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When 3 makes 7: The aftermath of the Severance scandal

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Last month when Pueblo City Council voted unanimously to use half-cent sales tax money to fund the expansion of the Pueblo Convention Center, it was 7 in favor, 0 opposed and 3 resigned.

What Puebloans witnessed was how the sausage is made in Pueblo. For most, when former council members Chris Kaufman, Sandy Daff and Ami Nawrocki resigned, that was the end of the story; the detractors to Pueblo’s growth were removed. But that’s not the entire story.

The battle of the RTA consisted of illegal meetings, conflicts of interest and city leaders making decisions based on what Steve Henson, managing editor of the Pueblo Chieftain most recently called “leaps of faith” in an editorial.

PULP’s reporting established that the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, Pueblo Urban Renewal, PEDCO, and the City of Pueblo did not know the current economic impact of the convention center heading into the vote in May.

In fact, no one has known the economic impact since the initial plans for the convention center were unveiled in the late ‘90s.

So, then, when the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce pitched the idea to expand the convention center and introduce an aquatic center and PBR University, who did that vetting?

It’s fair to ask why propose a PBR University when the Professional Bull Riders have struggled to meet their employment goals after using half-cent money for their building on the Riverwalk. It is also fair to ask: Why include an aquatic center as part of this plan?

Then you have the Hunden Report which states Pueblo Convention Center’s brand is so unknown that expo organizers do not know enough to make a decision whether a larger expo facility would attract conventions to Pueblo. Expo organizers said they would consider using a bigger convention center in Pueblo, but none gave a definite response that they would choose Pueblo as a destination.

Obviously, with more space at the convention center, it will attract conventions to fill that space. So, if the convention center loses money now and struggles to meet its current attendance goals how is that going to be solved by just making things bigger?

We don’t have those answers for you. Not even the Hunden Report which was a preliminary study says how Pueblo is going to attract more conventions. That’s entirely up to marketing. The entire RTA project was being sold to the public–if Pueblo builds it, people will come, but there is no factual evidence showing how this is going to happen.

Why were these questions not asked when PEDCO endorsed using $14.4 million of the half-cent funds for the RTA project? PEDCO’s former board chair, Steven Wright is quoted as saying that if they had been successful in attracting two companies in 2012, they would have depleted nearly $40 million of that fund.

Follow that statement for a moment.  If PEDCO had been successful in attracting two businesses and then endorsed the loan to the RTA, that would have depleted, or come close to fully depleting the entire half-cent account.

The question here isn’t whether that’s right or wrong but $54.4 million of taxpayers’ money was going to be spent from 2012 to 2015 and Pueblo wasn’t asking for more details.

Well, that’s not entirely true, the Pueblo Chieftain did question the half-cent use but only after Chris Kaufman, Ami Nawrocki and Sandy Daff pitched the “Great Pueblo Payback.” Remember this was catalyst for the Pueblo Chieftain’s unusual front page editorial and why it requested emails on alleged illegal meetings.

Which brings this story back to where it all began. The resignations of three council members, who opposed funding the RTA through the half-cent. The reason for their resignation is the claim they were “manipulated” by former Pueblo County employee Greg Severance into an illegal meeting.

Somehow from November of 2013 to August of 2014, Greg Severance went from being in the good graces of the Pueblo Chieftain to master manipulator of council. In November 2013, as council was considering the RTA grant application, in an email to Greg Severance, Jane Rawlings, the assistant publisher for the Pueblo Chieftain, asked “a favor” of Severance regarding the “undecided” members of council, “I would encourage you to let them get their information directly from the principals without lobbying efforts by the County.”

Severance responded in-kind that he was supportive of Jane Rawlings’ request, “You will be happy to hear my favorable response to your request.”

To which Rawlings replied, “We appreciate your desire to facilitate the success of RTA and your decision to let the process run its course.”

But the narrative written by the Chieftain that was dubbed “emailgate” never said Severance was also lobbying council on behalf of the Chieftain. That side of the story was not made available to the public.

