CAN NEIGHBORS TALK? SOME LAWMAKERS SAY NO

Published: March 7, 2013, 12:01 pm, by Bill Vogrin

Can we talk? Just us neighbors?

Maybe to organize to fight a commercial development on vacant land.

Or to get City Hall to listen to our concerns about traffic.

Or to preserve the character of our unique neighborhood.

Some on the Colorado Springs City Council and the Planning Commission say no. You can’t talk. They won’t grant you permission to talk.

Dave Munger in 2011

Dave Munger in 2011

No kidding. I heard it myself.

The idea that some in Colorado Springs government would dismiss groups of neighbors who organize informally and approach their elected leaders is troubling to the city’s top neighborhood activist, Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors & Organizations.

Munger was puzzled the first time it happened in January when the Planning Commission rejected a request by the Rawles Open Space Neighborhood to initiate a city-sponsored conversation about creating a master plan for 38 large properties along Mesa Road on the city’s west side.

The commission voted 6-3 to deny neighbors the right to talk, demanding the group get agreement from 100 percent of the property owners before having a conversation. It didn’t matter the city code doesn’t require unanimous agreement before a master plan conversation can begin.

Then similar comments were made last week during the City Council meeting. (You can watch the three-hour City Council debate at this link. Selected Item 14 for viewing.)

The Rawles neighborhood leaders presented signatures of 26 homeowners who all want to discuss a master plan. It was not 100 percent but it was near 75 percent agreement.

Janet Suthers

Janet Suthers

(Janet Suthers, the commission chairwoman, told the City Council during its hearing that her panel really only wanted two-thirds agreement, even though it repeatedly insisted on unanimous agreement.)

Suthers and commission member Don Magill tried to explain to the council that the issue wasn’t about basic democracy and the right to congregate and self-govern, as Munger had tried to argue.

Suthers and Magill said the issue was property rights. And a simple conversation about a master plan, which would declare the neighborhood’s desires to preserve a rural character and open development style, was too dangerous to allow.

Don Magill

Don Magill

That attitude won agreement from three on City Council, including Angela Dougan who wanted to know who had elected the 26 Rawles neighbors to speak for all 38 property owners.

“You have no documentation,” Dougan told Rawles spokesman James Kin. Dougan then tried to discredit Kin and his group by suggesting they were no more legitimate than if she and Councilman Merv Bennett went to a hotel and represented themselves as a married couple.

Nervous laughter erupted on the council. But Munger wasn’t laughing at efforts to knock down the Rawles group because he passionately believes neighborhood groups, no matter how informally organized, ought to be respected and encouraged to get together and talk.

“Democracy ought to be the over-arching goal here,” Munger said. “We ought to be empowering people to have a voice over their own lives.

“If we’re not willing to give people the voice they deserve, we need to rethink our priorities.”

Of course, Munger was buoyed by the final City Council vote, 5-3, to allow the master plan process to begin. And he said he would never advocate letting a majority of neighbors trample the property rights of the minority. Nor would city staff, the commission or council, all of whom must approve any master plan before it is enacted, Munger said.

“There will be lots of opportunities for us to defend those who don’t agree with the majority,” Munger said. “Our history as a city is pretty clear. We’ve always encouraged neighborhoods to have conversations and speak for themselves and decide what their neighborhood ought to look like.

“I’m not sure why anyone would oppose the idea of a conversation.”

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