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Petition seeking greater public involvement for fire, police developments is successful

Durango City Council must choose to accept ordinance or send it to a vote
Ted Wright, a committee member of Citizens Voice Durango, talks in front of the Smiley Building on April 21 as he collects signatures for the group’s petition. City Clerk Faye Harmer certified Citizens Voice Durango’s initiative Thursday after the group’s petition surpassed the signatures it needed. The petition’s draft ordinance will now go before City Council to decide whether to accept it as written or hold a special election. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Citizens Voice Durango’s petition to change the planning process for fire and police developments in Durango’s Central Business District has been successful and will now move to City Council.

City Clerk Faye Harmer certified Citizens Voice Durango’s initiative Thursday after the group’s petition surpassed the 768 valid signatures it needed. The petition’s draft ordinance, which would change police and fire stations from an “allowable use” to a “conditional use” in the CBD and require a public hearing process, will now appear before City Council next week as the councilors weigh whether to accept it as written or hold a special election.

“We’re hopeful that City Council will do the right thing and implement the ordinance as written to give the public the voice they’ve been seeking,” said Ellen Stein, a member of Citizens Voice Durango’s organizing committee.

Harmer and the City Clerk’s Office issued Citizens Voice Durango a “certificate of sufficiency” after they verified 771 signatures, three more than the 768 needed, Greg Hoch, the committee’s chairman, said in an email to the group’s members and supporters.

An additional 347 went uncounted by the City Clerk’s Office, bringing the total signatures to 1,118, according to Hoch’s email.

Citizens Voice Durango’s monthlong initiative ended at 3 p.m. April 27 with signed petitions due to the City Clerk’s office.

Signatories had to be registered voters who lived within the city limits of Durango and their full name and address had to exactly match their voter registration information.

According to the city of Durango’s charter, Citizens Voice Durango needed to collect signatures equal to 15% of those who voted in the last municipal election, which came out to 768.

Now that Harmer has confirmed the certificate of sufficiency, she will present the initiative’s draft ordinance to City Council at its next regular meeting on May 17.

City Council will then have the choice to pass the ordinance as written by Citizens Voice Durango or hold a special election for the city’s voters to decide, Harmer said.

City Council has 30 days to pass the ordinance or a 90-day window to hold an election, according to Durango’s charter.

The election would take place at the beginning of August with mail ballots, Harmer said.

“(Colorado’s) election code statutes are pretty clear. You can’t hold elections a certain number of days after the primary and you can’t hold elections a certain number of days before the general election,” Harmer said. “What it boils down to is Aug. 2 or Aug. 9. It’s a really, really tight window.”

Citizens Voice Durango has projected a $35,000 to $38,000 cost for a special election. Harmer confirmed that an election would cost the city about $35,000.

When Citizens Voice Durango’s initiative first started, the City Clerk’s Office reached out to the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office seeking its help with a potential special election. Harmer said the county Clerk and Recorder’s Office has the equipment to run ballots while the city does not.

But with Colorado’s primary on June 28 and the November general election, the county is unable to help.

“We would be on our own for this one which means we would have to rent equipment or hand-count ballots, which is a huge undertaking in either case,” Harmer said.

Citizens Voice Durango has not yet heard anything from City Council about its plans to adopt the ordinance or hold an election. Hoch was preparing to communicate with City Attorney Dirk Nelson on Tuesday, he said.

“I don’t know how they are leaning and I don’t know what process or time frame they’re going to use,” Hoch said.

City Council has not discussed or made any decisions about the petition and all deliberations will take place in public on May 17, Mayor Barbara Noseworthy said.

The last petition in Durango that made it to City Council was a 2017 initiative that would have required the city to stop adding fluoride to its water system. The petition went to a vote, but did not pass with more than 60% of voters supporting city’s fluoridation program.

Both Hoch and Stein argued the decision to accept the ordinance as drafted should be clear.

“I’ll be sorely disappointed in them if they decide, ‘We’re going to put it to a vote of the people,’” Hoch said. “All we asked for was a public hearing to be able to comment, and they have the right to – after that public hearing – approve the fire station at that location.”

Citizens Voice Durango vetted its draft ordinance with Nelson and the city’s planning department while forming the petition, Stein said.

“Our City Council is elected to represent citizens and they have 1,118 reasons to implement the ordinance as written,” she said.

If enacted, it will change the city’s code so that fire and police stations are conditional uses in the CBD and subject to a public hearing process.

Citizens Voice Durango started its initiative and drafted the ordinance in response to the Durango Fire Protection District’s purchase of the former 9-R Administration Building on East 12th Street and its plans to transform the space into a new fire station and emergency response facility.

Allowed uses simply undergo administrative review by the planning department while conditional uses necessitate a public hearing with the Planning Commission, which could then refer the matter to City Council.

City Council has already agreed to hold a public meeting when DFPD submits its plans for the property. However, Citizens Voice Durango’s ordinance would require a public hearing, which is a legal proceeding.

DFPD does not yet know the potential impact the petition will have on the development of its downtown fire station. The fire department is waiting to see whether City Council passes the draft ordinance or sends it to a vote, Chief Hal Doughty said.

While Stein and Hoch have attributed the success of the petition in part to its call for transparency, Doughty argued that the redevelopment of the former 9-R Administration Building was always going to be public.

“The transparency that it’s (the petition) asking for is fine. That’s already spelled out and called for in the process that we understand we’ll have to go through anyway,” Doughty said.

Once the petition reaches its conclusion, DFPD will then meet with the city for a pre-submittal conference to outline the steps the fire department must take and the requirements it will need to meet.

Though Citizens Voice Durango’s petition could create another hurdle, Doughty said the DFPD was remaining positive about its plans.

“I still think that we’ve got an absolute winning plan, which is a very strong plan for our community,” he said. “The opportunity to co-locate the police department and the fire department will be a huge win for the citizens of Durango (and) it can save literally millions of dollars compared to what it would cost to build new facilities for each one of those organizations.”

While Stein welcomed the success of the petition, she noted that the efforts of Citizens Voice Durango went beyond the siting of new fire and police developments downtown.

“As much as we want to make sure there’s a public process in place for any eventual proposed development of this nature, we want to have a broader conversation about the whole of Durango’s downtown and planning for (the) highest and best use of our public assets,” she said.

Ahead of City Council’s meeting, Stein said the success of Citizens Voice Durango’s petition validated the concerns shared by city and county residents about limited public engagement in decision-making.

“We’re not a small group of citizens. We represent a much larger group of people, many of whom don’t have a voice because they’re not city voters,” she said. “We finally feel like we have some political clout and public standing.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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