Woodland Park gearing up for charter overhaul – Rick Langenberg


Woodland Park voters may have to order an extra pair of reading glasses to prepare for the complex spring election this April, which could set a record for the most local ballot propositions presented in recent years.

Topping the list are as many as nine possible ballot propositions for altering the city charter and a plan for a small sales tax hike for the school district to offset the impacts from the Taxpayer Bill of Rights

In addition, voters will decide the fate of a mayor’s seat and three council positions.

Confused or overwhelmed? Join the crowd, or attend a Jan. 20 meeting at the council chambers from 6 to 7:30 p.m. that will outline the process for the April 5 election in more detail and give prospective candidates a jump start.

Last week, the council in a fairly prompt manner signaled the green light for the initial reading of nine proposed ballot propositions, representing new amendments to the city charter that was first adopted in 1975 and altered during nine subsequent elections. The newest lineup of charter amendments represents the most that have ever been proposed to the voters at one time.

These ballot questions deal with such subjects as developer incentives, council and mayoral appointments, term limits, public notification requirements, recalls and referendums, clerk and treasurer bonding rules, administrative reports and land use guidelines.

The city will set a public hearing on Jan. 21 to decide if all of these issues should be advanced to the voters, or if just a certain portion.
During last week’s hearing, Mayor Pro Tem Carrol Harvey, who led the charter review process, gave a short overview of the proposed charter issues that will be decided by the voters. She cited the need to simplify and provide more flexibility to the current rules and to cut costs.

She conceded that the process was sparked by a furor over the way a tie vote was conducted in deciding the fate of an appointed mayor’s slot in the summer of 2014, following the resignation of former mayor Dave Turley. With the council finding itself in a deadlock between the two finalists for the head mayoral spot, this important position was picked through drawing a name out of a bowl. “That was really an interpretation of the current charter. We had no process to address a tie-vote,” explained Harvey, who cited this as the catalyst for doing a review of the entire city charter and the formation of a committee.

Under the new proposal, the council won’t have to fill a vacancy within the current 30-day deadline, following the vacancy of an elected seat. And if the majority council members still can’t reach a decision regarding an appointment, then a special election can occur.

Developer Perks and Media Backlash

Another key issue includes another effort to permit government incentives for development projects, under certain circumstances. This could allow for the waiver of development fees, infrastructure costs and other perks for certain developments. Plans to kill the city’s anti-incentives law have failed on several occasions.

This time, the committee still wants to keep the anti-incentives law intact, but open the door slightly for projects that “demonstrate a solution to a valid public purpose,” according to the charter review committee. “This is a matter of flexibility,” explained Harvey. “We want to allow the council to consider exceptional cases.”

The original anti-incentives law was passed when a group of citizens fought special tax and financial benefits for the first plan to bring a Wal-Mart to the city of Woodland Park in the late 1980s. Past charter review efforts have unsuccessfully tried to eliminate this restriction.

Another controversial proposal would limit the requirements for using a designated newspaper in printing ordinances, laws and legal notices. According to Harvey, this proposition wouldn’t take the local newspapers out of the equation, but would allow the city to use social media more in notifying the public regarding the details of new laws and ordinance and notices.

The new rules also try to clarify certain restrictions such as term limits. Under the new plans, if a council person or mayor is appointed to office, this period doesn’t count against them for the length of time they can serve in office. This addresses an awkward situation that forced former councilman Terry Harrison to submit his walking papers, shortly he was elected for another term.

The council reacted favorably to the proposals. However, Councilman Ken Matthews, who served on the charter review committee, expressed some concerns about the volume of proposals. He worried that voters may just cast “no” votes, if too many questions are placed on the ballot. “We need to look at them very closely,” said Matthews.

Similar sentiments were echoed by charter committee member Peter Scanlon. However, he encouraged the council to approve the whole package. Scanlon expressed strong support for changing the current ban against government incentives for development projects, one of the hot rod issues that voters will decide. “It empowers the city council to make decisions on development,” said Scanlon, in favoring the new flexibility for incentives favored by the committee. “The time is right,” said the committee member.

This issue is one that could heavily divide the community. Proponents, including many key civic leaders, say more government incentives could help put Woodland Park on the map for attracting key companies and industries to the area and in facilitating housing projects, while critics say it would create an unfair playing field and would penalize current business operators.

Besides the ballot issues, Woodland Park voters may decide on a slight sales tax hike to benefit the school district in its funding challenge with the Taxpayer Bill of Rights restrictions. District leaders are gambling on the prospects of having tourists and many visitors foot the bill, instead of property owners

But because the school district can’t collect sales taxes, it wants to get the city to sponsor the measure through an intergovernmental agreement.

This school tax issue, though, isn’t a done deal, and will be discussed on Jan. 21 and in early February.