Pueblo City Council made headlines Monday when it voted 5 to 1 to indefinitely table an ordinance that would have extended benefits to the domestic partners of gay city employees. The move came as a shock to the sponsor of the proposal, to the members of the public who packed the council chambers and to state political analysts long used to seeing solidly Democratic Pueblo lead on gay rights.
“I was flummoxed at what happened. We’re a Democratic town with Democratic principles,” Sandy Daff, the council member who sponsored the ordinance, told the Independent. “We were looking to have a good public conversation about this. The vote took the whole room by surprise.”
It also generated heated response from activists who supported the proposal.
“It was twenty years ago that Colorado earned the moniker ‘the hate state’ by passing Amendment 2, a referendum which rescinded state and local laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” read an email blast from the Colorado Progressive Coalition. “Last night’s action [in Pueblo] was a reminder that those dark times have not been completely dispelled.”
Have new dark times descended on Pueblo?
The problem was not ideological, according to Councilman Chris Nicoll.
Pueblo City Council is dominated by Democrats and it unanimously voted more than a week ago to advance Daff’s ordinance to public hearing. None of the members are up for election this year and two of the members told the Independent there has been no substantial lobbying against the ordinance from interest groups or members of the public.
Nicoll told the Independent the hitch in support stemmed from concern over a major looming budget deficit. And the uproar, he said, justifiably stemmed from bungled communication among council members and between the council and the public at the hearing.
“I think the controversy came from how we explained what was happening to the crowd. So folks who came down to testify were sort of left in the dark,” he said. “We received a report that [the ordinance] would cost the city between fifty and sixty thousand dollars and we just needed to think more about that. But [at the hearing] I only said there was ‘new information’ and then I used the words ‘table indefinitely’ and that language seemed very negative to people there,” he said.
“No one is trying to stop this [ordinance]. We’d just like to see it go through a [Council] workshop session and then first and second readings– to go through the full process, like most other proposals.”
Theresa Truillo, southern Colorado director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition, who was at the hearing and who helped generate support for the ordinance, said getting the proposal passed is the top priority among supporters but that the bungled hearing held other important lessons for the city.
“The room was packed with people prepared to testify in favor of the bill, and probably some who would have testified against it. These people were well prepared… but the council members were not prepared. I think they were just totally disorganized. After the vote, boos went up from the crowd. ‘What new information?’ ‘What about transparency?’ they were saying.”
Trujillo said that after it became clear the ordinance wasn’t going to be considered, the crowd streamed out of the room, leaving the council members alone to deal with other proposals.
“I looked back at the room. All I saw were a few suits walking around at the front. The public was gone,” she said. “The lesson to me was that citizens have to demand transparency and that the council needs the community’s participation to do their job well.”
Daff told the Independent she’s determined to reintroduce her ordinance later this month so it might pass Council and take effect before the deadline this year to enroll for Pueblo employee insurance, which she said falls in October.
“We got an initial estimate from the city that the cost [of providing the benefits] would be about ninety thousand, but then on Monday, before the hearing, we got the revised lower estimate, about fifty-eight thousand or something like less than 1 percent of the budget.”
Nicoll told the Independent he expects the ordinance will be reintroduced and that it will likely pass. But he added that the council is weighing deep cuts across the board to head off a predicted $5.8 million deficit and that every penny counts.
“We feel the right path is just to discuss this at length… We tabled [the ordinance] because we didn’t want to kill it. This way, we can bring it back.”
He said he wished he could have been more clear on that last point on Monday.