Before you throw Jane Rawlings under the bus, the editorial position of the Chieftain is well-established. Even Steve Henson has written that Bob Rawlings, Publisher of the Chieftain, is the “800-pound gorilla in the corner office […] and one of the founders of PEDCO.”

I can’t be the only one who has a problem with all this; the people who recommend to council how tax monies are spent (PEDCO), have a very powerful founding member who reports on how they are spent (Chieftain).

Those reports and very prominent editorial positions caused enough of a public outcry forcing controversial councilors–who opposed PEDCO’s recommendations on the RTA Loan and offered a competing, albeit questionable plan–to resign. And because of their resignations the vote to loan half-cent money on the RTA project, could have been 3 to 4 in the negative with council member Ed Brown as the swing vote.

When you consider that the outcome of a vote was impacted when council members were replaced and that vote dealt with government spending, this whole thing just looks bad.

Pueblo City Council should immediately hire an independent investigator to provide the public with the assurance that everything was done above board.

Since the public will be asked to reauthorize the half-cent tax and decide on the majority of city council’s open seats these voters need to be presented with a clear picture of the workings of city finances when they fill out their ballots.

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1 Comment
  • Roger Anderson

    There are so many players involved that I have a difficult time following who is scratching who’s back and which side they are on. Add in the money issues and who has clout and why, it gets downright confusing. Though perhaps that is the idea.

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Pueblo, A City for the Creative

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Much of this doesn’t exist…

It’s Sunday brunch time and the new local coffee place is filled  with a few college students trying to finish the last of their term papers before they leave for break as well as a few professionals on their laptops pretending to work while watching YouTube.

The menu is sparse for a coffee shop and the prices are well, Oregonian in nature, but the place is full on a Sunday.

The low winter sun shines on a nice young couple just off a morning hike in Beulah who stretch with purpose as they get out of their Subaru. They drove down from Monument for the day to hike and then to amiably walk around the downtown.

On the agenda a bookstore, the clothing shop, the silkscreen poster shop, the local pottery and then off to a brew pub for a quick pint before heading back up. Maybe they’ll stop off at the Italian deli in Bessemer that they heard about on public radio station just last week.

It’s open now on Sundays because there are people everywhere after the story on the new food culture of Pueblo was shared like wildfire on social media.

“Finally! The recognition Pueblo deserves is getting more play in Denver and Colorado Springs,” the new mayor of Pueblo says to herself.

“All that hard work of spending close to $1.5 million in tourism dollars is working.”

She was panned heavily by the Pueblo Chieftain for advocating for a big increase in tourism dollars but over the last year with the city working closely with the creative arts and tech industry, focusing less on heavy industry and more on creative ones, properties once thought too expensive to own now boom with new businesses.

The new plan worked as a new paper goods place has just opened in Bessemer. A few years ago, these storefronts were embarrassingly vacant considering they near a highly travelled portion off Interstate 25. Thousands of cars a day ignored the exits and kept going for a few more hours until reaching Santa Fe.

Now the inexpensive buildings are seeing new tenants — artists, jewelry makers, coders — young professionals needing inexpensive rents to fuel their new start-ups.

Just over the bridge into the Eiler’s Neighborhood is a new block-house design building. It’s a start-up investment firm taking a chance on the new renewable energy firms relocating to affordable Southeast Colorado after a few counties banded together to lure satellite offices of the largest renewable energy businesses in the world to the region.

It’s a unique marriage among renewables, the cannabis industry,  cryptocurrency businesses and surprisingly Evraz, who all need the same thing — cheap, affordable energy. Just years ago Pueblo had the highest energy rates in Colorado; now with the focus on renewables, Pueblo offers the cheapest energy rates in the state.

At least on Main Street none of this matters today. It’s a warmer day, and the “Pueblo-made” sign on the jewelry store has drawn in the customers. It was another great weekend of business for the boutique. It doesn’t hurt that former Pueblo Community College trained chef, who had a stint at the Broadmoor, has returned home to open his dream kitchen offering new takes on Pueblo favorites.

