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Hill vote: no change in language or date

Staff Writer

Christine Funk, who sits on the board of directors of the recently formed Friends of Reservoir Hill, gave the rest of the group an update at their Monday night meeting on the progress of a special election designed to give Pagosa Springs’ voters the final say in whether or not any amusement amenities are built or operated on Reservoir Hill.

“Basically, the election is set for April 23,” Funk explained. “There’s no changing that. There’s no getting a closer date to what we think should have been legally required. I know a lot of people are going to be out of town. April 23 is in the shoulder season.

“I’m going to find out about absentee ballots and how long before the election you can pick them up. You know, all those things. That’s why I don’t like that date.”

“And that’s probably why they chose it,” audience member Rick Bolhouse chimed in. Bolhouse has been a vocal opponent of the town’s current development plan for Reservoir Hill.

“Whether there will be one or two measures on the ballot,” Funk continued, “we don’t know yet. Right now it’s just ours, and we’re happy about that. The council can do two things to push theirs onto our ballot, but they haven’t said anything yet, so we’ll just hope they don’t.”

Funk was referring to threats made by town manager David Mitchem and five members of the town council to place a second, oppositely worded question on the same ballot.

An hour before the noon town council meeting the previous Thursday, Jan. 24, council members David Schanzenbaker and Tracy Bunning met in private with local attorney Matt Roane and Julie Fox, one of the sponsors of the petition that led to this election. Roane then reported to town council on the results of those discussions.

“We can’t change the language of the underlying amendment that has been proposed for the Home Rule Charter,” Roane began. “Two hundred and twelve people have said, ‘That’s the language that we want to vote on,’ and nobody can find any authority in the law that would allow the five sponsors to take that back from them at this point, so it is what it is.

“I appreciate that the mention of a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster and go-karts is troubling to members of the council. I recognize that is a big sticking issue. I explained to the folks at the meeting a few minutes ago that choosing the language of the amendment was very carefully done, and it was taken from the department of labor’s wording on this issue. We didn’t just throw things in.

“There were reasons for putting those in there, and it wasn’t to enflame you or anybody else. I understand that’s how you feel, but it was a community effort. I didn’t sit in a room by myself writing. We weren’t trying to offend anybody, but that language is set.”

Roane went on to explain that, while the wording of the proposed Charter section is set, the wording of the ballot issue is not, and unless the voters do their homework and look it up, they will never see that wording. Furthermore, he expressed a willingness to, “change the ballot language to get folks to not focus on ‘Ferris wheel,’ ‘roller coaster,’ and ‘Go-kart,’ but to get them to focus on the rides that you all have considered. In return for that concession, we would ask that you move the election up to what is now the earliest election date possible, March 26, about a month ahead of where we are right now. I think that’s a fair compromise.”

Councilor Don Volger was the first to speak up when Roane finished. “I do have concerns about changing the date because of some technical, legal issues. Why do you guys want it a month earlier? Why is that such a sticking point when it would give everybody another four weeks to get out and educate the public on what they would be voting on?”

The first reason Roane gave, which was later echoed by Funk at the Monday meeting of the Friends of Reservoir Hill, concerned the timing — having the election during a season when a number of town businesses close down and residents go out of town for vacations.

“The other reason,” Roane explained, “and I’ll just be honest, there is concern in a portion of the community that decisions are going to be made and you could end-run any election that took place. If you sign a contract in March, it wouldn’t matter what happened in April. You could say, ‘Hey, rights are vested.’ You may not think that’s reasonable, but people do fear that, and there have been things taking place that have fueled the mistrust.”

Council member Darrel Cotton said, “I lean towards our attorney (town attorney Bob Cole), whose position is that we really can’t change the date, because we already set the date in the announcement we did in the newspaper. That’s a done deal.”

“Can I just say that the thirty-day posting requirement was completed on Dec. 27, when it was published in the paper,” Town Clerk April Hessman added. “At that time I thought the election was going to be April 23, which gave me plenty of time to make sure I get everything done. If you guys move the date up a whole month that’s going to put a lot of pressure on me, because I thought I had three more months instead of only two.”

