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Two parks ballot measures suddenly lose support 

Then there were none

click to enlarge Neither of the competing parks measures is likely to pass during their second Council reading. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Neither of the competing parks measures is likely to pass during their second Council reading.

Two parkland protection measures headed to the Nov. 5 ballot earlier this month now appear doomed.

On Aug. 13, a sharply divided Colorado Springs City Council referred two competing measures to the ballot in an unprecedented move that City Attorney Wynetta Massey said could put the city in a legal thicket.

But within two days, votes for both measures vanished, suggesting that neither measure will draw majority support when City Council revisits them for second readings on Aug. 27.

Now, it’s unclear if parks advocacy group Save Cheyenne has the will to continue working with the city on a palatable subsequent measure, following months of cooperation that crashed and burned.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster,” Save Cheyenne’s Kent Obee tells the Independent. “A number of us had said this is the last time we’re going to try to work with the City Council.”
At issue are two measures designed to give added protection to the city’s hundreds of parks after Council voted in 2016 to trade the 189-acre Strawberry Fields open space to The Broadmoor in return for 400 acres of wooded areas and trail easements.

Save Cheyenne lost its legal challenge of the deal in September 2018, and in January asked Council to refer a ballot measure to the city’s April election ballot that would require voter approval for future conveyances of parkland to outsiders.

Council balked, but proposed Save Cheyenne take part in a city-sanctioned working group to draft a ballot measure acceptable to everyone.

Save Cheyenne agreed and joined the Trails and Open Space Coalition, League of Women Voters, Palmer Land Trust, the Parks Advisory Board, Sierra Club, Aiken Audubon Society, City Council members, and city officials, including Massey and Mayor’s Chief of Staff Jeff Greene.

Its work spanned about four months and yielded the Protect Our Parks ballot issue (POPs), which calls for most parkland exchanges and sales, beyond housekeeping moves involving utilities and easements, to be submitted to voters for approval.

But POPs was upstaged in late May by a surprise substitute measure from Councilor Wayne Williams, who didn’t participate in the working group, that would keep transfers in Council’s hands but require a 6-3 supermajority vote to dispose of parkland.

Mere days before the Aug. 13 referral vote, a third proposal emerged that would have required voter approval to dispose of the city’s largest regional parks, many of which already enjoy protections from deed restrictions. Those include Palmer Park, North Cheyenne Cañon, Garden of the Gods, Rock Ledge Ranch, Ute Valley, Bear Creek Cañon, and, at the behest of Council President Richard Skorman, Austin Bluffs Open Space. Under the hybrid proposal, any other parkland could be sold or conveyed by a 6-3 vote of Council.
On Aug. 13, Mayor John Suthers reminded Council he opposes giving voters a say on parkland exchanges or sales. “I think you are wholly capable of deciding what’s in the best interest of the people,” he said, expressing concern the city could miss out on an urgent deal if a vote of the people was mandatory.

In a heated debate, Williams and Geislinger argued against POPs, saying it doesn’t fully define what parks would be subject to a vote of the people. Both also called for a longer and wider public process.

“It’s not every park,” Geislinger said. “It’s the parks City Council elects to put on the list. 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.”

Williams argued not enough citizens had participated in the working group, saying, “There’s a very large difference in an interested stakeholders meeting and a public meeting.”

He also noted his measure enjoyed support from the Parks Advisory board and the Trails and Open Space Coalition.

As for whether there had been enough public process, Councilor Yolanda Avila said, “By putting it on the ballot, we are doing the ultimate public process.”

Save Cheyenne member Kathy Meinig told Council her group took part in good faith in a process prescribed by Council, signing off on parks definitions and other wording fashioned by the City Attorney’s Office and Parks Department.

Regarding public process concerns, 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 holding 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 times the city wanted to dispose of key parklands but citizens blocked those efforts, such as cutting a street through Monument Valley Park.
Council referred POPs to the ballot on a 5-4 vote, with Skorman, Avila, Jill Gaebler, Tom Strand and Bill Murray voting in favor. Voting “no” were Geislinger, Williams, Andy Pico and Don Knight.

Then, Williams moved to refer his 6-3 majority option, saying it “gives voters an opportunity to decide,” a marked divergence from his earlier stance that voters shouldn’t get a say in parkland transfers. Pico, Geislinger, Knight, Strand and Skorman voted in favor after some said it provided a double layer of protection with POPs.

Opposing were Avila, Gaebler and Murray, the latter of whom accused Williams of “subverting the majority of this Council.”

Massey told Council two ballot measures on the same topic was unprecedented for the city and she wasn’t sure how to reconcile them.

But now it appears those legal gymnastics won’t be required. Neither measure is likely to pass on second reading on Aug. 27.

With no “yes” votes to spare, the POPs measure will be dead on arrival without one of its key supporters in attendance. Gaebler will be in Europe on a trip that begins Aug. 22 and ends Sept. 8, two days after the final deadline for Council action to place measures on El Paso County’s coordinated election ballot.

As it turns out, the supermajority measure also has lost steam.

While Skorman didn’t respond to the Indy’s request for comment, Obee says he’s likely to oppose it on second reading. At least three other councilors tell the Indy they, too, will vote against it.

“I anticipate I will not be supporting either measure at second reading, and hope to work on a measure that more/all of Council and Administration can get behind for a later election,” Geislinger says via email.

Pico says he thinks all the variations of the parkland measures need work. “In my opinion,” he says in an email, “none of these are really ready for the ballot and there are many issues that should be far more clear before going forward to a charter change.”

Knight says he plans to vote “no” as well, to give the city time to “get it right” by drafting a ballot measure that’s “not confusing to the voters.”

Knight has suggested the city aim for the November 2020 ballot.

Save Cheyenne’s other option is to gather thousands of signatures to petition onto either the November 2020 ballot or the April 2021 city ballot. The group hasn’t committed to pursuing that route.

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