Friday, September 18, 2020

Communication and relationships

Communication and relationships really do matter as much or more than the ends and the means of most communal problems. It is particularly evident in a small community like this one and sometimes takes an uncomfortable situation to facilitate a positive move forward. Some cases in point from just this week:

I attended a grievance hearing Monday afternoon being conducted about a resident of Anthracite Place whose lease was not going to be renewed next month. My interpretation is that communication between administrators and the tenant had gotten sideways. Because no definitive reason for the non-renewal was cited and one wasn’t given to me when asked, my gut tells me that the Gunnison Valley Rural Housing Authority staff seemed frustrated about the time, effort and attitude needed to deal with this particular resident, who happens to be a person with physical and cognitive disabilities. It appears that what had once been a good relationship soured and the hole kept getting deeper. The resident admitted that he at times had probably reacted too harshly in situations and he was apologetic. The administration admitted they weren’t trained to deal with his disability.

A three-member panel of the GVRHA board— Carlos Velado, John Messner and Chris Haver—made up the grievance hearing committee and they did a great job of listening to both sides with an open mind. It became evident early that they were interested in solutions instead of blame and defensiveness.

Ultimately an agreement was reached in concept to use an advocate to help with more sensitive communication from both sides. The broad outlines of a plan going forward were established, timelines were discussed and in theory, a final resolution will be accomplished soon. It was a good process that ended in a good understanding that respected the need for better communication and compromise.

The beginning of what could be a similar positive solution to an issue about the Old Rock Schoolhouse is germinating between the town of Crested Butte and the Gunnison County Library District. In an effort to get all of its rentals in order, the town recently asked the Library District for a proper lease that included a pretty good rent increase. The library board reacted negatively to the idea and then came back with a proposal for a new lease that included an option to buy the Old Rock. Both sides have probably gone a little far in their initial offer—the library wants the town to do or pay for about 95 percent of everything, including changing the light bulbs—but the seed of a good idea that could benefit both was planted.

Whether that seed sprouts depends in part if each side can get beyond perceived slights and misinterpretations of things communicated poorly. Perhaps the cleanest way to move forward is for a group of representatives from the staff and both boards to work out some of the broad details and then bring in everyone for a final deal.

Frankly, despite a tepid response from the town council, I think the big idea of a lease-purchase could be a good one. The town can sell the Library District the building and include in the contract that it has to be a library that is open six or seven days a week. If for some reason the district feels compelled to sell it in the future, the town should include a clause in the contract that they can buy back the Old Rock for what they paid. Instead of a 10-year process, it makes more sense as a one-year deal if the Library District gets its tax passed this November.

Seems to me both sides get what they want. The town maybe can’t say it owns one of the cooler structures in Crested Butte but it rids itself of an expense line item and can ensure that it remains a library in perpetuity. The library board can own its north valley building and be responsible for it. That makes it easy for them to explain to Library District taxpayers in Gunnison and Pitkin why they should invest in improvements for Crested Butte’s Old Rock that is an asset owned by them and not just the citizens of Crested Butte. It probably makes the upcoming November ballot issue an easier sell across the county.

The idea, which is far from being negotiated in any real detail, presents itself as another potential win-win compromise that moves things along instead of making people irritated. That’s where the relationship element comes in and the two sides need good, honest communication to make it happen. The current silo approach is counterproductive. Overcoming the friction developed earlier this summer shouldn’t be hard as long as both sides take a breath, speak their truth and move forward with sincere intention.

Which brings me to the Gatesco situation discussed Tuesday at the county commissioner meeting. I do like how Gary Gates has come down to the 156-unit cap required by the Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte councils. Based on his apartment size revisions, it appears to me he is probably shifting focus from long-term family or couple-type rentals to a more seasonal focus with more studios and one-bedroom units in the mix. I’m not sure about that move but it is certainly worth discussing. And that’s what will hopefully happen later this month as the commissioners basically allowed his extension, with the big caveat that he has to please one or both of the land partner holdouts, Crested Butte or Mt. Crested Butte.

The communication and relationship issues have been a consistent problem with this deal and I’ll go out on a limb and say that if that doesn’t change, there will be no deal. Gates’ attorney Kendall Burgemeister said as much late Tuesday night when he told the CB council that Gary wants to give “one last good faith effort to keep the project going” and indicated there was more “flexibility” to play with on the other two conditions. There is longstanding bad blood to overcome between the Gates development team and some members of both town councils. It was evident as recently as this last week. The Gatesco team decision to keep both councils in the dark about lowering the unit number until just before the county hearing on Tuesday was baffling. I’ll go out on another limb and say such a decision is antithetical to good communication and constructive partnerships.

Now Gary did say he’d been communicating with the other two partners in the property these last six months. That would be the new ski area owner Vail Resorts and the county. That too would tweak me if I were on either council. As a partner, I’d want to know what they’re talking about with our property and if say, Vail is snatching up all or most of the proposed units for their seasonal employees. That too might be fine and is worth discussing but I’d want to be part of the conversation as a partner in the deal.

So… In my opinion, this has been an issue with little positive relationship building. Gatesco attorney Burgemeister tacitly admitted as much on Tuesday morning when he said that while people can take issue with the way Gatesco has done some things in this process and the tone of the communication, you cannot assail Gates’ commitment to the project. You in fact can, because for the deal to come to fruition, that commitment takes a trusted relationship with several personalities and partners instead of an adversarial attitude based in righteousness from either party.

That said, the commissioners gave the parties until Halloween to come up with a deal. Scary stuff. Any deal will have to start by draining the pool of mistrust and negative politicking and refilling the pool with honesty and respect. It won’t take long to see if that is possible.

At the end of the Anthracite Place grievance hearing on Monday, some members of the audience thanked the three-person panel for being open to listening and compromise. They said they appreciated the compassion and fairness of the panel seeing the issue in human and community terms.

“Hey, we’re part of the community too,” assured chairperson Carlos Velado.

At the end of the Gatesco hearing, commission chairman Jonathan Houck said it was a good meeting and “despite differences we are able to have productive discussions and I appreciate that.”

Cheers to both those sentiments.

It is that attitude that makes most of this stuff really work in the small town life we are living. Speak your truth. Be honest and respectful. Work together and let the chips fall where they will.

—Mark Reaman

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