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Colorado Springs commitment to transparency questioned after Amazon land purchase investigation

COLORADO SPRINGS–Colorado Springs has a stated “commitment to the principles of open government, including transparency and civic engagement.” But according to Tim Hoiles, Publisher of Fourth Estate News Bureau, the city has a long way to go in that regard.

Hoiles, previously a member of the Board of Directors of Freedom Communications–which once owned the Colorado Springs Gazette–formed Fourth Estate News Bureau to hold the city accountable to the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) and to demand transparency.

Hoiles isn’t playing softball.

Fourth Estate just received a $16,500 check from the city in an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit it filed over the city’s refusal to disclose public information about the lease of city property at the Colorado Springs Airport to a Delaware-based corporation called TC Pursuit Services.

Colorado Springs City Hall

When Fourth Estate submitted a CORA request last November to discover who was actually involved, the city responded by denying the request, claiming “the custodian [of the city’s records] may not disclose the record as trade secret information.” That denial served to conceal the fact that the true buyer was Amazon.

“When the city’s going to sell a piece of city property, I believe that the people of Colorado Springs have a right to know what they are doing and who is buying it,” Hoiles said.

In the lawsuit, Fourth Estate pointed out that the name of a company trying to buy city property is not a “trade secret.”

The city tried several tactics to get the lawsuit dismissed but failed and ultimately agreed to settle.

“They finally caved because they made two motions during the lawsuit and they lost both of those motions,” said Hoiles. “The first time we offered to settle with them the attorney’s fees would have been $8000. We settled for $16,500, and the check arrived yesterday.”

According to Hoiles, this isn’t the first time the city has tried to keep the public in the dark.

An “Open Data” policy statement signed by Mayor John Suthers in 2018 says, “This policy has been developed to outline the City of Colorado Springs’ commitment to the principles of open government, including transparency and civic engagement.”

“I’m not sure that it was ever that open,” said Hoiles. “It started with not wanting to tell us what the new agreement on Banning Lewis Ranch was going to be because it’s a ‘negotiation.’ Or they say it’s something to do with proprietary information. They come up with every excuse that they can think of.”

During the Banning Lewis Ranch matter, City Attorney Wynetta Massey refused to disclose details, claiming that they were part of negotiations for a settlement agreement in a lawsuit. Nor’wood Development sued the city claiming that by buying the property out of a bankruptcy the existing zoning, which it says was inhibiting development, should have been voided.

Federal bankruptcy court judge Howard Tallman ruled in 2015 that the zoning “runs with the land.”

Nor’wood appealed the decision and the city decided to keep the lawsuit on hold for years while it renegotiated the original annexation.

This allowed Massey to justify that City Council go into executive session when discussing the matter, which shut the public out of what was going on until long after the details had been secretly hammered out.

The city’s conduct in the Banning Lewis Ranch matter raised concerns even at the City Council.

Newly-reelected City Councilman Bill Murray was a harsh critic of the process being used at the time.

During a Feb. 26, 2018 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.”

By invoking attorney-client privilege, one of the exceptions to CORA, and by using Massey as the intermediary between the City Council, the Mayor’s office, the city planning and zoning department and the owners/developers of the Ranch the city was able to keep the renegotiation away from the eyes of the public.

According to Hoiles things haven’t changed much.

Hoiles said these kinds of anti-transparency tactics by the city are part of what prompted him to establish the Fourth Estate News Bureau.

“I don’t think this city is as open with information as it needs to be,” said Hoiles. “One of the things we are going to do is build a fund to continually ask for CORAs from the city, and if they want to play games we will be taking them to court every time.”

Editor’s note: Articles on the Banning Lewis Ranch issue by Scott Weiser can be found here.

 

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