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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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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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Editorial: Reset the RTA?

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Pueblo’s RTA bid was always an odd duck. The “Heritage of Heroes” seemed little more than jumbled pieces on the Riverwalk — a Professional Bull Riders University, an aquatic park, the expansion of the Pueblo Convention Center and piecemeal odes to veterans. Now it’s stalled because the state wants a strong commitment from the bull riders.

A half-decade later, and what seemed like jumbled tourist pieces weren’t so jumbled after all.

Pueblo desperately wanted to expand the Pueblo Convention Center at all costs. Officials and the city saw it as their great unfinished project, the capstone in the Riverwalk project and a “true” tourism driver.

The state of Colorado wanted the PBR training facility to be a unique landmark in this state- funded project to satisfy their guidelines.

Those two competing wants by the city for the convention center and the state for the PBR University are driving Pueblo’s RTA bid to the brink of collapse.

What’s different this time is that the facade of Pueblo’s RTA bid has eroded to show a project that doubles-down on the weak links on the Riverwalk. And it shows a loosey-goosey tourism attitude by state officials that could hurt Pueblo’s project, if it ever gets built.

The PBR, owned by WWE/IMG, is hesitant to commit to their own training facility in Pueblo. Why? WWE/IMG’s reluctance should not be a surprise as PBR has been timid on training facility all along.

In 2012, as city officials needed the PBR University to serve as the unique element of their bid they rolled in the PBR training center. PBR was reluctant to sign off on the facility, where the city, as we are told by a city official, had to craft the letter for PBR. The same city official told the PULP the training facility could have been built “on their own.” It raises the possibility that PBR didn’t need state funds to build their University.

The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade’s—the agency approving the RTA applications—guidelines state, “that in the absence of state sales tax increment revenue, the project is not reasonably anticipated to be developed within the foreseeable future.”

Also at issue is the slow growth by PBR in Pueblo. PBR was billed in 2006 and again in 2015 as the “The fastest growing sport in the U.S.”

But it’s not growing in Pueblo. To attract PBR in 2006, Pueblo Economic Development Corporation and the City of Pueblo offered $6 million in half-cent funds for a building and $2.5 for a parking garage. The city would put $5.2 million to PBR’s administration offices and PBR would agree to pay for a first floor restaurant and patio area. PBR would agree to hire 76 workers by 2007 and 180 by 2012.

PBR never hit those job numbers forcing, in 2012, the city to renegotiate PBR’s job commitment to the 2007 level of 76 workers. The deal also returned the restaurant and patio section of the PBR building to the city which was being used as storage.

At the other end of the Riverwalk is Pueblo’s baby, the expansion of the convention center.

The Pueblo Convention Center has been hemorrhaging money since it was built. It also rarely meets its attendance and event goals. Yet proponents of the convention center are quick to point out an expanded convention center will allow it to compete regionally.

Local officials have little information to back up this claim and the state and Pueblo disagree on what is the biggest attraction of the RTA project. The city believes the convention center will draw 40,000 people a year, the PBR University will attract 30,000, and the aquatic center will bring 60,000. The state estimates Pueblo will only bring in 11,250 (convention center), 30,000 (PBR), and 7,500 (aquatic park) visitors respectively.

If the Pueblo Convention Center builds bigger but doesn’t attract more people, city taxpayers will pay for those losses.

Proponents are also quick to point out that Pueblo will compete on price and location because it’s the only facility like this in Colorado. Well, it was until COEDIT approved the GO NOCO project in Windsor.

On paper, GO NOCO is nearly the same as Pueblo’s project. The PeliGrande Resort and Convention Center is expected to offer 58,500 square feet of space compared to Pueblo’s expanded size of 54,800 sq. ft. The PeliGrande will have a 300 room hotel compared to 163 rooms at the current Pueblo Marriott. If you add in the recently built Cambria Suites then Pueblo has 268 rooms close to the Riverwalk. And PeliGrande will build an aquatic park, a whitewater park, and a golf course that already has commitments from the Senior PGA.

How does this compare to Pueblo? Pueblo once had its own championship golf course. Walking Stick Golf Course, once rated as one of the best public courses in America by Golf Digest, hosted USGA events but couldn’t attract bigger tournaments. The city has since let the links slip in “championship” quality.

The city built a whitewater course on the Arkansas River but not a championship whitewater course. And, Pueblo’s RTA will build an unspecified indoor aquatic park with a championship pool for competitive meets.

As for the unique aspect of GO NOCO, that’s a convenient 43 miles away in a “Film Center” in Estes Park not Windsor.

Should the reset button be pressed on this whole project?

No, the RTA project shouldn’t be forced to start over. But this does provide the city and state an opportunity to get the project right. The state should demand more reassurances that Pueblo’s build can attract tourists and not lose money.

Pueblo should demand answers on why COEDIT is approving projects that threaten the success of Pueblo’s current tourism assets such as State Fair which now has to compete with the National Western Stock Show Complex RTA, in Denver and Pueblo’s Riverwalk which has to compete against Windsor’s Peligrande.

And that’s the real issue. How is Pueblo, who went first in the state’s RTA funding experiment, going to grow tourism by facing the stiffest competition not just from other states but other tourism projects receiving the same Colorado money?

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