Our View: Promoting open government

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Steamboat Today editorial board — June to December 2013

  • Suzanne Schlicht, COO and publisher
  • Lisa Schlichtman, editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • David Baldinger Jr., community representative
  • Lisa Brown, community representative

Contact the editorial board at 970-871-4221 or editor@SteamboatToday.com. Would you like to be a member of the board? Fill out a letter of interest now.

At Issue

The Steamboat Springs Planning Department recommends changes to reduce the number of public notices printed in the newspaper

Our View

Change would result in less government transparency.

The Steamboat Springs Planning Department is recommending changes to the way it notifies the public about pending projects. City planning commissioners held a work session last week to discuss a staff proposal that would shift the public notice process to a more Web-centric approach and away from public notices in the newspaper.

We applaud the Planning Department’s desire to provide more information to Steamboat Springs residents about projects that could impact their property and neighborhoods through a more interactive website, but the department’s proposal to cut back on public notices misses the mark.

The overriding purpose of the proposed changes, as stated by city planning officials, is to improve the public notification system in reaction to complaints from residents who claimed they weren’t properly informed about projects that were being proposed in their neighborhoods.

The creation of a new searchable Web page, which would provide a map and a list of current projects, is an idea we support and a positive move forward, with the caveat that the city must weigh the financial impacts of such a project. We also believe the department’s plan to notify individual property owners in multiowner units rather than just the homeowners association is another welcome change.

But the department’s proposal to reduce the number of public notices it publishes in the newspaper flies in the face of its intended purpose of improved communication and more transparency.

Let us be clear. The Steamboat Pilot & Today receives revenue from public notices the city planning department places in the newspaper, but our argument against a reduction in these notices is not financially motivated. Instead, we view public notices as fundamental to open government and the public’s overarching right to know about what that government is doing.

Under the proposal discussed last week, the number of project types that would require a public notice in the newspaper would drop from 19 to six. Among the print notices that would be eliminated are those for development plans, change in use, vacation home rental permits, telecommunications facilities and preliminary and final plats — all projects whose impact reaches far beyond the 100- or 300-foot boundary of surrounding property owners who are notified by mail about such projects.

The Planning Department’s proposed changes concerning public notices would not violate the state statutes that govern public notices, but the recommended revisions would go against the spirit of the law.

As Steamboat Springs’ primary news source, the Pilot & Today is where people look first for information, and public notices are a key tool for residents to keep up with their local government. The Pilot & Today also publishes legal notices online so the reach extends beyond the print edition and far exceeds the number of people who would view the notices if they were relegated to sole publication on the city’s website.

At the work session, most planning commissioners expressed a desire to offer more, rather than fewer, notices about pending projects. We are encouraged about the commissioners’ initial response, and we urge them to think long and hard before they consider a change that would result in less transparency and could lead to an erosion of public trust.

Comments

Stuart Orzach 6 months, 3 weeks ago

I am one of those neighboring property owners who complained.

A project had sailed through Planning Commission and was days away from being rubber stamped by Council when I became aware, through a very brief article that was posted for only a short period of time on a Saturday, in this on-line publication, that at least 160 neighboring property owners were not notified.

The problem was not that there was anything wrong with the regulations. The immediate problem was that the City Planning Department did not follow the regulations that are currently on the books. And, this was exacerbated by the fact that the neither the Planning Director, the Planning Commission or the City Council noticed.

Sure, those regulations could be tweaked a little. But, the way this issue is currently being framed is a whitewash of gross negligence on the part of the City..

I had several discussions with both Tyler Gibbs and Deb Hinsvark immediately after this incident. I wrote two extremely detailed, and well documented letters to Council, carefully citing the laws on the books. They didn't make a bit of difference to anyone. ,The highly controversial project in question was obviously a done deal from the start.

If laws don't matter, then citizens are paying staff big bucks just to go through the motions.

It is my opinion that this City government is corrupt, and that making excuses, sweeping problems under the rug, and covering derrieres is what our highest ranking staff is best at.

I am open to seeing evidence to the contrary, but I am compelled to call it the way I see it.

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John Fielding 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Thank you Stuart for your comment here and your diligence it trying to get the City to comply with requirements for bringing the Citizens into the decision making process. There is clearly a procedure of obfuscation and avoidance operating in City management.

For the edification of followers of this matter, will you please share. in this forum, the letters you sent to Council?

If my proposal for a Citizens Advocate is enacted, one of the functions of the office would be to publicize the input collected, mostly online, but with a regular summary in the print edition of this newspaper. The results of the surveys presented this morning at the Pilot monthly forum reinforce how important the old hard copy format still is in this modern age of electronic media.

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Scott Wedel 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Almost no one reads the planning notices placed in the Sunday Legal Notices section. There are certainly more effective and less expensive ways of notifying the public.

A county commissioner once told me that the county spends about $20,000 a month on required legal notices. And that they are mandated by state laws. And any efforts to change those laws have always been met by opposition from the newspaper industry. That the newspapers always claim that it not the revenues, but informing the public. And because newspapers control their editorial pages, they do an effective job of blocking any changes to those laws.

Maybe the newspaper could investigate that very ineffective use of government funds. Not holding my breath on that.

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Stuart Orzach 6 months, 3 weeks ago

John- Here is the link to my second letter. It was written after the second Planning Commission meeting. The first meeting was nullified due to lack of proper public notice.

https://bay178.mail.live.com/default.aspx?n=1449568312&fid=1#n=206017925&fid=1&mid=29a2f5f0-2bb6-11e3-b457-00237de461b2&fv=1

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John Fielding 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Hey Stuart, my antique computer couldn't get me past the microsoft account password page. Can you just paste them into the forum composition box please? Thanks, John

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Steve Lewis 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Transparency in the planning department process has seen other reductions over the past 2 years. This latest is simply part of a trend, described as cutting applicants' costs to achieve a permit.

For instance the planning director now approves more projects under his increased scope of administrative approval - fewer projects will have any hearing at all. In another code change, parts of projects will be missing from the public hearing altogether, and approved later by planning staff after any public hearing.

The rationale for both is this: much of a project's design is simply a matter meeting or not meeting the code, and trained staff professionals are the only proper arbiters of those project aspects. The previous approach - venturing the whole before the public - required an "all in" approach by the applicant on design and paperwork. The new approach saves the applicant wasting money on a project the public eventually rejects. But quite obviously, his savings correspond directly with less information being available to the public before approval.

It may be these are smart changes. There is a need to balance opposing needs. I spoke my piece at the PC hearings where these were approved - enough said. But one would think this topic would have seen more Pilot coverage and deserved more City outreach. Little to no detail of those transparency reductions were reported in the Pilot. The recent Pilot editorial interest in government transparency is good news. But it is also a bit overstated.

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Stuart Orzach 6 months, 3 weeks ago

John- give me your email and I'll send it to you directly. They're too big to post here. There is a 3000 character size limit on these blog posts.

I'm at orzachstuart@hotmail.com

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