Background

At the August 28th meeting of the El Paso County, CO Board of County Commissioners (BoCC), Commissioner (and President Pro-Tempore) Mark Waller attacked a private citizen for nothing more than speaking out in opposition to a tax increase the county is considering.

At the meeting, one of the agenda items was discussion of two variations of a measure to be put on the Nov ’18 ballot to either make permanent or extend, the Public Safety Tax (PST). I’ve written extensively about the PST in the past.

When it came time to take public comments on the proposal, a handful of citizens spoke in support of the idea, and one spoke out against it. Joel Miller, a private citizen and resident of Colorado Springs was the dissenting voice.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Commissioner Waller did not attack anyone speaking in favor of the tax increase. He only chose to go after the lone voice of opposition.

If It Looks Like a Tax Increase, Quacks Like a Tax Increase…

First, a word about words. The county is engaging in tortured logic to make sure people believe this is not a tax increase, when in fact it is. That serves two purposes. One, from a salesmanship perspective, it’s easier to sell an over-taxed county on yet another tax increase if you convince the voters it’s not an increase.

Second, and perhaps more serious, it allows the Commissioners to avoid the legally-mandated language under TABOR that any new tax proposal ballot measure would require. This means the ballot language is sure to be parsed in such a manner as to attract ‘yes’ votes.

It is an increase no matter how Clintonesque the parsing becomes. First, the existing sales tax itself is as much an increase today as it was when it was passed in 2012. It fattens the county’s coffers above and beyond the general fund. It will remain an increase in the future, whether it’s merely extended for eight more years or made permanent.

Second, the two variations of the ballot measure contain language that expands the purposes for which the sales tax can be spent. Since it fundamentally alters the original ballot measure, it becomes a new tax. TABOR rules must apply.

Joel Miller’s Presentation

The public was invited to give comments, each person allotted three minutes. Miller spoke for three minutes but then was subjected to nearly six minutes of Waller’s badgering.

Miller’s points were complex but can be summarized as follows: why must we have a PST when the general fund ought to pay for necessary functions of government, such as public safety?

Additionally, the county has diverted general fund money to private development projects, giving moneyed corporate interests a perk that is unusual for local government. That diversion has created the situation where the PST has become a major source of revenue for the Sheriff’s Office to cover the shortfall.

You can watch the entire exchange here, and if you want to focus on Waller’s attack, it starts at 3:06.

Waller’s Behavior was Undignified and Unacceptable

Commissioner Waller is known for his bullying and boorish behavior, and he lived up to that reputation at the meeting. Frankly, what he did to Mr. Miller was not just unprofessional, it was conduct unbecoming of an elected official.

Waller seems typical of the kind of cynical ‘public servant’ who forgets that he is a servant of the people. He works for Miller, not the other way around. I hope the people of his district take note.

At the 5:35 point, Miller attempts to make a clarification to a point, and Waller breaks in and says, “I’m sorry for speaking while you’re interrupting.” It was a rude and disrespectful comment to a private citizen who simply came to offer comments, but who ended up in a protracted debate instead.

Miller even commented at one point (7:25) that he felt he was being attacked, but of course, Waller denied doing what was obvious to everyone. Waller responded, “I apologize if you feel like I’m attacking you.” Of course, that’s not the same as apologizing for actually attacking him, so hardly sincere at all.

Other Questions

Watching the exchange brought up some questions and other considerations in my mind.

Why did Waller feel the need to debate Miller when he didn’t say a thing to those who spoke in favor of the tax proposals?

How can the BoCC expect to receive honest citizen feedback when they harass the people who show up to offer comments?

Was the attack on Miller an attempt to suppress other voices of opposition?

Why did the other Commissioners allow Waller to go after Miller and not stop him or utter even one word?

Why didn’t Commissioner Darryl Glenn, the BoCC President, bring some order to the meeting and protect a private citizen instead of letting him endure such an uncomfortable situation?

It seems to me the kind of silence I saw today from the Commissioners is reminiscent of how they conduct themselves when faced with clear indications of problems and corruption in the Sheriff’s Office. I certainly did my level best during the campaign to get them to do the right thing, only to witness the same lack of concern as I did today toward Miller.

Some of this is all rhetorical, of course. Following the public comments, the Commissioners offered their own thoughts. While the ones I was able to stay for and hear all said they would wait until the Sep 4th meeting to vote, it was clear they want at least an extension of the PST.

Why give the voters another chance to speak against the proposal when their minds clearly appear made up?

Of course, considering the attack on Miller for exercising his free speech rights, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get a straight answer to his fundamental question: how can the county justify this tax increase when it should be using general fund money for this necessary function of government?