Woodland Park City Manager Granted More Emergency Authority

Some Critics Worry About a Return to COVID-like Restrictions

Trevor Phipps

The Woodland Park City Council finally got a break from regular meetings that have recently turned into  a marathon event, with proceedings and commentary that last until the next morning.

Still, even with a shorter session last week, verbal sparks ignited.

Most of the meeting dealt with minor business items, but a heated debate ensued when the discussion occurred regarding giving the  city manager more power during emergency situations, which are becoming  more common in Woodland Park.

The discussion started when city attorney Geoff Wilson brought up Ordinance 1449 aimed at establishing a process for the declaration of a local emergency. The main purpose of the ordinance was to write into municipal code that the city manager has the authority to declare a local emergency without approval from council, until the next regular  meeting took place.

The city attorney said that the council did have some options to consider. They could reduce the time required for council to convene to ratify the emergency declaration by 72 hours.

The city attorney initiated the ordinance after discovering holes in the city code. The ordinance was put on the agenda to deal with the process of the best way to handle emergency-like authority.

Councilman Robert Zuluaga started the discussion,  citing a list of concerns about this procedure and hinted that it was a power-grabbing  maneuver. He said that the ordinance would be shifting the powers given to elected officials to paid employees.

Mayor Pro Tem Kellie Case, however, disagreed with this stand. She said that emergencies need immediate attention. Case did say, though, that she would support an amendment that would reduce the amount of time council had to get together to ratify an emergency status.

Council members Carrol Harvey and Rusty Neal also agreed that the amount of time should be reduced to a maximum of 72 hours. They also thought that the city code needed to have a clearer procedure for declaring emergencies.

Mayor Hilary LaBarre said that even though it was not previously specified, emergencies are usually dealt with initially by the city manager. LaBarre explained that she is not on call or trained to be the first person tasked with handling a local emergency.

Zuluaga also questioned what would happen when the city manager was out of town, when an emergency occurred. LaBarre explained to him that the responsibilities would then follow the city staff’s chain of command.

“The point is the 8,200 citizens of Woodland Park have elected the seven of us to defer their liberties into our hands,” Zuluaga said. “And that I take as a sacred trust. I’m not saying that we don’t have capable staff. But when you declare an emergency you are taking away the freedoms of your citizens. From my perspective that is something we need to weigh in on and not just take casually and advocate that responsibility.”

“I don’t think that having a point of contact in the event of an emergency is subverting the people’s will,” LaBarre responded. “I think it is a proper protocol to have in the event we cannot be convened immediately. Someone else can take care of it in our place if we can’t do it immediately.”

Zuluaga tried to bring up what happened during the coronavirus pandemic.  According to some views at the time, government officials were too prompt to enact mandates.  The councilmember was then silenced when Case moved to “call to question” and end discussion, sending the issue to a vote.

The call to question motion passed sending the issue to public comment. During public comment on the subject, Deanne Bettermann took the floor to give input on the matter.

“It seems like our council is doing more what we would call bureaucracy instead of doing the voting and people having the freedom,” Bettermann said. “I’m just concerned that this is just another form of giving our voting freedom away. I am wondering if some of us are concerned about that time the city manager called for vaccines and for masks and things.”

In the end, the council approved the ordinance by a 6-1 vote. As part of this action, the council opted to reduce the time to 72 hours that it  has to convene in the event of an emergency. Zuluaga was the only councilmember voting against the ordinance.

Two Appointed to Fill Empty Seats on the Planning Commission

For the last several weeks, the city has tried to fill empty seats on the planning commission. Once Councilmember Harvey was appointed to the dais, there became four available seats on the commission.

Last week, the council interviewed community members George Jones and Don Dezellem. After getting asked questions by the council members, both applicants were sworn on to the planning commission.

Dezellem has previously tried to get appointed to the planning commission, but his last attempts had failed. The two members will now aid the city on approving proposed developments that come about in the future.