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EDITORIAL: Subtle Corruption, Part One
Bill Hudson | 3/12/12
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I spent a couple of hours at last Thursday’s Walmart presentation at the CSU Extension Building at the County Fairgrounds, and ran into many people I knew, including both Town voters from downtown, and County voters from the well-populated but unincorporated hinterlands of the county — Pagosa Lakes and Aspen Springs, for example.

I wasn’t paying too much attention to who, exactly, had turned out for the Walmart presentation.  People were milling around rather haphazardly, viewing various poster-sized drawing that the Walmart Corporation had brought to the event, and asking questions or offering comments about traffic flow, wetlands preservation, light pollution, product selection, and so forth. Some members of the audience were wearing distinctive T-shirts with large “Walmart Smiley Faces” — except that the faces were frowning, and the text on the shirts read:

No Walmart, Ever

From listening to various small group discussions during those two hours, I was left with the sense that about half the people in the room were pleased to see a Walmart store opening in Pagosa Springs — and about half were strongly opposed to the arrival of a Walmart.

You can’t please everyone.  That's a fact of American political life.  It’s a fact even in a family, or in a couple relationship.  The best one can do, in many situations, is to try to come to a compromise consensus that everyone can live with.

My great dream for Pagosa Springs is that its leaders cease their subtly-corrupt political practices and start embracing compromise consensus approaches.

At the Walmart presentation, I noticed two Town Council candidates in attendance: Clint Alley and Mark Weiler.  I didn’t speak with Mr. Alley that evening, but Mr. Weiler and I had a lengthy (and mostly civil) conversation.  Mr. Weiler has never been elected to the Town Council, but he was once appointed to the Council and served for about two years.  He’s also been appointed to other boards and ad hoc committees, and has been an outspoken proponent — or alternately, an outspoken opponent — of various Town policies over the years.

Mr. Weiler assured me during our chat that during his intimate involvement in Town government, he has never been aware of any “back room decision-making.” I assume he was responding to recent articles in the Daily Post that have focused on that very issue: back room, non-public decision-making.

Government corruption comes in many forms in a supposedly democratic society.  We have, of course, the very worst forms of corruption. Bribery. Embezzlement. Nepotism. Assassination. And then we have some more subtle forms of corruption. Monetary favors. Pork. Bailouts. Outright Dishonesty.

One of the most subtle and "innocent" forms of government corruption — non-public decision-making — is nonetheless detrimental to the functioning of a truly democratic society.

If Pagosa’s governments were not supposed to be democratic — if we lived under a Monarchy, for example, or under a Dictatorship — then we, the people, would understand that decisions were always going to be made out of the public view, in back rooms and in private meetings.  But our governments here in America profess to be democratically-based.  They profess to represent the Will of the People — not the Will of the Special Interests.

Back in 2005, the Town government began a process of planning for the future.  This process began with the selection of a Denver-based consulting firm — Clarion Associates — and a volunteer citizen panel to help create a new Comprehensive Plan.

Approving a Comprehensive Plan was not merely a “feel-good” process.  The Town Home Rule Charter, approved by voters in 2003, specifically and legally demands that the Town of Pagosa Springs develop — and continually maintain — a Comprehensive Plan.  Here’s Section 11.1, from the Home Rule Charter:

Section 11.1  Comprehensive Plan
A)  The Council shall develop, adopt and may from time to time, amend a comprehensive plan which shall address the future use and development of land, facilities and services in the Town, and any anticipated plans for annexations of property into the Town, for a period of at least five years from the date of its adoption or modification.
 
B)  Prior to the adoption of the comprehensive plan, the Council shall conduct a public hearing  to address the same.
 
C)  At least annually, the Council shall hold a public meeting to address any necessary changes or modifications to the comprehensive plan.
 
D)  The comprehensive plan shall serve as a guide for all future Council action concerning land use and development.  Future land use and development may vary from the terms of the comprehensive plan only for good cause shown.

Here’s a quote from the Town website, introducing links to PDF copies of the Comprehensive Plan's 16 chapters and 8 appendices:

Comprehensive Plan
The Town adopted the Comprehensive Plan on May 2, 2006 following numerous work sessions and facilitation of public input.

I'd like to repeat that last little phrase, if you don't mind, because I think it's extremely important to the process of good government:

...following numerous work sessions and facilitation of public input.

Like every government “plan,” the Town’s Comprehensive Plan was meant to be a “living document” — meaning that We, the People, and our elected officials, need to revisit and update the plan every so often.  In the case of the Comprehensive Plan, the Town Council is legally urged to revisit and update the Comprehensive Plan at least every five years. Here are the requirements from the plan itself, as officially adopted:

It is intended that a Comprehensive Plan Update take place at least every five (5) years unless otherwise directed by the Town Council.  In making a determination of when a Comprehensive Plan Update should be initiated, a prime consideration is the magnitude of the changes have occurred since the Plan was last updated. For instance, unexpected changes in the economy, the environment, housing affordability, traffic congestion, other local priorities or issues, or projected growth may drive a plan update to occur in less than five years.

This coming May 2, it will have been six years since the Comprehensive Plan was adopted — but no citizen-led update has been scheduled or approved.  During those intervening six years, a modestly attentive and astute person might have noticed that the Town of Pagosa Springs has indeed experienced “unexpected changes in the economy” including, for example, one of the highest levels of foreclosures in the state of Colorado, vacant properties lining the main highway, steadily declining school enrollment in our public schools, the virtual extinction of a once-thriving construction industry, and tumbling real estate values.  Those marked economic changes began in 2008, as many of us will remember.

Our Town Council has, however, consistently failed — year after year — to fulfill its Council-approved, legal obligation to update the Comprehensive Plan as needed.

It appears that failure is scheduled to be reaffirmed, by a vote of the Town Planning Commission, tomorrow.

Read Part Two...
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