The menu is filled with adjectives blending the names of local farms around the region with Southwest favorites. The restaurant has spurred on a rejuvenation around the downtown core because of last year’s profile in the New York Times about how Pueblo is reinventing its culture not by trying to be a franchise city, but by locals — creatives seeing potential in rust belt cities.

The long-lines, constant customers and curious parking situation have been a mixed blessing. A few, who moved back into Pueblo from Pueblo West to be closer to the action are buying up the downtown lofts and signing the leases on the new apartment buildings going up.

With the new development Pueblo has become a three-crane city but now some are worried the surge in energy and growth will strip Pueblo of its feel.

Rumbles of gentrification surround the growth. But on the east side, the spread of success slowed at the Fountain Creek.

The old Safeway still sits empty. For a time, there was talk of housing a new creative collective for the workspace. In would have been copied from the fantastical Meow Wolf art collective in Santa Fe since that profitable art space was fashioned out of a bowling alley. Then there was the East Coast grocery chain that was bandied about but it never came to fruition.

But with the creatives moving in generating the demand for more college educated jobs, Colorado State University – Pueblo finally consumed more of the northside and the eastside. Student housing, student pubs and cafes generate energy that are seeping over Highway 50 into 8th street.

Some look back and wonder what happened, what was the change. The answer was Pueblo realized the enormous creative talents that existed in Pueblo and rewarded them.

Pueblo said to itself, no company is going to come in and save us but the people that build things, make things, bake and cook things, paint and mold things — the people that create an experience, a dream, a song, a feeling of nostalgia — we want to be those people and we want others to come here to see what we create. And we want to be a place that when one leaves here, they leave with a piece of something that was made in Pueblo and inspired by the Steel City.

Much of this should.

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Enough is Enough: Sexual Harassment at the Colorado State Capitol

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If there is a moment to drop politics and have a human moment then I’m going to spend the rest of the editorial struggling with what we printed last month.

Thirty some odd days ago, our nation and our state was different. In that time Colorado saw for the first time that even those sitting in the high seats of Colorado State Government can be targets for harassment and assault.

The State learned that sitting State Representatives were harassed, groped or pursued in ways that were unacceptable.

It started with Rep. Daneya Esgar who told us that she was groped by a man she “regularly worked with.” Then Rep. Faith Winter told a Denver Radio station she was harassed by Rep. Steve Lebsock.

Then other aides, interns and lobbyists came forward to oust Lebsock, and other legislators, both Democrat and Republican, of alleged inappropriate behavior and harassment.

Before Thanksgiving, Rep. Lontine said she was also groped by a legislator but didn’t disclose a name.

This all may be the beginning of more accusations coming to light but the current tally of those with allegations leveled against them beyond Lebsock are Rep. Paul Rosenthal, Senators Jack Tate and Randy Baumgardner, one unknown legislator and the individual who touched Esgar.

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran and Senate Majority Leader Kevin Grantham have pledged, twice now, to introduce reforms to allow victims and the alleged perpetrators of harassment to have due process but also to enact stricter punishments.

Incredulously, the old process allowed the leadership in both houses to be investigator, jury and judge. And there’s no real way for a legislator accused of this indiscretion to be removed.

This whole thing, beyond the harassment, is frustrating and disgusting to watch as it plays out.

The frustrating part is seeing elected officials stay quiet on harassment. I fully understand that as a female legislator, staffer or intern, if your accusation isn’t a guaranteed political career ending kill shot, the blowback can burn you more than the harasser. If Colorado didn’t know that before this scandal, it should now.

We are seeing that play out in the accusations made and the responses at the State Capitol.

Lebsock defended his actions, saying it wasn’t true and that he wasn’t going to resign. This was after calls from the Governor and other Democratic legislators. On the other side of the aisle, two Republican State Senators accused of wrongful behavior, Baumgardner and Tate, have largely stayed silent on their accusations and the State Senate GOP has pressed that it’s important for due process to take place.

For all the campaign promises and self-promotional talk of “district first” this whole process just reeks of district last.

Let’s just concede staffers, interns and lobbyists don’t have the luxury or power to come out more forcefully. There’s a power dynamic here and it disadvantages anyone not elected.

