April 2, 2014
It’s an issue that’s rankled Eagle leaders for years — members of the community’s planning and zoning commission volunteer hours of their time conducting public meetings and studying various development requests, but the town was prohibited from offering even a minimal stipend to acknowledge their service.
That’s not true any longer, but it took a change in state law to make it happen.
About a year ago, the Eagle Town Board was discussing the issue as members contemplated a heavy hearing schedule for the Haymeadow application. “We asked ‘Why can’t we do something to say thank you to the commission members,’” said Eagle Town Board member Joe Knabel. “Don’t we all deserve that?”
But the board members were emphatically told they could not provide a nominal payment, similar to the $250 per month they receive, to planning commission members because Eagle is a statutory town and state statute prohibited it. The only way to change the rule was to change the law.
That’s an answer town board members periodically hear when they ask why something cannot be done, and typically, that’s where the conversation ends. Not this time, however.
The town board members agreed to reach out to the Colorado Municipal League — the organization that represents the interests of cities and towns in Colorado — to see if there was any merit to pursuing a statute change. Knabel volunteered to head up the effort.
The staff at CML, headed by legislative advocate Meghan Storrie, agreed to help with presenting a bill to the Colorado Legislature to allow compensation for planning and zoning commission members in statutory towns. State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush and State Sen. Gail Schwartz — the Colorado Legislature representatives for western Eagle County — agreed to carry the legislation.
“I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill, sittin’ here on Capitol Hill”
Remember that ditty from Schoolhouse Rock, the educational short programs that used to air on Saturday mornings between cartoons? Turns out, that kids song is a great run-down of the legislative process.
House Bill 14-1060 was introduced earlier this session. After a first reading, which is basically an introduction, the bill was assigned to a subcommittee for consideration. It passed committee in a split vote and then headed back to the House floor for final consideration. Because the bill doesn’t carry any funding request, it did not have to go before the House finance committee. Ultimately it passed the House by a 44/21 vote. It then went to the Colorado Senate for consideration, where it passed 20/15.
Where did the opposition come from? Rep. Mitsch Bush and Sen. Schwartz, both Democrats, said some of it was partisan based and some of it came from misunderstanding. Some lawmakers expressed concern that the bill would mean full-salaried positions for planning commission members, not small stipend payments. Knabel noted that the bill intentionally does not call out a specific dollar amount for compensation, with the intent that individual communities can make that decision on their own.
“The bill just creates an opportunity, it doesn’t require anything,” said Knabel.
While he was tasked with shepherding the legislative effort from the town’s side, Knabel wasn’t able to personally attend either the House or Senate floor votes for the bill.
“Unfortunately, every time it made it to the floor, I had a Haymeadow hearing that day,” said Knabel.
He drafted letters in support of the bill and kept tabs on its progress.
“Rep. Mitsch Bush was an excellent person to work with. She would call me frequently to tell me about the bill’s progress,” said Knabel.
After its passage at the Capitol, last week Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper officially signed the bill into law. Knabel, together with his son David and Eagle Town Manager Jon Stavney were on hand for that event.
“It was a nice way to put a ceremonial end to the bill,” said Knabel.
After the signing, the Knabels were invited guest of Rep. Mitsch Bush to the House floor to witness debate of the state budget bill. “It was like sitting center court on the floor for a basketball game,” said Knabel. Even his middle school age son enjoyed watching the process of state government unfold.
In the end, Knabel said the process taught him that anyone can help change a law, all it takes is a practical idea. So, what began as an informal discussion during an Eagle Town Board meeting is now an opportunity for any statutory town in the state. Knabel believes the new law gives towns the option to properly thank the citizens who volunteer their time and energy for planning commission duties.
‘We ask people to attend meetings and study pages of information for us. Now we can show them our appreciation,” said Knabel.