Reservoir Hill: No change to petition

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    Staff Writer

    Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon and Town Manager David Mitchem, as of press time Wednesday, reported no response to a letter addressed to the five citizens who sponsored the first petition drive aimed at holding a special election and placing before town voters a ballot issue that would give the people the final say in whether or not any amusement rides are placed on Reservoir Hill.

    “We have not received any feedback from the petitioners at all,” Mitchem claimed. “They may be working on it. I don’t know.”

    However, at the last minute, SUN staff did receive an e-mail from Christine Funk, one of the five petition sponsors.

    “The thing the Sponsors cannot understand,” Funk wrote, “is why the Town Council is not satisfied to allow the election to move forward as currently structured, but with an appropriate election date.  The wording of the proposed amendment is not biased as members of the Council suggest.  In fact, it is pulled almost verbatim out of the Colorado Department of Labor’s regulations.”

    A copy of Aragon’s letter to Funk and her fellow petition sponsors, which Mitchem supplied to The SUN late last week, states, “Concerns that your petition and proposed Charter amendments are misleading caused several Town Council Members to pursue an alternate petition and Charter amendments that would preserve the Council’s current powers, and set the stage for potentially competing questions being presented as a single election.”

    In an earlier interview, Aragon had complained, “The opposition to the town board was going around soliciting signatures on the basis that we were going to have a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster. Based on that, I would have signed their petition, too. I think it was totally wrong of them. It’s not just an embarrassment; it’s a flat-out lie. That has never crossed anyone’s mind, so I thought that was pretty distasteful to blatantly state that that was going to happen.”

    “The 212 voters who signed the petition set the proposed home rule charter amendment language,” Funk wrote. “That is the specific question they want to decide.  Any change to the amendment language would require a complete withdrawal of the original petition and a resubmission of a newly worded petition, something the Sponsors would not do to the original 212 signing voters.”

    However, “It’s easy enough, if we come to an agreement on modified wording,” Mitchem explained in a phone interview with SUN staff yesterday morning, “the council can do that by ordinance. The petitioners, assuming they agree, can, at their discretion, withdraw their petition, just like the council members did. If there is an agreed-upon wording between the petitioners and the council, then the council can pass that wording by ordinance, and then the petitioners can withdraw their petition. There is a mechanism in place to do that, but we have to have a negotiation first.”

    Aragon’s letter to Funk stated, “Council Member participation in both of these petitions has led to unfounded allegations of conflicts of interest on both sides, and caused further deterioration of the discussion, taking it completely away from the question of paramount importance: ‘What, if any changes to Reservoir Hill, is the best course for the Town and its citizens?’

    “In an attempt to bring the discussion back to this most important focus, the second petition has been withdrawn, and the Town Council proposes that representatives from the Town and your group meet to discuss how to present a single, fair, accurate and unbiased ballot question, that would determine the opportunities for Reservoir Hill recreation improvements.”

    The mayor’s concern about the language of the first petitioner’s ballot issue has nothing to do with what will actually be on the ballot, but what will be in the new section of the town’s Home Rule Charter.

    As it is worded now, the ballot in April will read, “Shall the town of Pagosa Springs Home Rule Charter be amended to require an affirmative vote of a majority of the registered electors of the town voting thereon approving the construction or operation of any amusement ride in the Reservoir Hill Recreation Area, as set forth in ordinance no. 781?”

    However, should a majority of registered town voters approve that ballot question, then the new Charter section will read, “No construction or operation of any amusement ride shall take place in the Reservoir Hill Recreation Area unless the question of doing so has been submitted to and approved by a majority of the town’s registered electors voting thereon. ‘Amusement ride’ shall be defined as any mechanized device, or combination of devices which carry or convey persons along, around, or over a fixed or restricted course for the purpose of giving passengers excitement, amusement or pleasure. Amusement rides include, but are not limited to, roller coasters, Ferris wheels, go-karts, chairlifts, gravity-propelled rides and rope-tows. Amusement rides do not include non-motorized playground equipment or personal recreation equipment such as skis and bicycles.”

