COS Government Fumbles Public Comment and Participation

Photo Credit: Chester Spirit

More than a year ago, we expressed concern about local government pushing through projects during the COVID-19 pandemic. As City Hall shut its doors to in-person citizen meeting attendance, we said, “now is not the time to sneak in agendas that the majority don’t want.” Citizens were preoccupied with COVID-19, and we requested —oh-so-politely— that politicians put unnecessary projects on the back-burner.

Maybe we should have been more precise about what we meant by “unnecessary.”

As we look back over the past year, we can say our worries from a year ago were completely warranted. This has been the least transparent year we have seen since we started following local government. There has been no slowdown for the politicians and bureaucrats. Committees have been manned, raises have been given to city employees, utility prices have gone up, there was a vote for decommissioning the Martin Drake Power Plant, and numerous important re-zoning changes have been granted to developers. During this time, it has been a rare occasion that politicians have had to actually face the public —the people they represent. Citizens have been cut out of the process and elected officials, in particular, have not had to face their voters.

On March 26, 2020, Mayor Suthers issued a state of emergency, which has not yet been lifted. In-person citizen attendanceat meetings has not been allowed.

Citizens’ only option has been to give public comment virtually —that is to say online from their computer, tablet, or smartphone. City Council and Planning Commission meetings only allow for audio comments.

It has not gone smoothly.

To be blunt, it has been a disaster. It has been unpleasant and inconvenient for those calling in to the meetings, and confusing for those who listen to the meetings. The companies hired by the developers who are pushing the changes, are allowed to attend the meetings in-person and give long-winded sales pitches to the Planning Commission and the City Council. We’ve only seen a couple of citizens allowed in chambers over the past year —it’s been a rare event. Even when citizens have been allowed to speak before City Council, their time to present does not compare to their opposition. Citizens have only 3 minutes to speak.

City Hall has had a full year to figure out how to conduct business in a transparent manner. We can’t tell if they lack the competence to implement virtual meetings properly, or whether they simply don’t want to.

Examples from the past year that document how non-transparent the City has been:

  1. Brian Fasterling, a resident of the Springcrest Neighborhood, was leading the opposition to the annexation of his El Paso County neighborhood into the City of Colorado Springs, and its re-zoning for a project that would have significant impact on the neighborhood. When this matter was headed to the Colorado Springs Planning Commission meeting, Fasterling received a notice stating he was not allowed to attend the meeting in-person. For that reason, he phoned in a statement. The developer’s representative was treated much differently —she spoke in-person and for a lengthy amount of time in front of the Planning Commission. Why would the two parties be treated so differently? Take a look at the information that Fasterling received from the City of Colorado Springs Planning Department.

  1. A couple of weeks ago, the Mountain Shadows Neighborhood HOA President Bill Wysong rallied his neighbors to attend a Planning Commission meeting virtually. Their opposition to a massive apartment complex being built in that neighborhood is strong and well-organized. On the morning of the March 18th meeting, more than 250 people called in to the meeting to give their statements. The City was unprepared for that type of virtual attendance and experienced significant delays during the meeting due to the large number of people on the call. Or more correctly stated, due to the City’s inability to accommodate all the people on the call. Citizens were told to hang up from the virtual call, and instead email the city planners with their statements. The meeting was delayed by more than an hour due to the technical problems. On the virtual call, waiting citizens suggested that the meeting be postponed until the city could fix the technical problems. Sounds like a reasonable request. But, every time a citizen started to make a request for postponement, they were immediately muted on the call! But the fix was in and the Planning Commission passed the project. Next, it’s headed for a vote by City Council.
  1. City Councilman Tom Strand has pushed for two local pet stores to ban the sale of puppy and kitten mill animals. The businesses deny selling puppy and kitten mill animals, so what’s his beef? Strand wants city government to come up with rules to regulate these two private businesses. A townhall was scheduled a couple of weeks ago and we recorded it, since it was not scheduled to be recorded by the City. At the start of the meeting, we heard City Council President Richard Skorman announce that a council representative was recording the meeting for him. Skorman had another meeting to attend and had to leave early. We asked the council representative whether the city’s meeting video would be posted for the public. We were told it would not be released to the public. Hang on a second: the meeting was being recorded for the Council President, but not for ordinary citizens? For a brief moment, we gave them the benefit of the doubt —maybe it wasn’t a good quality video? We filed a Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request for the video, since we knew they had it. It’s a great quality video! If they have the ability to record these meetings for other council members, why don’t they regularly record them for the rest of us?

We asked Jeff Roberts, the Executive Director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition how other cities are managing the public meeting challenges over the past year. Roberts told us, “Public comment is probably the trickiest aspect of meeting remotely, but by now you’d think government bodies would have figured it out.” He added that cities such as Ft. Collins allow public comment in person, via Zoom or by phone. Citizens can also submit written comments. He added, “Even those government bodies that aren’t meeting in person can let people into a remote meeting temporarily so they can testify. This seems to be working well at the legislature this session, and I hope they keep that option post-pandemic. It makes it a lot more convenient for people all over the state to weigh in on legislation.”

All that said, Roberts said he realizes that, “Testifying remotely probably doesn’t have the same impact as testifying in person —passionately stating your arguments for or against something in front of a government body. Hopefully, that will be more the norm again sometime soon.”

We’ve lost patience with what we’re seeing in Colorado Springs. Here’s what we propose:

  1. It’s the year 2021 and the technology exists to provide robust access to all public meetings. The City needs to provide it now. If the City of Colorado Springs has the technology to implement a red-light camera program that records cars running red lights on video, they can surely figure out how to have citizens attend a meeting over a Zoom call or Microsoft teams meeting. By now, they should have figured out how to allow citizens to phone in and make statements to elected and appointed officials —without being muted. A year into this shutdown, the process should be smooth and free of issues. Up to this point, the technology has been poor. It’s an embarrassment to the City of Colorado Springs. If every company across the country has figured this out, so should governments with their near-endless supply of our money.
  1. Open the City Council, Planning Commission, and other public meetings to in-person attendance. City Council representatives are all of the age that have access to the COVID shot if they are fearful of the COVID-19 virus. Taxpayers have spent money on plexiglass to surround the council members’ desks. They are more than shielded from their constituents’ germs. It’s time to open the doors of the City Council meetings and let the people in. If citizens can get in line to shop at the Scheel’s Sporting Goods grand opening, they should be able to stand in line to make a 3-minute public comment in front of a Planning Commission or City Council meeting.

Our priority has always been to help get information out to you and to engage you in your local government. Let’s be clear: we do not believe the City of Colorado Springs wants you to engage in the process. You deserve more than the bare minimum that they’ve been skating by on for the past year. Contact them and tell them it’s time to face the people!

Tom Strand

Bill Murray

Jill Gaebler

Yolanda Avila

Richard Skorman

David Geislinger

Don Knight

Mike O’Malley

Mayor John Suthers

And, since we have a new batch of City Councilors that will be sworn in on April 20th, feel free to drop them a note as well. Ask them what their plans for City Council transparency will be, moving forward:

Dave Donelson

Randy Helms

Nancy Henjum

One thought on “COS Government Fumbles Public Comment and Participation

  1. Great piece. It is clear that the city government wants our money, compliance and silence. They have their agenda and don’t need input from us peasants. Perhaps they could invest the excess Covid funds in the technology to improve the ability for meetings to be recorded and more transparent instead of refurbishing the council chamber.

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