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Public input takes the day at council meeting

While it’s been said too often that, “You can’t fight city hall,” local residents found out Tuesday night at the February meeting of the Pagosa Springs Town Council that sometimes standing up and speaking out can make a difference.

However, that difference was almost lost in the shuffle to expedite town business when, following a motion and a second on Ordinance 767, Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon asked for a vote. It was at that moment when Aragon was reminded that protocol demanded the matter be opened up for public discussion.

With a number of Pagosa First (a local grassroots organization opposing Wal-Mart locating in town) members in attendance, Aragon started Tuesday’s meeting by stating that another meeting had been scheduled, “to entertain public comment at a later date” (see related article, page A-1) and that no public comment on the issue would be allowed.

“Isn’t this matter open for public comment following a second? SUN staff asked, interrupting the board’s vote.

Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem responded that, if members of the audience wanted to speak up, that was certainly welcome.

It was at that point where comments on the matter, both from council and the audience, stretched on for nearly an hour.

As reported in the Jan. 26 edition of The SUN, on Jan. 19 council approved the first reading of Ordinance 767 that would, if passed upon a second reading, refer amendments to the town charter to town voters.

That SUN article pointed out that some substantive changes had been proposed to the charter in Ordinance 767, changes addressing procedures for elections, petitions and referendums that, when included with the other changes in the ballot question, could create a quandary for town voters.

Essentially the Jan. 26 article asserted that, while bundling proposed changes would certainly streamline April’s ballot, the potential for conflict between acceptable and unacceptable amendments included in a single ballot question could raise some difficult issues with town voters.

Although Tuesday’s audience referred to several proposed changes included in the ordinance, the issue primarily raised was a proposed change to section 12.9 — allowing council to “purchase, sell, exchange, receive by donation, enter into a lease greater than two years, or dispose of any interest in real property including easements,” by resolution rather than by ordinance — represents a substantial change to administrative procedures.

By charter, resolutions require just a single vote by council, whereas an ordinance requires a first reading and a second reading — at least 10 days following the publication of an ordinance passed on its first reading. In short, an ordinance doubles the chance of public input on the matter, as opposed to a resolution (which requires just 24 hours between initial publication and a vote by council).

Citing that he felt the proposed change restricted the potential for public input regarding substantial land deals conducted by council, local business owner Morgan Murri said, “I would ask strongly that you not consider including Section 12.19 in this motion,” adding that, “This goes strongly against the tone of the community.”

“I appreciate what you’re saying, Morgan,” said trustee Darrell Cotton, stating that he believed the change would simplify the process for council.

“This doesn’t say we’re going to go behind closed doors,” Cotton added, saying that the difference between a resolution and an ordinance was simply the second vote required for the latter. “It still happens in an open meeting, this just moves things along.”

Murri countered by saying, “It’s about the process. If it’s just about moving things along, then everything should be done by resolution.”

“Maybe it should,” Cotton said, speaking to the mechanism of a representational democracy. “We’ve been elected to make decisions. If we’re just going to hand things back, then you don’t need us.”

Murri used the example at hand (Ordinance 767) to clarify his point, saying that it was only after the first reading he was able to go back and review what was being proposed, giving him time to appear for the second reading to voice his opposition.

Cotton continued with his argument that the change in Section 12.19 would speed up council’s ability to conduct business, citing a recent donation of land to the town by a local property owner.

Trustee Don Volger asked why the change had been proposed, with Mitchem responding that it was the property donation that led to the proposed change. The property donor, Mitchem said, hoped to seal the deal prior to the end of 2011 in order to reap the tax benefit the donation would provide.

Adding to Murri’s argument, local resident Muriel Eason pointed out that an ordinance is subject to repeal by voter referendum — a process not afforded to a resolution.

However, the matter of changes to Section 12.19 quickly shifted to other proposed changes (mostly dealing with charter sections regarding the powers, duties and qualifications of the Town Manager), with the issue of the difference between town and county resident voting rights taking center stage in that discussion — “an artificial demarcation” said local resident Nicole DeMarco.

In response, Mitchem pointed out that council had, over the past two years, opened up town subcommittees to county business owners and residents with the intention of opening up decision-making to citizens living outside town boundaries.

The conversation returned to the matter of the ballot after trustee Bob Hart asked Mitchem if the changes could be broken into discrete questions. Mitchem replied that town attorney Bob Cole had structured the three ballot questions the way they were presented in the ordinance and did not know if changes could be made in time for the April ballot.

Pointing out that the purpose of the Jan. 26 article was to show the possibility that objection to a single, controversial item in a ballot question could potentially kill the other proposed changes, SUN staff asked if the ballot still had time to accommodate a decision made by council, regarding amendments, prior to the March 2 deadline faced by council seat petitioners (see related article).

Again, Mitchem responded that he did not know and would have to consult Cole for an answer.

After asking the audience which changes were considered controversial, and not getting a clear answer other than Section 12.19, Holt made it clear he would be willing to strike that amended section.

Following some discussion on how to proceed — referring the ordinance (and the proposed changes) to a subcommittee, tabling the matter, breaking out portions of the ballot question into separate items — council reached a consensus that, while Section 12.19 seemed the most contentious item on the ballot, the rest of the proposed changes should proceed as written.

After trustee Lattin rescinded her original motion, Volger offered an amended motion to accept Ordinance 767, sans changes to Section 12.19, with Lattin offering a second.

After Aragon asked if there would be any further discussion, an audience member said, “Thank you for having this discussion,” a comment that was met with applause from the audience.

Following that, Ordinance 767 passed with a unanimous vote.

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