Losing faith in local government

August 2014

The July 7 public hearing on land use in the Dolores River Valley was disheartening for a number of reasons.

One was minor, yet telling: It became clear that none of our county commissioners are familiar with the land-use code, since they were surprised to learn from their attorney about a particular provision in the document.

We realize the code is pretty dry stuff, but we’d think the commissioners would feel obligated to plow through it. Evidently not.

The 2-1 vote at the hearing  in favor of throwing out the system of transferable development rights in the valley  was disappointing, of course. (At press time it appeared it might be challenged in court.) We believe it was contrary to the best interests of the 95 percent of the county that drinks from the Dolores River. It showed a lack of understanding of the relationship between residential density and degraded water quality. It also demonstrated utter disregard for the informed views of people such as the original working group that labored more than 18 months to create the plan; the former county commissioners who approved it and still supported it; the Planning and Zoning Commission, which spent hours and hours reviewing it; and the Dolores Water Conservancy District board members, who are among the county’s most knowledgeable people regarding water issues and who are a far cry from radical environmentalists.

But beyond all this, the hearing was disappointing because it left county residents with the strong impression that they should not bother to give input on critical issues unless their views echo those of the commissioners.

People are still shocked by this decision, and what they are saying is that the 120 or so folks who came to the hearing, the many who provided written comments (which apparently went unread before the final vote), and the 40 who spoke in support of the plan all wasted their time – because commissioners Steve Chappell and Larry Don Suckla were going to do what they did regardless of the input they received.

Now, a public hearing is not equivalent to a public vote. The mere fact that an audience is largely supportive of one view, or that the majority of the speakers favor one outcome, does not mean the commissioners are obligated to follow their wishes. That is not representative democracy. Officials are elected to make decisions using their best judgment. Sometimes they are going to go against the desires of a majority – even a lopsided one – and that is not only their right, it’s their obligation, when they believe the crowd is wrong.

But at the July 7 hearing it became so painfully apparent that two of the commissioners had made up their minds long ago, that it was a slap in the face of the earnest people who prepared careful remarks believing that their comments would actually be heard.

In deciding to discard Chapter 8 of the land-use code, commissioners Chappell and Suckla failed to address any of the very real concerns that had been brought out regarding such an action. Chappell said water quality would continue to be protected because engineered septic systems will still be required in the river valley. Well, engineers have pointed out that even high-tech systems don’t return water to its original, pristine quality. And septic systems are far from the only way that increased density in a riparian area can degrade the water.

Commissioner Keenan Ertel, to his credit, asked for more time to think over the complex issues that had been brought forth, but then Chappell made a seat-of-the-pants motion and Suckla seconded it, forcing the issue prematurely.

The decision might have been easier to swallow if Chappell and Suckla had been willing or able to better articulate the reasons for their vote, but their remarks didn’t offer much to reassure citizens that they’d really thought things out.

Suckla said he cares about water quality because he has children, but he didn’t explain how this concern would be taken care of by doubling the potential number of residential dwellings in the valley. He said he’d changed his mind 10 times on the matter, but he didn’t explain how he came to feel that he was finally choosing the correct course.

Chappell said he was voting in favor of “freedom and liberty” on private land. That would be fine except for the fact that just the week prior, he had voted against freedom and liberty on private land by denying people the right to grow marijuana commercially on their property.

The impression they left was that they had decided long ago and were just going through the motions at the hearing. On such a weighty matter as water quality for the entire county, more thought needed to be put into the decision.

The result is that a sizable portion of the county is saying: Do not waste your time going to public hearings – no matter what your views are. If you support oil and gas drilling, all types of residential or commercial development except those involving cannabis, and the dismantling of regulations, you don’t need to show up, because the commissioners are already going to vote your way. And if you have concerns about things like the environment or water quality, don’t bother coming, either, because the board will turn a deaf ear to you.

So that was the truly sad thing about the hearing. It left people with the lingering feeling that the democratic process doesn’t work for everyone in Montezuma County and that they should not bother becoming involved.

From Editorials.