Parks, chemicals

The council showed special-interest groups how they can roll the city

The Durango City Council voted Tuesday to spend $36,000 for a consultant to help with a plan to minimize the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on land managed by the city. In the process, the council all but gave instructions to special-interest groups in how to have their way with the city – and taxpayers’ money.

It is a bad precedent.

A group called Organically Managed Parks Durango proposed an outright ban on the city’s use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and circulated petitions to that effect. The group collected the required number of signatures for an initiative – 15 percent of the number of votes cast in the city’s last general election, about 500. Under the provisions of the city’s charter, that left the City Council with two choices: It could enact the proposed ban or put it to a vote on the November ballot.

The council clearly did not like either option. The proposed ban was too extreme and poorly crafted. It would have cost a fortune and degraded city parks. The council rightly voted against adopting it. But sending it to the voters could have cost as much as $19,000 – money the city did not want to spend.

The way it got out of that dilemma, however, was worse than holding the election. The city negotiated with the measure’s backers and agreed to hire the consultant to reduce the city’s use of chemicals. In return, the group withdrew its proposal.

At first glance, that seems like a nice, civilized outcome. But in handling it that way, the City Council spent almost twice as much as the election was said to cost. True, $36,000 is not a huge amount for the city, but Durango officials have been continually worried about money in recent years, particularly since the defeat of the La Plata Electric Association franchise fee. This is also the same city that is looking at doubling its parking rates. (The consultant on that one compared Durango rates to those in Aspen, Chicago and Los Angeles, among others.)

More to the point, every group with a pet cause now knows how to roll the city: Collect signatures to put some onerous and expensive notion on the ballot and scare officials into complying with your real goal.

Getting signatures on a petition takes time and work. It is not, however, fundamentally difficult. After all, putting something to a vote sounds democratic and fair. And people truly committed to a cause will make the effort.

There are limits to the initiative process. The city charter puts employee salaries, bonding, the budget and capital programs off limits. But, as with the chemical ban, it can certainly involve any other expensive or otherwise troublesome issues.

The council’s decision to spend money on yet another consultant had to have been based on fear that the chemical ban would have passed. But that seems far-fetched given the number of golfers, soccer parents and sports fans in this town – not to mention those who would like to enjoy city parks without worrying about West Nile virus.

It would have been better to let the ban’s backers spend their time and money only to see their measure soundly defeated. Instead, they and other single-issue groups have just been encouraged.