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Don Volger, Pagosa Springs’ new mayor, was sworn in at last week’s town council meeting, along with three of his fellow council members, and there were almost immediate signs that things were going to be different.
As soon as town clerk April Hessman finished the swearing in ceremony and did the roll call, things began to change.
One new item on the agenda was the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance — everybody stood, faced the American flag, and put their hands over their hearts as the mayor began, “I pledge allegiance to the flag …”
The next item was a moment of silence, and most, but not all, of those in attendance bowed their heads while the mayor silently prayed.
The next item on the agenda was for something that has been part of the traditional routine — public comments — but the mayor did take a moment to outline his expectations.
“We’ve gone over these guidelines before,” Volger began. “There’s not going to be a specific time limit, necessarily. We’d like to keep it short, because I would very much like those who speak to be considerate of the rest of their neighbors in the room … so please be considerate and concise.”
While the mayor admitted he doesn’t want the public comment section of the meeting to degenerate into a public debate, and the council may not respond to a citizen’s statements or questions immediately, he did promise that every comment would be thoughtfully considered and the council would work on formulating a response to all the concerns of its constituents.
However, one of the citizens who stepped up to the microphone was former mayoral candidate Mark Weiler, and his comments did spark some immediate discussion.
As Weiler welcomed the new council members, he handed out copies of Resolution 2012-10, a resolution the council adopted back when the Wal-Mart controversy was at its most heated and the town saw a need to formalize the procedures for allowing public participation in its meetings.
“What I would like the town council to consider going forward,” Weiler proposed, “is … to allow any citizen to petition the council to have an item placed on the agenda. It has been very difficult, historically, to get an item placed on the agenda where our community leaders actually discuss, at a council level, the business of the citizens here. What this allows is for anyone to petition and request that their item be put on the agenda for the next meeting.”
While Weiler went on to explain that he was speaking as a proxy for Lynn Bridges from Seeds of Learning, and spelled out the specific concern she would like to have placed on the agenda for the next town council meeting, the council’s response to Weiler centered more on the general idea of how issues were brought up for discussion at meetings.
Weiler concluded his remarks by arguing, “It is the first step for having open, transparent decision-making by our town council. Historically, we have done decision-making at various levels and you would come here and it would almost look like the decision had already been made. What I would like to do is to encourage you to be open, transparent, honest, direct and embrace the questions of the citizens of this community.”
“I can assure you, Mr. Weiler, that we will get back to you on that,” Volger responded to the Seeds request. “Also, the issue about how to place things on the agenda will be discussed at our retreat, which will be coming up in May.”
John Egan, one of the new councilors, asked Volger to explain the current policy for setting the agenda. Volger joked that he had only been involved in setting one agenda so far, and deferred to town manager David Mitchem.
“Historically, the mayor has set the agenda for the meetings,” Mitchem explained. “Staff provides support in developing the agenda and as items come up, staff will develop a draft and bring it to the mayor for the mayor to make a decision on the agenda.”
“Mr. Mitchem, if I may,” Egan responded, “and I’m asking so I can have an understanding of what the procedures are here, as a councilor, if I want to put an item on the agenda, how do I go about that?”
Mitchem suggested either going to the mayor or to Mitchem himself and making the request. However, Egan suggested that, for transparency’s sake, councilors be allowed a time during the council’s public meeting to request items be placed on the agenda. “Procedurally, can we do that?”
Mitchem responded that it wouldn’t be a problem, and the mayor agreed.
Councilor Clint Alley also agreed, adding, “It would make me feel a lot more involved in the process than I have been in the past, and I would appreciate the opportunity to do that.”
Councilor Tracy Bunning said, “I don’t have a problem with it; I think it is a good idea. The thing we have to keep in mind, though, is that in order to comply (with Colorado’s Open Records Act) we have to post the agenda, so if your intention is to bring something before council for future consideration that’s one thing, but you don’t want to get into a discussion of your particular issue during the meeting when you bring it up.”
Lattin agreed that people should be able to come to a meeting and request that an item be placed on the next agenda. New Councilor C.K. Patel also agreed, adding, “I think it would make the whole process more open and transparent for everybody.”
Continuing the issue of transparency and openness, Bill Hudson suggested the council post their agenda packets online, similar to how the Archuleta School District does its agenda. Not only would this save paper cost, it would make the agenda easier for the public to view, as opposed to driving all the way down to Town Hall to request a copy from Hessman.
Hudson also suggested the councilors use their official town email addresses when conducting official business.
“Part of the open records system allows the public to review email communications. Those are open records, as well, and right now I believe only (councilor) David Schanzenbaker has a town email account.” Hudson went on to explain that the best practice for public officials is to use an official email account “so that we don’t have to dig into your private email account when we want to get an open record about a conversation that happened by email.”
After the meeting, Lattin was overheard asking Mitchem about the procedure for getting an official town email account.
In other town business:
• Natalie Woodruff was appointed to continue as an alternate on the planning commission.
• Scott Frost was introduced as the new special projects manager, a position that opened up recently when Keely Whittington quit and moved to Albuquerque for family reasons.
• A board of appeals consisting of Jim Van Liere, Larry Ash and Vernon Leslie (three prominent members of the local building industry) was appointed when Zach Richardson, the town’s building and fire code official, admitted he does, on occasion, make decisions with which people sometimes disagree and request a second opinion.
• Pagosa Overlook, a homeowners’ association, offered to donate a small parcel of land along the alley between 7th and 8th streets to the town and requested it be used as a parking area for the horseshoe pits at South Park, but the council tabled a decision on accepting the land until more research could be done concerning the cost of improvements.
• Jerry Hilsabeck from the Boulder Coffee Café asked for permission to operate a portable snow cone cart along the Riverwalk and near the athletic field in Yamaguchi Park, and while the council agreed it sounded like a good idea, several conditions were suggested for a special use permit.
• Lee Riley, Jeff Greer and J.R. Ford were successful in their request to table the Visitor Center issue until they could facilitate further negotiations between the town and the Chamber of Commerce in regards to retaining the current Visitor Center location on the bank of the San Juan River.
• Mitchem announced that a company named Peak Resorts paid $62,500 for the controversial Reservoir Hill chairlift and had picked it up from the town lot last week with plans of hauling it to a resort in Missouri. The town had paid approximately $40,000 for the chairlift, and the town still owns a towrope lift that it can use if a future need ever arises.