Series of community meetings to cover more than moratorium
The city of Aspen wants to know what its residents think about development, and starting today, it’s bringing in some heavy hitters to help find out.Over the next two weeks, former Pitkin County Commissioner Leslie Lamont and Denver consultant Chris Gates will facilitate a series of meetings designed to engage a broader group of residents in a discussion style that’s more user-friendly than city council meetings.Mayor Helen Klanderud said council identified the need for broader community input as far back as last fall and winter. Council was engaged in discussions about the Entrance to Aspen, and the need for a different forum to engage the public came out of those discussions, she said.”The plan … was in the works long before this [development] moratorium came about,” she said. “It’s not about the moratorium. It’s bigger than that.”City staff was tasked with finding a specific format to solicit input from people who don’t normally get involved. During the planning process, Klanderud said, development issues pushed their way ahead of the Entrance to Aspen and will be the focus of this series of meetings.If the meetings achieve the desired effect, the city could have an excellent tool to discern community views on other issues, said Mitzi Rapkin, director of community relations and communications for the city.”It’s a big experiment, and we just hope that it works,” she said. “And if it does, perhaps we’ve found a viable format to engage the citizens on really big issues that we haven’t tackled in a successful way.”The mayor said the city sought the unique format – a series of small groups for two weeks culminating in two large public meetings July 19 – because past neighborhood and community meetings have failed to draw a large number of participants.”We’d get two people if we were lucky” at some of the neighborhood meetings, she said. “It’s always been a concern of elected officials, why don’t people come to meetings?”Although council meetings have drawn large crowds, that’s not always the case, and “you can’t have an extensive meeting during community comment,” Klanderud said. Likewise, comments at those meetings “are directed at a specific application, not broader topics.”Anyone is welcome to participate in the meetings, but to keep the groups small, interested parties must sign up in advance.Another unique twist to the meetings is that the city sent invitations to a number of randomly selected voters in hopes of encouraging broader participation. The city also invited second-home owners, a group Rapkin said is difficult to find. Of the 90 people who signed up, she knows of only one second-home owner.Klanderud insists the second-home owners, or “seasonal residents,” as she calls them (some of them own more than one additional home), are a vital part of the discussion.”They’re equally passionate about this community as those who live here year-round,” she said. “They are part of our resident population, and I feel very strongly about having them involved in this dialogue.”Klanderud observed that a lot of seasonal residents have been coming here for decades and gradually increase the time they spend here, often moving to Aspen.Councilman Jack Johnson likes the concept of the meetings, but he was cool on the idea of soliciting the seasonal residents.”They don’t live here, and they’re not citizens,” he said.Johnson said he doesn’t “have the foggiest idea” what council will do with the information collected, but he’s still a fan of the idea.”I think the most value that can come out of it isn’t necessarily for us but for the citizens in town to get what’s on their chests off their chests,” he said.He said he also hopes to use the information to gauge “to what degree my vision of town is relative to this focus group.””I thought the idea of soliciting those people who don’t ordinarily participate is of value,” he said.Valuable enough to merit the expense?”Of course,” he said. “The expense is minuscule relative to the importance the issue has for town.”Gates’ fee for facilitating the large group meeting is $4,000 plus expenses, paid to the nonprofit group Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement. Gates, whose specialty is civic engagement, has been working for the National Civic League in Denver. He began a new position as executive director of the philanthropy nonprofit Friday.Rapkin said that council and staff were seeking someone with no vested interest in Aspen to moderate the large meetings, and they were familiar with Gates through his speaking engagements with Roaring Fork Leadership.Lamont will earn $130 an hour to facilitate the 15 one-and-a-half-hour meetings. Not including prep time, that’s roughly $1,000 less than Gates will net for his one appearance, if the city doesn’t add more meetings.Rapkin said the small meetings really need someone local to run them since they take place every day for two weeks.Lamont “is a trained facilitator, and she understands planning language,” she said.Rapkin stressed that Lamont’s role is not advisory.”She’s not here to have an opinion,” Rapkin said. “She’s here to ask the questions and make sure the meetings run smoothly – and she’s good at that.”And if the meetings don’t elicit the kind of response the city is seeking, “we’ll go back to the drawing board to get the community to engage in what’s going on in a new way,” Rapkin said.The meetings begin today, but it’s not too late to get involved. Participants don’t go to every meeting, so it’s not a daily commitment. To participate, contact Rapkin at 920-5082 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or come to one of the July 19 meetings at the Hotel Jerome. Those meetings begin at noon and 5:30 p.m.Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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