Chamber Forum Loaded With Questions on Key Issues Facing Voters
The highly anticipated candidates’ forum, featuring a near record of nine contenders for office in WP, was held last week.
The event was sponsored by the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce and is the main public forum, leading to the April election, regarded as one of the most pivotal in the town’s recent history.
There will be three open council member seats (4 year terms), one open council member seat (2 year term) and one open mayoral seat (2 year term) in this election.
Robert Zuluaga and Hilary La Barre are running for the mayor’s position, while Don Dezellem, Catherine Nakai, Kellie Case, Frank Conners, Mathew Hayes, David Ott and DeAnn Bettermann are running for council. Unfortunately, David Ott was not able to attend due to illness but he did give a written introduction and closing statement.
Zuluaga is currently a council member and La Barre is the incumbent mayor. Case and Nakai are incumbent council members. The rest of the field have never held office on the city council.
The forum was moderated by former council member Carroll Harvey. The questions covered a wide variety of issues that are concerns of citizens. Each candidate was given two minutes to introduce themselves, one minute to respond to the questions, and a 30-second rebuttal if desired to another candidate’s response.
After Harvey outlined the rules and methods for the forum, the questioning got underway. The topics covered included: the reliever route (bypass), the Downtown Development Authority’s handling of Woodland Station, the school mil levy, COVID impact on the city, the vendor’s fee, diverting funds from the 410 fund (the city’s street improvement fund) to fund phase two of the aquatic center, the city strategic plan, legalizing marijuana, funding the comprehensive plan and the city zoning laws.
Some interesting questions were also put forth by the press and citizens following the forum on Zoom. The questions from Zoom included: regulation of short term rentals located withing city limits and the problem of collecting taxes from them, affordable housing, and social division. Each member of the press was also allowed one question of the candidates.
Three of the candidates Hayes, Zuluaga, and Bettermann are associated with the Charis Bible College and their views echoed their support of the college and its mission.
The forum began with the question: what skills would you bring to council?” Hayes stated that gridlock is good. The rest of the candidates gave more generic answers.
The next question involved the mil levy. Hayes suggested a variable rate. Bettermann commented on housing values. La Barre noted that assessment values come from the county not the city and that the city mil levy has not been raised in over 20-years. Case further explained the mil levy.
Nakai noted council has considered a temporary reduction in the mil levy but stated she is not in favor of a permanent reduction at this time. Zuluaga is in favor of a mil levy reduction even though the effect to the tax payer would be minimal. Connors agreed with Nakai.
The third question was on council’s ability to support small business since the charter forbids direct incentives for business. The question was: “Would you support a change to the charter to allow incentives and why or why not.? Dezellem answered no, it is up to the free market. Bettermann expressed her love of small business and suggested she would like to see 1,000 small businesses in town. Zuluaga reminded everyone that the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) is doing a fine job bringing business to the city. Connors listed the purposes of the DDA.
The fourth question was on the city’s comprehensive plan. “Do you believe the plan addresses smart growth and would you like to change the plan?” Nakai was a part of the committees involved in drafting the plan and that the citizens do want to see smart growth. Bettermann replied she understands it is a living document and it can be changed. Dezellem noted it is not law and is merely a guide to the future. Case with Dezellem.
The fifth question was on the city’s water availability for future growth. All candidates agreed the city is doing a great job managing the city’s water resources.
The sixth question involved the city’s response to the COVID outbreak and possible future outbreaks. La Barres praised the city’s cooperation with the county. Zuluaga agreed with La Barre’s assessment and likened the pandemic to what we fear will be future wildfire response.
The seventh question was on the city’s preparedness for fire mitigation. Connors responded he would like to see cooperation with the forest service, education, and programs to help with mitigation. La Barre noted that Colorado Springs has a machine that can take down nine-hundred acres of trees a day and has discussed the city using that machine. Bettermann related her experience with past wild fires. Zuluaga would like to see a program for fire drills.
Recreational Pot, Short Term Rentals, Future Bypass and Woodland Station
The seventh question was on recreational marijuana. None of the candidates are in favor of marijuana sales in the city.
The eighth question was on the vote by the citizenry to increase the mil levy for schools. “Are you in favor of overturning that increase?” Both Zuluaga and Bettermann responded that that increase was on visitors to the city and not residents or business.