    While no one has actually accused the mayor or town council of planning to build a Ferris wheel or go-kart track, it is the language of this definition Aragon and Mitchem want changed.

    “If these discussions fail to reach consensus on a single ballot question to be presented at the April 23 election or such other course as the parties might mutually agree would be beneficial, the Town Council remains obligated to proceed with the April 23 election on your petition, but also retains its option of presenting a competing ballot question.”

    “The Sponsors sincerely hope that the Council does not follow through on their suggested plan to pass an ordinance submitting a second ballot question to the voters,” Funk wrote. “We fail to see how a second, oppositely-worded ballot question helps to determine what the residents of this town want to do with Reservoir Hill.  A second question would only serve to confuse voters as well as confuse the results of the election.

    “212 voters said they want to vote upon the amendment as currently worded. The five council members who sponsored the competing amendment could not find 112 voters who want a second, oppositely-worded ballot question.  We hope the Council ultimately honors this clear message from the voters and does not force a second question upon them.”

    Mitchem adamantly denied local attorney Matt Roane’s accusations of conflict of interest, providing SUN staff with a copy of a letter from town attorney Bob Cole, and promised that such a concern was not the reason for the withdrawal of the second petition. Mitchem also denied that the consensus to withdraw said petition was reached during an executive session the town council held last week, an act that would be a clear violation of Colorado’s open meeting laws.

    “All of the responsibilities related to processing a petition seeking a charter amendment lie with the Town Clerk, and not the Town Council or any other Town board or Commission,” Cole wrote. “The Town Council’s only role in the process is, following certification by the Town Clerk that a valid, signed petition has been submitted, to adopt an election resolution setting the election date and ballot title. This Town Council task does not require or even contemplate involvement by petition representatives or signors.”

    On the other hand, the mayor refused to specify how many, if any, signatures he and his fellow council members had been able to obtain before they withdrew their petition. Instead, Mitchem affirmed the reason for the withdrawal was a show of good faith towards the first petition sponsors, in an attempt to open up negotiations.

    “The Sponsors are very interested in receiving an election date as close as possible to the February 28, 2013, election date set forth in the original petition,” Funk wrote. “We feel the Council’s initial decision to assign an April 23, 2013 election date, the latest date allowable under the law, violated their legal responsibilities to Pagosa Springs’ voters.”

    At the Dec. 21 town council meeting, when certain members of council were still acting like they didn’t know who the sponsors of the second petition were, they used it as an excuse to move the date of the special election for the first petition back as far as possible. Roane had asked for a date of March 12, but the council instead decided to set the date for April 23. Neither Mitchem nor the mayor gave any indication they would be willing to change that date back to March 12 as part of their negotiations.

    “Also important to note,” Funk concluded her e-mail, “the vote is not on whether or not anyone agrees or disagrees to have amusement park rides in our town park but IF THE VOTERS HAVE A SAY IN THE MATTER in the FUTURE (the emphasis is hers). This election, if successful in our favor, would guarantee that any mechanized disruption to our town park will have to be brought to the voters for their approval or disapproval.

    “Our objective was and always has been to just give the public a voice/vote. If the Town Council really wants to put the amusement park rides on the table, they will have to ask the public to vote on it if our amendment passes in the upcoming special election. It won’t just be up to the Council, but to the people.”

    Who has the power to make decisions concerning what does or doesn’t happen in Pagosa Springs is apparently also at the heart of the matter for the mayor.

    “With uncomfortable reflection,” Aragon began his letter, “I note that the discussion of possible recreation improvements on Reservoir Hill has led to a level of rancor, that even by Pagosa Springs’ standards, is becoming excessively divisive and damaging to our community. In reaction to the Town Council’s continued consideration of the proper scope and feasibility of Reservoir Hill recreation opportunities recommended by the Town Tourism Committee, you have presented a petition and an election has been set on Town Charter Amendments to strip the Town Council of its authority to make these decisions.”

    ed.fincher@pagosasun.com