our parks, our call. Council must put the kibosh on Williams’ idea and respect the long, inclusive process that yielded a compromise serving the land and the people. For major transactions, the people should be consulted. 

Councilors are term-limited at eight years. Parks and open space, on the other hand, are part of the city forever. Let the community decide whether they are worth keeping.

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