Denver Direct: Community representatives say park policy needs public involvement

Friday, February 12, 2010

Community representatives say park policy needs public involvement

By Dave Felice

Several opponents express dissatisfaction with the process leading the Denver Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB) to accept the concept of closed commercial events in city parks. While some PRAB members agree the public engagement isn’t as good as it could be, the board voted 12-to-4 in favor of admissions based events. The board also asked Parks staff to rewrite the proposed policy to be more specific about events.

“This is the poorest excuse for public process I’ve ever seen,” said former City Councilwoman Cathy Donohue during a brief public comment period at the beginning of the PRAB meeting. “You (PRAB) have to do the courtesy of asking the public.”

“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” asserted Thad Tecza, a member of the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (INC) Parks Committee. He called the 10-minute public comment period “an incredible assertion of arrogance and disrespect” and said the board is irresponsible in “not soliciting input from all affected.”

The board appeared to disregard public comments and resolutions of opposition by neighborhood organizations including Greater Park Hill, Washington Park, Cheesman Park, Alamo Placita, Sloan’s Lake, University Park, South City Park, and Whittier.

About two dozen people attended to observe the proceedings. Fifteen people signed up to speak. Meeting Chair Noel Copeland said he would adhere to PRAB practice of allowing limited public comment. During the main part of its meetings, the Board refuses to acknowledge any comment or question.

Several times during the 3-hour meeting, District 11 Councilman Michael Hancock’s board appointee, Scott Gilmore, continued to press for a public referendum on the controversial policy.

“I don’t see this (policy) as a big deal,” said PRAB member Sharon Elfenbein, sparking an outburst of loud jeers from the audience. “We should reserve a vote for important issues. If you ask people to attend an event and pay admission, they are voting with their feet.” Elfenbein is the appointee of At-Large Councilwoman Carol Boigon.

Representing Councilwoman Jeanne Robb in District 10, PRAB member Mary Ewing also complained that there needs to be greater public involvement in the development of the policy which would allow parks to be closed for commercial events. “It is clear the public process was not served” by recent last-minute changes in the policy draft, said Ewing. In sending the policy back for rewriting, Ewing argued for fuller public participation at every step.

For the first time in the nearly two-and-a-half-year policy development process, Parks Manager Kevin Patterson reversed one of the major arguments for commercial park events. “The primary goal is not revenue,” asserted Patterson. “These are the events people want (and) we were trying to respond to what we heard from the public.” Even so, Patterson has yet to specifically identify any of the organizations interested in staging commercial events.

“I have no idea what we’re talking about,” said board member Darrell Watson as the discussion dissolved into policy details. “”My expectation (for the meeting) was to determine if we support the policy. We are discussing issues that I was not anticipating.”

Joe Halpern, Larry Ambrose, Cathy Calder, Carolyn Etter, Diana Helper, Bonita Leahy, Cathy Donohue, Kathleen Rust, and Tom Quinn of City Park Jazz all expressed differing aspects of opposition during the public comment period.

While the next steps are not entirely clear to even the PRAB or Parks staff, it appears the Admissions Based Special Events (ABSEP) Task force will reconvene. The PRAB will make specific policy recommendations and there will be multiple occasions for public comment. Another public hearing is likely, before the PRAB actually decides on accepting the final policy document.

Parks and Recreation Manager Kevin Patterson still has the ultimate authority on the policy and its implementation.