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Public process questioned as Wal-Mart plans unveiled

About 75 area residents attended a public hearing of the Pagosa Springs Planning Commission, Board of Adjustments and Design Review Board at the Ross Aragon Community Center Tuesday night to view designs submitted by firms contracted by Wal-Mart for a store to be built in Pagosa Springs.

At the end of the four-and-a-half hour meeting, barely a dozen residents remained.

While those residents were given the opportunity to ask questions or provide input on those designs, they first had to wait for over two hours for the Wal-Mart representatives. Furthermore, when the public comment portion of the meeting finally took place, several residents were shut out of the process when Commission Chair (and Pagosa Springs Town Council member) Kathie Lattin deemed questions or comments “irrelevant” or out of context.

Town Attorney Bob Cole sat with the board, advising members regarding audience input and questions.

Of five questions asked by SUN staff at the meeting, four were refused answers by the board, with Lattin stating those questions were not in line with aspects of the Wal-Mart presentation.

In fact, questions by SUN staff included asking the board to define terms used in the meeting agenda, as well as issues of council participation following the board’s recommendations for the plan.

The refusal to answer those questions appears indicative of a systemic decision by some town staff and elected officials to selectively choose what questions or comments will be entertained.

As public attendance has greatly increased over the past year for council, commission and board meetings in response to several controversial proposed developments, the town has grappled with how to conduct business while accommodating the desire of local residents to be heard on a variety of topics.

Unfortunately, that response has too often been the suppression of public comment.

At a Planning Commission meeting earlier this year, Lattin cut reporters off from questioning during a discussion on a proposed vehicle bridge crossing the river at 5th Street. Last Thursday, Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon angrily cut off local resident Muriel Eason when she asked for information regarding Tuesday’s public hearing.

Aragon’s ire regarding questions has not been limited to audience members, however. Last month, the mayor squelched a line of questioning by council member David Schanzenbaker when the trustee attempted to gain answers from members of the Town Tourism Committee.

At Tuesday’s public hearing, town staff circulated a copy of a document titled, “A resolution adopting a policy concerning public recording, public participation at meetings, and public hearing rules and procedures,” that greatly restricts the public’s ability to speak out at Planning Commission meetings.

Since January (when Wal-Mart announced its intention to locate a store in Pagosa Springs), the town has stumbled several times in its attempt to rope in public comment.

For instance, prior to the January meeting where Josh Phair, Wal-Mart’s director of public affairs and government relations in Colorado, announced his company’s intention to locate a store in town, Aragon shut down an opportunity from the start. “We will not entertain public comment,” Aragon told the audience in January. “We will instead utilize a diplomatic option establishing civil organization and protocol in a public forum setting at the community center. The date will be determined at the mid-month meeting.”

Instead of a public forum, however, the town scheduled a so-called “open house” that gave Wal-Mart representatives a chance to present their project, but little (if any) chance for residents to offer opinions. At that time, Town Planner James Dickhoff said that the idea of an open house format had been arrived at, “Through conversations with the developers, with David Mitchem, the mayor and Josh Phair.”

Following an article in the Jan. 26 edition of The SUN titled, “ Wal-Mart: Where’s the public forum?” and subsequent pressure from residents, the town postponed the open house and held a public forum in mid-February.

In another instance, the town posted a poll on its website to solicit opinions on the TTC’s proposed plan for Reservoir Hill. However, that poll was taken down less than a day later. Citing technical issues, Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem stated that, “The results were 42 percent against and 58 percent for.”

When asked if survey results from the erstwhile poll could be sent to SUN staff, Mitchem responded, “I’m not going to do that. It was a mistake and we hadn’t meant for the poll to be online. You can do a CORA (Colorado Open Records Act) request if you want to, but I’m not giving you the results.”

The town never reposted that poll, apparently choosing instead to opt for the results of two petitions circulated by the TTC that (as The SUN reported last week) ask for signatures in support of the project, with one petition also touting assumed economic development benefits, but notably absent is any solicitation for opposition to the project.

Tuesday was yet another example of the town’s prejudice towards certain questions or comments.

Following adjournment of the public forum, Mitchem called SUN staff to request a meeting, “To answer your questions.”

SUN staff met with Cole and Mitchem early Wednesday morning to hear what answers the town might provide. While most of the discussion involved rationale for drafting the resolution restricting public comment, Cole and Mitchem only answered a question involving the matter of recusal.

On Tuesday night, commissioners Bobby Hart and Ron Maez were not sitting on the board, having recused themselves due to previous statements on the record supporting a Wal-Mart in town.

The only question raised by SUN staff on Tuesday night that was answered by the board was whether or not Lattin would recuse herself from planning decisions brought before council.

“There’s nothing in the charter that says I need to,” Lattin said.

Given the recusals of Hart and Maez, SUN staff asked if council members who had been on the record with opinions regarding Wal-Mart would be asked to recuse themselves from votes on that matter. Trustees Darrel Cotton and Don Volger have both been quoted in SUN articles stating support for Wal-Mart, a point that led SUN staff to say, “If you ask for recusals based on previous statements, you’ll be dealing with a rather thin board.”

Cole said that the matter was still being looked into while Mitchem replied, “It’s not something we’ve made a decision on yet.”

When asked about the propriety of Lattin participating in a vote with council on a matter that her commission had recommended, Cole said that, due to the lack of warm bodies to fill seats with advisory committees in rural areas, the state had determined that sometimes it was necessary for elected officials to also serve on boards and commissions.

When SUN staff pointed out that former trustee Shari Pierce had always recused herself on council votes regarding the Historic Preservation Board, Mitchem replied, “That was her choice.”

As Cole and Mitchem conceded, the matter of recusal was far from settled.

However, an apparent double standard continues to exist in town involving the participation of elected officials and appointed committee members when engaged in the public process — where those members are allowed unfettered opportunity to provide almost unlimited input on issues — but average citizens find themselves either restricted in their right to participate or cut out of the process all together.

It is a situation that could potentially become one more contentious matter as the town attempts to continue navigating already controversial issues and as public participation in the process becomes more widespread.

In fact, while more than a dozen citizens addressed the Planning Commission on Tuesday night, all finding faults either with the plans as presented or with the process that led to the presentation, others were refused admission to the process as the commission selectively and subjectively determined what comments or questions were deemed appropriate.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights) reads, “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Few would argue that town meetings should be allowed to digress into a verbal free-for-all, steps that the town has taken, along with the behavior of those presiding over various town boards, seems to indicate that while Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, the town is not so constrained.

Ultimately, the Planning Commission approved the preliminary designs presented by Wal-Mart and their consultants with the understanding that certain aspects presented would be considered for revision following recommendations from the commission and the public. The commission’s approval will pass onto council as a recommendation to proceed with further design review.

Another public forum is slated for Tuesday, July 10, at 5:15 p.m. in the gymnasium of the Ross Aragon Community Center.

jim@pagosasun.com

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