The ninth question was on short term rentals and whether or not they should be regulated. Hayes believes council should stay out of it. Connors thinks some regulation is needed. Case noted city staff is looking at the issues and agreed some regulation is needed. Nakai echoed Cases’ thoughts but will withhold judgment until all the facts are in. La Barre responded that she is always for property rights but will bow to the wishes of the citizens if they want these rentals to be regulated. Zuluaga wants to wait for all the facts.
The 10th question was on the bypass. Dezellem noted the first time the issue came up, business was against it, fearing a loss of business, but now he understands that making the city a destination port will be beneficial to business. He favors the bypass. La Barre’s response was the city has approved $500,000 from the American rescue funds to study the bypass with the Colorado Department of Transportation and asked the county commissioners to match that. Hayes mentioned other federal funds for transportation are available. Zuluaga the steps necessary to achieve the actual bypass.
The 11th question was on employee compensation. All the candidates agreed city employees deserve better pay.
The 12th question was on the city’s form of government. It is a council/city manager form as opposed to a strong mayor form. The question asked how council should relate with staff. All agreed the relationship between staff and council is working well
The 13th question was in regard to a letter suggesting money from the city’s street fund be moved to the general fund. La Barre noted it cannot be done without a vote of the people. Connors agreed. Zuluaga thinks it’s worth looking at but agreed it would take a public vote. Case echoed La Barre.
The 14th question was on Woodland Station. It basically asked, “What should be done with it?” Connors responded he would like to see a multi-use project there. Hayes suggested should the time come that the DDA would have to return the property to the city, that the deadline could be pushed back to allow more time. Zuluaga again praised the DDA’s accomplishments and that they are in the process of working with a developer. Nakai agreed it should be developed for the benefit of the community as a whole. Bettermann wants to hear more ideas on what should happen.
The final moderator question was on refunding the vendors fee to business. For or against? All agreed business should not be doing the work of government for free.
Media and Public Questions
The media was then allowed to ask questions. The Pikes Peak Courier View asked about achieving a balance between the wants and needs of all the citizens of the city in a time of extreme polarization? Zuluaga responded balancing it is why council deliberates. Hayes said council needs to take time to consider all the facts to make a decision. Dezellem noted the difficulty in getting a group to agree on anything, and the key is compromise. Nakai noted the citizenry only gets involved when an issue is important to them. She would like to see more citizen involvement. Case said council is elected to listen to all the data and come to an informed decision. La Barre agreed listening to the citizens is key to making good policy judgments. Connors agreed listening is key. Bettermann talked about her family and the division is breaking her heart.
The media question posed by TMJ News was: “How do you plan to deal with the population increase with the expansion of Charis over the next several years?” Zuluaga blamed the population increase on Colorado Springs and I-25. Hayes said prioritizing infrastructure and attract talent in the city staff. Dezellem stated many factors are involved in growth. He mentioned our limited ability to grow and the market will drive how growth is handled.
Nakai said development needs to be handled through the process we have in place. Case mentioned the challenge of housing. She stated the housing Charis is going to build will open up some housing in town that is now occupied by Charis’ students. La Barre stated the planning and zoning departments will have to deal with it, but previous councils failed to understand that Charis’ expansion could max out our population. Connors agreed economic development committee needs to be formed to bring in attainable housing. Bettermann lauded the economic growth with the coming of the college and jobs that have been filled by its students.
One question from the audience asked about the security of the election with the mail-in ballot system. Bettermann believes election fraud has happened. Connors believes our state and local election are handled very well and are secure. La Barre remarked there has never been an issue with voting in the city. Case agreed with La Barre. Nakai agreed with Case and La Barre.
Dezellem said if you don’t feel comfortable with the mail bring your ballot in person to city hall. Hayes generally believes in person voting is essential and that mail in voting is “ripe” for corruption. Zuluaga agreed out local election process is excellent, but there are issues with mail-in ballots at the state and he does not have confidence in the state level voting by mail.
The city’s municipal election is set for April 5, and will be done through a complete mail-in ballot system, with all ballots needed to be returned by 7 p.m. This system has been in place locally since the early 1990s. Results are generally finalized several hours after this deadline.