EDITORIAL: Concerning a Couple of Incidental Items on the Town Council Agenda, Part One

The Pagosa Springs Town Council will meet this evening at 5pm at Town Hall to finish up a few final items for the Year 2015.

One item, that might appear to be fairly incidental, is scheduled for the end of the meeting.

VII. EXECUTIVE SESSION
1. Regarding Hudson vs Hessman Pursuant to C.R.S. 24‐6‐402(4)(e) Determining Positions Relative to Matters that may be Subject to Negotiations, Developing Strategy for Negotiations, and Instructing Negotiators

That proposed executive session might be followed by a second proposed executive session.

2. Revision to Springs Partners 10‐Year Vested Right Agreement Pursuant to C.R.S. Section 24‐6‐402(4)(e) Determining Positions Relative to Matters that may be Subject to Negotiations, Developing Strategy for Negotiations, and Instructing Negotiators

I personally find the juxtaposition of these two executive session to be somewhat ironic, to say the least.

Back in September, the Town Council held an executive session to discuss the “Springs Partners 10-Year Vested Rights,” based on the same section of the Colorado Revised Statutes (CRS) — and much to my surprise, the Council invited the very folks with whom they were engaged in negotiations — the Springs Partners owners, Bill Dawson and Matt Mees —  into that closed-door executive session.

Such an invitation — to discuss a quasi-judicial matter behind closed doors, with a party involved in the decision — struck me as a possible violation of CRS 25-6-402… which was written, as I interpret it, to protect the taxpayers, not private developers. I wrote about that situation in this Daily Post article series.

Here’s a short excerpt from that article series:

How can a government body protect the public interest — by convening in private to discuss their negotiating strategy — when the very people with whom they will be negotiating have been invited into the closed door meeting?

“I wonder if you might ask, maybe, your attorney, to clarify how you can discuss [strategy] and instruct negotiators, when the person you are negotiating with is sitting in the meeting with you.”

Happily for me, the Town’s attorney, Bob Cole of the Denver law firm Collins Cockrel and Cole, was present at the meeting. The Town’s taxpayers pay Mr. Cole’s firm in excess of $100,000 per year for its services.

Unhappily for me, the public is not permitted to ask Mr. Cole a direct question. Although the public pays Mr. Cole’s salary, Mr. Cole answers only to the elected Council.

“I will only address that question if the Council asks me to address it,” Mr. Cole responded. “Because you are my client.”

Happily for me, Council member David Schanzenbaker had been wondering about the very same question.

“Mr. Mayor, I would also like to say that [this issue] has always been a concern of mine as well. And I think, in the past, we’ve had periods of time where someone has been in the executive session… and they’d be excused… and then we’d continue our discussion afterwards. So I’d like [Mr. Cole] to address, officially, how that is supposed to work.”

Attorney Cole: “It is a practice that has been upheld by case law. So we have good, firm legal precedent to rely on. I think the simplest explanation is, this is a three part process…

“Part of the latitude, in developing negotiating strategies, is to understand what the issues are. And in order to understand what the issues are, you can have, in the executive session, anybody who you believe is necessary to give you the information to help you then instruct your negotiators. Whether that’s the party on the other side of the negotiation, or whether it’s consultants who work directly for the town, or whether it’s someone else with important information… That’s how others can come in, under this section [of the Sunshine Law.]”

At that point, the executive was convened, to include the Springs Partners in the meeting.

No member of the media or the general public knows what was actually discussed in that meeting, or whether the intent of the Sunshine Law was violated. It’s a mystery.

Luckily for the taxpayers, the Town Council is required to make an audio recording of every executive session, and retain that recording for 90 days. And a court of law can be asked to review that audio recording, and release any sections that properly should have taken place in public.  The Town Council, for example, could have asked a judge to review the recording and issue a ruling, if they’d been concerned enough.

Over the next two months, I made appeals to the Town Council to please ask their attorney to reveal a court case that supports Mr. Cole’s contention. Just show me a case — any case — where a court judge has ruled that the presence of a negotiating party, like the Springs Partners LLC, is appropriate in a closed-door executive session… and I will be satisfied.

I received no response to those requests. No communication of any kind. Not even, “Thanks… but no thanks.”

So on November 17, I had my attorney Matt Roane file a formal complaint in District Court, which had a couple of effects. Attorney Bob Cole finally made a response, suggesting that I withdraw the complaint rather than put myself at considerable financial risk — paying for the Town’s legal fees fighting the case. Then, a few days later, I had a chance to meet with Town manager Greg Schulte, and discuss his idea for a compromise settlement deal that might prevent this case from running up huge legal fees on both sides.

I presume the executive session scheduled for this evening — “Regarding Hudson vs Hessman Pursuant to C.R.S. 24‐6‐402(4)(e)” — will offer the Town Council an opportunity to discuss that settlement arrangement.

I’m also curious, however, about the second scheduled executive session. “Revision to Springs Partners 10‐Year Vested Right Agreement Pursuant to C.R.S. Section 24‐6‐402(4)(e)…” We have never heard (at any Council meeting I’ve been able to attend) what revisions to the Springs Partners vested rights have been proposed, nor have we, the public, heard who exactly is proposing said revisions. We can assume that the discussions have something to do with a possible $8 million vehicle bridge at South Fifth Street, and with possible street infrastructure on the Springs Partners’ 27-acre property just south of the Springs Resort.

Here’s how the development of that vacant land will supposedly unfold, based on the drawings included in the 2012 vested rights ordinance approved by the Town Council in 2012, and which you can download here.  (Coloring added by the Daily Post.)

12Ord_772SpringsDevVestedPlan1

We can see the San Juan River, on the right side of the map.   Hot Springs Boulevard runs across the bottom, about where the secondary title in positioned. We can see the new “proposed” bridge at the top left, shown in red. It’s about two blocks from a similar Hot Springs Boulevard vehicle bridge that already crosses the San Juan River (but not shown in the drawing.)

We can also see two smaller pedestrian bridges, shown in red, that lead from downtown into the Springs Partners proposed development, paid for by the taxpayers. (A third pedestrian bridge is one block east of the existing Hot Springs Boulevard vehicle bridge.)

Four taxpayer-funded bridges, within a four block area. But that’s not enough for Springs Partners LLC, apparently. They would like the taxpayers to help pay for a fifth bridge. The 5th Street Bridge.

Here’s a photo showing South 5th Street as it now appears:

055thStreetBridgeControversy2

Imagine that you can continue driving south, over an $8 million bridge… right through what is left of Centennial Park.  This new bridge would lead exactly one place. Into the vacant property owned by Springs Partners LLC.

I wonder what the Town Council thinks of such a proposal?  And I wonder when we will find out what they think?

Read Part Two…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.