Friday, May 8, 2009

Let's Do Things Differently This Time

I strongly agree with Barry Noreen's Wednesday column, which called on Colorado Springs officials to conduct any renegotiation of the USOC headquarters "deal" in a more open, public-friendly fashion than the first "deal" was conducted. Many of the problems with the "old deal" stem in part from the hushed and hurried way it was approved.

Here's how Barry put it:

"A looming question now is whether the new deal will be consummated in a back room, as the first ill-fated USOC deal was, or whether City Hall will bring a doubting community in on the discussion.

About 13 months ago, city officials unveiled a done deal, a $53 million package already tied up with a pretty bow. They talked about it as if it were a tremendous accomplishment, a gift, even.
There was no way to talk about it without being guilty of being a Monday morning quarterback, because when the game is already over, all one can do is look back.

Now that the old deal has gone awry, some of us must be excused for wanting to see the new deal before it's final."

The original arrangement, which has now fallen apart (leading to a lawsuit, acrimony and more backroom intrigue than seems healthy), was negotiated in secret, sprung on the public on a Friday and rubber-stamped by City Council the following Monday. The "public process" consisted of City Council members, joined by those who had negotiated the deal, patting themselves on the back for "saving" the USOC. There was virtually no public examination of, or debate about, the agreement's fine print or potentially hidden costs, some of which -- like whether the developer enjoys a property tax waiver -- are only belatedly coming to light. And a little more due diligence, and public debate, might have raised red flags about whether the city had selected the best possible partner in Ray Marshall and LandCo.

A more open and public process, and better public buy-in, is especially important if the "new deal" is going to require an even greater commitment of taxpayer dollars than the original -- something that everyone already suspects will be the case. But that's the problem when so much of the process is conducted behind closed doors, leaving the public in the dark.

Secrecy breeds suspicion. The city's negotiators may be making promises and commitments that the public won't support when the details become public. Citizens will be much more alert now than they were back in March of 2008 about the fine print and devilish details. And fear of public rejection -- of public meddling in their carefully- crafted compromise -- may push the mayor and council members to shortcut the public process again, creating even more public relations problems for the city and USOC.

It's a vicious circle, in other words, that City Hall hopefully won't repeat, now that it has an opportunity for a re-do. So far, as Barry point out, it seems they're following the same playbook they did the first time around. Reasonable people recognize that some level of secrecy is required in certain negotiations. But the sooner the process is opened to the public, and the sooner the details are made known and aired out, the better the chances are that public buy-in will occur.

Let's hope City Hall understands that the second time around.

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