Gaebler’s town hall elicits concerns about water, pot

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In what might have been a preview of next week’s City Council public hearing regarding retail marijuana sales in Colorado Springs, City Councilwoman Jill Gaebler hosted her first District 5 town hall meeting at the Patty Jewett Golf Course clubhouse Tuesday evening.

The meeting, billed as “A Conversation with Your Councilwoman,” drew a mostly middle-aged crowd of more than 60 Colorado Springs residents.

In emails announcing the meeting, Gaebler had suggested three topics for conversation: marijuana retail sales, water restrictions, and other citizen concerns.

Gaebler began the meeting by noting that, in common with five of her colleagues on Council, she’s only been in office for 62 days.

“I don’t have all the answers,” she said, “and I’m very grateful that Gary Bostrom and Ann Seymour are here [from Utilities] to answer any questions you may have about water restrictions.”

It was quickly apparent that water restrictions were at the top of the agenda for many in the audience, some of whom had just received nasty surprises in their utility bills. Bostrom, who heads water services for Colorado Springs Utilities and Seymour, CSU’s water conservation officer, soon came under fire.

“I don’t understand why someone in a 500-square-foot apartment and someone who owns a 5,000-square-foot house on a 20,000-square-foot lot with mature landscaping both get the same 2,000 cubic foot water allotment,” said North End resident Richard Sullivan. “I have 13 mature trees on my property — if I don’t water them, they’ll die. This just seems irrational, this one size fits all.”

Rather than directly counter Sullivan, Bostrom focused on the reason for the restrictions.

“We were in a situation where, in the worst case, I could foresee our reservoirs going dry,” said Bostrom. “Things have improved, and our reservoirs are at 70 percent capacity, but we don’t know what snowpack will be in 2014. Is this climate change, or is this just the new normal? We don’t know. We had to develop a rate structure that would meet our conservation goals, and so far it has.”

“The treescape in our community will suffer,” Sullivan shot back, “and you’re actually profiting from us even if we meet conservation goals. I’ve reduced my water use 30 or 40 percent, and got no credit for it. Can’t you customize rates to take customer differences into account?”

“We developed a rate that was designed to yield savings in irrigation,” replied Bostrom. “We didn’t want to go after household uses. We can’t customize the rate.”

Seymour pointed out that CSU has rebate programs that partially subsidized customers who invest in water-efficient showerheads and other water-saving devices, but that cut no ice with crowd.

“I can’t believe you can’t change the system,” said Dutch Schultz, a former president of the North End Homeowners Association.

“No, not in the middle of the summer,” said Seymour, “It’s just not feasible.”

Gaebler, who had stood quietly during the discussion, briskly moved to the next topic — retail marijuana.

“We can opt out, and refuse to allow retail marijuana sales in the city or regulate such sales,” she said. “But Denver has already decided to regulate. If we opt out, local residents can drive to Denver and purchase marijuana, and Denver will capture those sales taxes.”

After further summarizing the regulatory process, Gaebler opened the floor to all comers.

The ensuing debate was spirited and reasonably cordial.

“Accepting (retail) marijuana in this community is potentially devastating to the military community,” said retired Air Force officer Skip Morgan, who served in the Judge Advocate General Corps. “One failed urinalysis, and someone who has served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan is out, with no health care, no pension, no benefits. We shouldn’t make marijuana that much easier to obtain.”

Most in the audience appeared to disagree.

“The question is not whether soldiers can get it, but whether it will be regulated and sold like alcohol,” said resident Gary Betchan. “Marijuana isn’t the problem — the military laws are the problem.”

But, Morgan pointed out, the military doesn’t make the law.

“The military’s law is a federal rule — you want to change the law, talk to your congressman.”

Other speakers praised marijuana’s calming effects upon soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, claimed that regulation would protect rather than endanger children, and emphasized that a majority of Colorado Springs residents had supported Amendment 64.

“Why are we even having this discussion?” asked one white-haired man. “We voted for it — so let’s regulate!”

As the meeting drew to a close, Gaebler asked for a show of hands.

The pro-marijuana forces won by a 4-1 margin.