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Public not so welcome here

Kaye Ferry

Last week I looked at part of the process that development projects are subject to at the town of Vail. I focused on a couple of injustices that were almost perpetrated on Crossroads. Fortunately, others agreed with me, as the staff’s recommendations were turned down by both the Town Council and the Planning and Environmental Commission. This week I’d like t o look more closely at another part of the process, the “pre-meeting.” For now I’ll stick with planning commission because that was my most recent experience. But keep in mind, the Design and Review Board functions in a similar manner. First, some background.Approximately two hours before each of the planning commission meetings, there is a “pre-meeting,” the purpose of which is to give the staff and the commission an opportunity to clarify any items appearing on the agenda. Site visits are also scheduled, which allows the group to go by van to physically inspect the locations for which proposals have been received.The problem is that this part of the process is pretty much a closed session. Oh, for sure, they’re noticed, which means the public is invited. The notice even says “public meeting.” But here’s how it really goes: Applicants are not invited. I’ll go a step further. Applicants are discouraged from attending. I know this from personal experience. I’ve been through the process for my house and my former business, and on both occasions I have been told it’s not politically correct for the applicant or his representatives to attend these meetings.Although I rarely do so, but because of my great interest in the Crossroads project and the way it was being handled, I decided to go to last week’s planning commission meeting, and I took a few others with me. To begin with, these meetings are not held in the Town Council chambers. Instead the Community Development conference room is the location at noon. Additionally, they are not recorded. And to make matters worse, they serve lunch for the commissioners and a variety of staff that kept wandering in and out, checking out the menu for the day in an attempt to see if they should stay for the buffet.From the get go, it was very uncomfortable squeezing into a small room and bumping into people trying to eat their ribs and mashed potatoes all while attempting to discuss the issues at hand.The room is small, doesn’t feel “public,” and the food scenario all combine to make you feel as though you’ve stumbled into a private party in a secluded location where your presence clearly makes it uncomfortable for everyone.Then the discussion began. I’ll take the first agenda item. The history of the application went back to the 1980s, and one of the planners began by providing background. We can stop right there because it’s a simple example.Nothing was given in that explanation that couldn’t or shouldn’t have been given on the record in front of the public. Because what happened in the “real” meeting at 2 is that reference was made “as was presented at the pre-meeting” but was not documented. Therefore, when the planning commission voted, the public was not privy to the exchanges that had preceded it and on which the decision was based.I won’t go into the rest, but they were all similar. You might wonder why I bring this up. To begin with, they’re all not that simple. Some require more information, which the public never hears, to say nothing of the editorializing. But mostly, I believe in open government. Anything that gives even the appearance of behind-the-scenes dealings is wrong and leads to distrust of the system. The public is skeptical enough of government without needing any unnecessary reasons to believe their suspicions are true. All we have to do is look at Washington right now to understand that. But back to the town. Why would we conduct any meetings under these circumstances? There’s a big council chambers at our disposal that is set up for recordings. And while some people are still not comfortable there, it sure beats squeezing between the staff and the creamed corn – another menu item on the day I attended.There’s one more very unflattering commentary, as well. Apparently, there are times when the commissioners come unprepared. They are supposed to pick up their packets on Friday to review before the Monday meetings. I am told that on many a Monday morning, there are packets still in the hall that have never been picked up, so that the appointed officials use the “pre-meeting” as a time to catch up. Not very professional.So what’s the solution? Hold all public meetings in public. That means in a clearly visible, easily accessible, comfortable and familiar location – not Community Development, not Public Works, etc. Share all of the decision-making criteria with the public; if nothing else it’s educational. Record all exchanges. Shouldn’t be too complicated, since we already have all the pieces of the puzzle necessary for accomplishment.If we don’t do it, a really good question is why not? I am told that at the county, even the site visits are recorded, as well as the “van” time. It’s easy enough to pass the mike – unless you don’t want to – and then I would ask why not to that as well.I can’t make it any clearer. These are public meetings conducted by public officials for the purpose of conducting public business. Can you think of any reason why the public should then be excluded from any part of this process? I can’t. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as too much transparency. And by the way, they can start at 1 and skip the mashed potatoes.Do your part: call them and write them. To contact the Town Council, call 479-1860, ext. 8, or e-mail towncouncil@vailgov.com. To contact Vail Resorts, call 476-5601 or e-mail vailinfo@vailresorts.com. For past columns, go to vaildaily.com and click on “Columnists” or search for keyword “ferry.” Kaye Ferry is a longtime observer of Vail government. She writes a weekly column for the Daily. Vail, Colorado


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