“It just seems like we would be well off to try to get this election over and done with sooner rather than later,” Schanzenbaker argued. “It’s hard to say what we’ve done properly and what we haven’t done properly at this point.”

“If I offend anybody with what I am about to say, I am sorry,” council member Kathie Lattin chimed in. “I am here to represent my constituents. When I went around talking to people, over 50 percent of them said, ‘Oh my God! That’s not what I was told! I was told you were going to put a roller coast up there. I was told this. I was told that.’

“I believe wholeheartedly that it (the ballot issue) was misrepresented by the pollers that went out and got the petition signed. I have huge issues with that. I have taken it upon myself to go out there and talk to people and educate them. People don’t know what they signed. People don’t know what’s going on with Reservoir Hill. You have groups of people spreading rumors to get what they want.

“I promised I wouldn’t do this at today’s meeting,” Lattin finished, “but I just can’t handle it anymore. We do need the time to tell everyone what’s going on and what’s true. You’re worried about us signing a contract. We’re not going to sign any contracts. We don’t do things that people don’t know we are doing.”

Mayor Ross Aragon stopped Roane from making a response to Lattin’s assertion, so there was no chance to remind her of a failed attempt to anonymously sponsor a second petition drive.

Earlier, at the Dec. 20 town council meeting where the date for the special election was set for April 23, Hessman revealed that a group of citizens had submitted a letter to her declaring their intent to circulate a second petition.

Roane complained at that time a second question was unnecessary, since a “yes” vote on the second question would basically do the same thing as a “no” vote on the first question. He went on to claim that such a maneuver was simply an underhanded political stratagem designed to confuse the voters.

Town attorney Bob Cole admitted that the issue is deeper than just confusing the voters. If both questions are on the same ballot, then whichever one gets the most “yes” votes wins. However, if there are two separate elections, whichever vote occurs at a later date would trump the earlier ballot, regardless of the number of “yes” votes on each.

At that same meeting, as five of the seven town council members argued for setting the date for the election as late as legally possible, Hessman and those five members pretended they didn’t know who had sponsored the second petition.

Soon after that meeting, however, SUN staff discovered the truth and revealed to the public that the second petition sponsors were, in fact, Aragon, Cotton, Volger, Lattin and Bunning.

Schanzenbaker and council member Clint Alley had been deliberately left out of the action by Mitchem, Hessman and the other council members, and were surprised by the second petition. They were also the only two members to vote against using the second petition as an excuse to move the election date out to April 23.

At the next town council meeting, Roane accused those five members of having an illegal conflict of interest by acting as private citizens who would gather signatures on a petition, which they would later have to present to themselves as town council members.

Town attorney Bob Cole subsequently prepared a legal memorandum arguing that such an action was, in his opinion, not illegal. This letter, though it was marked, “Confidential: Attorney/Client Privileged,” was presented by Mitchem to SUN staff as evidence that there was no conflict of interest.

Nonetheless, after The SUN published an article revealing who was behind the second petition, those five council members decided to withdraw their petition. Funk speculated the withdrawal happened because the sponsors were unable to gather the 112 signatures needed, while Aragon and Mitchem both claimed it was done as a show of good faith.

“There is no intent on this board’s part,” Bunning promised at the Jan. 24 town council meeting, “to enter into any kind of contractual negotiations with anybody in reference to any of the things we are discussing for Reservoir Hill.”

He then went on to stipulate, as part of his motion to approve Ordinance 781 as it stands (meaning the election will occur,on April 23), that between now and then no new contracts will be signed for recreational amenities on Reservoir Hill.

Funk ended her report at the Monday night Friends meeting by affirming, “We just want the voters to be able to have a vote on anything that comes up that is mechanized. It’s really important that people know that. We’re not really trying to say you can’t have it (development on the Hill).”

“I’ve been asked that,” Friends board member Jeff Greer added, “and I just say it is a vote so that we can have a vote.”

“It’s so the people, who own the park, can have some say in what happens to it,” Ken Levine clarified. Levine is the third member of the Friends’ board of directors. His family owns the property adjacent to the town property on Reservoir Hill.

ed.fincher@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on January 31, 2013.