And let’s just concede that Esgar, Lontine and Winter are also right that merely coming forward and blasting out names may make things worse for them because of the current culture facing women and victims.

So that leaves the rest of the legislators on the hook for standing up for the victims, against the harassers and saying we will not tolerate in Colorado for constituents.

I can’t even believe I have to try to sell the fact that constituencies should know if their elected State Representative or Senator is a harasser.

We all can agree we don’t want to unfairly level accusations against innocent men or women without due process. But let’s be real about what was happening. Harassment at the state capital wasn’t a secret. Democratic leaders knew of the Winter-Lebsock incident. Staffers and lobbyists knew certain members of the legislature, Democrat and Republican, were not safe to be around. People knew and it wasn’t until the media asked questions did they move on this.

And I say all this because I go back to what started all this — Daneya Esgar’s admission that a colleague inappropriately placed his hand on the inside of her thigh at a public event. Why her incident is so egregious isn’t just because of the act, but rather because of who she is, where she was and the moment, while brief, illustrated harassment so clearly.

Let’s call this for what it was. This was about power through sexual aggression. It should bother you, it should bother the legislative leadership (it didn’t as they appeared lukewarm to her statement), it should enrage the constituents of House District 46 knowing someone violated their elected representative (full disclosure Esgar is my Representative) and it should rally fellow legislators to say, “No more.”

Sadly, just like in D.C., we are watching political expediency rule over moral authority. Remember there are six legislators, some named and some not, accused of harassment. No one has resigned with just over a month to go before the new session.

What’s needed now is for victims saying no more silence, and their colleagues, who profess to be proponents of the victims, to not tolerate one more incident of harassment towards Colorado Legislators and those who work at the capital. What’s more important now is not to enable perpetrators even if it costs your party the seats.

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When the chief of police says his department cannot respond

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The quote was buried in a local TV news story, and you would have missed if you didn’t read carefully. Pueblo’s Police Chief Luis Velez admitted the department had reached its breaking point in responding to calls after two officers resigned.

Chief Velez said to KRDO on March 2, “We’re at a point where we cannot keep our calls for service and stay on top of them.”

While the Pueblo police staffing issue isn’t new, the chief’s comment that the department has reached its breaking point is frighteningly blunt.

This is the third time and the third law enforcement official to call Pueblo’s police at a breaking point. District Attorney Jeff Chostner, on February 29, told the Pueblo Chieftain, “We’ve reached a breaking point in this community.”

Deputy Police Chief Troy Davenport said on March 15, he’s never seen a point like this in his 15-year career.

Velez’s quote is more than just budget shortfalls numbers and the staffing issues that follow. The highest-ranking police officer in Pueblo saying the department cannot respond to the number of calls it receives — is a public security crisis.

PULP reached out to the Pueblo Police Department for clarification on Velez’s statement but did not receive a response.

What changed for Pueblo, was the February murder of Devin Clark at the Iron Horse Bar on Main Street.

Thirteen murders, four of them unsolved, in 2015 pushed the dialogue on gangs and helped advance the tax debate in early 2016. But the death of Clark, a popular Puebloan from a family with deep connections to the community, has changed even the tone of law enforcement.

I have never seen a point in recent memory where officials have offered such a brutal assessment of their departments.

Pueblo is entering a new state of public safety. Officials have given the standard response they are doing their best to manage the lack or resources and public security but their words remain about the state of Pueblo’s police.

Currently, the department is staffed at roughly between 80–85% depending on media outlet reports.

On Monday, March 21, Pueblo will enter another tax debate whether to tax residents to pay for more cops on the street. Pueblo’s City Council has been reluctant to adopt Chostner’s plan. Using a half-cent tax to pay for 30 to 50 more officers and raising roughly $7.5 million wouldn’t see an impact until late 2017 or well into 2018.

While council members and the district attorney debate a tax, what is undebatable are the three top law enforcement officials going public that the lack of resources at 200 South Main Street is breaking the department and threatening public security.

It should be the breaking point for the community because this is now a full blown crisis.

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