Read Part One
As our readers will recall from Part One, attorney Matt Roane was introduced at the Friends of Reservoir Hill meeting last Tuesday by Friends board member Christine Funk. Ms. Funk had made this statement during her introduction:
"And what he's here to talk about is an amendment sponsored by five citizens of the community — it's not sponsored by the Friends of Reservoir Hill; it's sponsored by some citizens in the community."
It's easy to get confused about things, in a little town like Pagosa Springs. The people who are running the show here — or rather, the various shows, like the Town government, the County government, the School District, the local businesses, the local online newspapers — are generally not the well-trained experts one might find in a larger city. One might even be tempted to propose that many of us moved to Pagosa because we 'couldn't quite make the grade' in a big city.
When I checked the Pagosa Springs SUN website this morning, Friday, November 16, I found this headline:
Friends of Reservoir Hill seek to amend town charter
So I guess I'm one of those confused people, here in Pagosa. The chair of the Friends of Reservoir Hill told us that the amendment effort is "not sponsored by the Friends of Reservoir Hill." But our local weekly newspaper tells us that the Friends of Reservoir Hill are the ones seeking to amend the Town charter.
The Town Council and the Town Tourism Committee (TTC) — the two groups proposing a small amusement park in the midst of the Reservoir Hill wilderness park — might be just as confused as I am. How much more confused will the Town voters be, by the time the amendment petitions are circulated and the March election is scheduled? We can only imagine.
The confusion will no doubt be augmented by the fact that Home Rule Charter amendments are usually written in "Legalese", a foreign language commonly used by attorneys, and partially understood by judges and court clerks but by almost no one else. Luckily for the Friends of Reservoir Hill, they'd invited attorney Matt Roane to interpret the Home Rule Charter language at their Tuesday meeting. Here is the proposed amendment, as it will appear on the petitions:
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 rides 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-carts, chair lifts, gravity propelled rides, and rope tows. Amusement rides do not include non-motorized playground equipment or personal recreation equipment such as skis and bicycles.
Actually, that's not too difficult to understand. Clearly, the Charter amendment is aimed at allowing bicyclists, cross country skiers, and disc golf devotees to continue using Reservoir Hill — while requiring voter approval before any large, mechanized rides can be installed in the park.
Mr. Roane then explained, in considerable detail, the process of gathering signatures — noting that only registered Town voters should sign the petitions.
Matt Roane is not a stranger to the Town's initative process. In fact, he is one of the only people in Archuleta County who fully understands it. Mr. Roane and another group of friends sponsored a similar initiative process in 2009, after the Town Council voted to repeal all of the so-called "Big Box" regulations they'd added to the Land Use and Development Code (LUDC) in 2006. That petition led to a special measure in the 201o Town election, asking the voters whether or not to approve the repeal. As it turned out, Walmart had a lot of fans living within the the Town boundaries; the repeal was supported by a large majority of Town voters.
The 'Big Box' initiative was, however, a slightly different animal from the current Reservoir Hill amendment. The 'Big Box' initiative in 2010 concerned a Town ordinance, and ordinances can be changed or repealed by a simple majority vote of the Town Council — so an ordinance instituted by a citizen initiative might be seen as 'less than permanent.' A Charter amendment, on the other hand, can be changed or repealed only by a vote of the Town electorate. So Mr. Roane's petition proposes to place the Reservoir Hill amusement park development permanently into the hands of the voters — at least until such a development is approved by those same voters.
Yesterday's SUN article, written by reporter Ed Fincher, quotes Town Council member Darrel Cotton, complaining that the Town government is "a democracy; we’re a republic."
"You elected me to make the decisions. If I mess up, throw me out. If we vote on everything then we don’t need an elected government."
As Mr. Roane noted in his presentation last week, we voters don't completely trust our elected leaders, and we long ago established that certain decisions need to be approved by the electorate. Here in Colorado, for example, we long ago determined that our governments should not be allowed to place additional government debt on our shoulders, without our express approval.
Mr. Cotton and his fellow Council members, however, have found a way around that little problem — as have all state and local governments and school districts in Colorado. It's called the "Lease Purchase Agreement" and it's been given the green light by the Colorado Supreme Court. Mr. Cotton and the Town Council used this method to pay for a $1.5 million paving project on Lewis Street last year — by "leasing" the Ross Aragon Community Center to the All American Investment Group, and then "leasing" the Community Center back from them — essentially creating a $2.5 million debt that was not really a debt because the Town could (theoretically) walk away from the lease. Of course, if the Town did "walk away" from the lease, they would lose not only the Community Center, but also our Town Hall, which was put up as "collateral" for the loan.
Some of those opposed to Bob Hart's $4.5 million amusement park on Reservoir Hill are concerned mainly about the desecration of a quiet, wilderness park — or about displacing the Four Corners Folk Festival, which has taken place annually on Reservoir Hill for the past 17 years. Some of us, however, are even more concerned that the Town government will simply devise a "legal" way to borrow $4.5 million without asking voter approval — and our children and grandchildren will end up footing the bill, in the form of higher taxes and reduced services.
Near the end of the Friends meeting on Tuesday, local activist Biz Greene shared a little story. Ms. Greene was one of the only citizens to speak out in opposition to the Reservoir Hill amusement park when it was first rolled out in October 2011.
"Well, for what it's worth, I want to tell you what [mayor] Ross Aragon said to me yesterday. He knows I'm opposed to the development on Reservoir Hill, because I expressed it at the very first Town Council meeting when it was brought up. When I ran into him on the street, he told me I could stop worrying about Reservoir Hill because it's not going to happen. I said, 'Really? Tell me more.' And he said, 'We just don't have the money... so it's over.' That's what he told me yesterday."
The room broke into excited murmurs, and then local citizen Ron Gustafson offered his take on the comment.
"That's subject to change."
General laughter ensued. And then Friends chair Christine Funk spoke.
"Well, who knows. But the special election will definitely push them forward to some sort of decision. Because if it does go forward... there's enough of us, and we're going to get out the vote, and we're going to win. And then they're really going to have to think about it twice."
Can a grassroots movement really have an effect on Pagosa's 'Good Ole Boys' network? I guess we will find out.