At a Feb. 26 work session Colorado Springs City Council President Richard Skorman took the “temperature” of the council about council member Bill Murray’s request for a formal vote to end the practice of using executive sessions to keep negotiations about the Banning Lewis Ranch annexation revision secret. After some at-times acrimonious discussion among council members Skorman took an informal vote. The council declined 6-3 to add Murray’s request to the agenda for the regular meeting the next day.
Murray has long been a critic of what he sees as a lack of transparency in the process of amending the 1988 annexation agreement. The city is proposing to restate the original agreement at the request of landowners and developers who complain that the “hard zoning” and other stipulations in the original agreement are onerous and the costs imposed for infrastructure improvements are excessive. This, they say, is why the property has not been developed.
Beginning in December the city held several public meetings where city staff outlined the benefits of developing the ranch. The city released a draft amended annexation agreement on Dec. 8, 2017.
Since then the city and developers have been meeting in secret and the council has been keeping everything under wraps by meeting in executive session as well as making claims of attorney-client privilege related to a bankruptcy lawsuit brought by the landowners.
At the beginning of the Feb. 26 work session Murray said, “My purpose is to get the council to allow the settlement negotiations to end because we’ve already won the case as far as that goes. This will allow us to take the negotiations out of the attorney client privilege arena which means we can discuss them with third parties, all the issues, all the events, all the documentation.”
He asked that the council put an “up or down vote” on continuing the executive sessions on the agenda for the regular meeting the next day. That’s when the fireworks began.
Councilman Andy Pico said, “You just want to obstruct it by whatever means, and I don’t think it’s appropriate. The lawsuit that you refer to as you have said we won, but [it is] pending appeal. And we have no idea where that’s going to go. I think it’s entirely appropriate to have settlement negotiations as opposed to go jumping into the appeals court and through that process.”
But responding to Murray moments earlier City Attorney Wynetta Massey said, “Keep in mind that the bankruptcy [lawsuit] is on an administrative stay. What staff had worked on and what they have brought to council are negotiations regarding the amended and restated annexation agreement, not settling the lawsuit.”
Murry responded, “As long as it’s in settlement negotiations you’ve contended this attorney client privilege. And therefor some of the negotiations, well, actually all of the negotiations have not been open and available for the community to see them.”
Massey said that the executive sessions are “to discuss with counsel some of the thoughts behind that draft and to seek council’s instructions back to staff on how to negotiate the terms of that agreement.” Colorado law allows the city to hold closed executive sessions for “determining positions relative to matters that may be subject to negotiations; developing strategy for negotiations; and instructing negotiators.”
Pico said, “To have any kind of negotiations broadcast over Channel 18 to tell the other side what your negotiating position is, is doomed to failure.”
But the question of what the city is negotiating for and why remains unanswered thanks to the secrecy.
“I think there are things, factual things that relate to our negotiations that should be in the public eye,” said Councilman David Geislinger. “I was struck by the fact that yes, we won the decision by the bankruptcy judge, but that really isn’t the question from my perspective. The question is do we as a city want what we “won.” Or have the circumstances changed significantly enough that what we won needs to be changed anyway,” he continued.
That, says Murray, is exactly the reason the process should be public. “Land use issues and annexation issues are solely the purview of this council,” he said, “We need to open it up to the public and let the public also make a determination. But up until this time this city has not been open, aboveboard and transparent in how this process has occurred.”
The harshest criticism came from Councilwoman Jill Gaebler, who said, “I’m not certain what your motive is for even bringing forward and acting in the way that you have in the last week in regard to this issue.” Referring to Murray walking out of an executive session in protest the week before she said, “Walking out of an executive session very publicly in a way that at least tells the council members and the public that you don’t really care about finding a resolution, you only care about blowing up this whole process and not coming to resolution.”
Councilman Don Knight supported Murray’s request for a vote but didn’t promise he would vote to end the secrecy. “Any time the council member wants to put something on the agenda I think it’s only common courtesy to let him, so I will be voting yes today to do that,” he said, “Don’t take my yes today as a yes vote for tomorrow.”
Councilman Tom Strand said, “I think this council is very much interested in transparency and sharing with the public those things that make sense.”
Murray responded to the criticism by saying that all he wanted was for the council to formally vote on either keeping the negotiations secret or opening them up to the public.
In the end, Council President Skorman said “To me this is much ado about nothing. I hate to say it, but I mean I like to respect every council members requests, but to me this is off base.”