Voters to decide whether to let more Sunshine in

Controversial group has big presence on council ballot

Posted 10/9/17

A loosely affiliated community activist group with a core of longtime supporters known for their opposition to a variety of development efforts is seeing renewed attention this fall, as several central figures are running for city council.

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Voters to decide whether to let more Sunshine in

Controversial group has big presence on council ballot

Posted

A loosely affiliated community activist group with a core of longtime supporters known for their opposition to a variety of development efforts is seeing renewed attention this fall, as several central figures are running for city council.

Key figures of Sunshine say the group is only a weekly discussion meeting of active citizens, with no dues, charter or membership roster. Because the group takes no official stance on city issues, proponents say, it cannot be held accountable for the actions of its attendees. Opponents, however, call it a stumbling block to progress that employs scare tactics to make its points.

On this year’s ballot, three of the nine city council candidates are closely associated with Sunshine: at-large incumbent Doug Clark, at-large candidate Carol Brzeczek and District 3 candidate Carol Fey. At-large Councilmember Peggy Cole is also a regular attendee of the group’s meetings, meaning if the three candidates won, four of Littleton’s seven councilmembers would be associated with the group.

The group was often called the Sunshine Boys in its early years, said Marty Bolt, one of the group’s handful of founders, who is today the group moderator. The name was an allusion to “sunshine” laws that govern transparency in government proceedings. Eventually the group dropped the “boys,” as it had grown to include many women.

Opposition positions

Sunshine is largely known for what its attendees have opposed. The group was founded in 2002 to oppose a grocery tax, said Bolt, who was once the chairman of the state House District 38 Republicans. Other original members were Libertarians and Democrats, and today the group claims attendees of a variety of political affiliations.

Since then, a search of Littleton Independent articles finds the group associated with opposition to:

• A new police station in 2004.

• A lifting of the TABOR revenue collection cap in 2006.

• A proposed Wal-Mart on the Ensor property on South Santa Fe Drive in 2007.

• Council’s use of executive sessions in 2013.

• Urban renewal efforts that kicked into high gear in 2014.

• City Manager Michael Penny, who was fired by council last year.

• The Grove, the apartment development currently underway at Littleton Boulevard and Bemis Street — opposition that is still making its way through the courts.

“What we do is collect the obvious facts and problems with ideas that are being pushed, and see the real negatives in what’s going on,” Bolt said. “Any time the government gets off on a high horse, the bad parts need to be discussed and exposed. But we have no set of objectives.”

Brzeczek, a local activist who served on the Littleton school board in the early 1990s, insists the group does not speak as a unified voice.

“Some people give Sunshine a whole lot more credit than it deserves,” said Brzeczek, a regular attendee since the days of the police station proposal. “It doesn’t work that way. We don’t tell councilmembers what to do.”

Brzeczek has been a torchbearer for a number of issues associated with Sunshine, such as the initiative that led to the near-total abolishment of closed-door executive session privileges for city council in 2013. Among the strictest executive session rules in the state, the measure meant that council actions normally conducted in private — such as personnel matters and discussions of real estate deals — are conducted in the open. Last year’s firing of Penny, including an airing of grievances against him, was conducted in open council.

Brzeczek is also a central figure in opposition to the city’s urban renewal efforts, creating Your Littleton Your Vote, a political action committee that championed Issue 300, which required urban renewal efforts to go before a popular vote — and passed by a wide margin.

Petitioners for Issue 300 misled people into thinking that swaths of the city would face condemnation and eminent domain, said Mayor Pro Tem Debbie Brinkman. Brzeczek said she can’t speak for what every petitioner told people, and that the city’s urban renewal proposals did include eminent domain mechanisms.

Why can’t we be friends?

On Sunshine, Brzeczek said anyone interested in how the city is run can attend the group’s free and open meetings, held every Friday at 8:30 a.m. in a nondescript strip mall storefront at 6520 S. Broadway, a few doors down from Solid Grounds Coffee House.

“You can sit and participate or sit and listen,” Brzeczek said.

Not everyone has felt so welcome. District 3 Councilmember Phil Cernanec said he used to attend meetings but stopped after Bolt told him to stop taking notes.

“I have ADD,” said Cernanec, who is seeking another term in the Nov. 7 election. “One of the ways to deal with that is to take lots of notes. Lots of people in the group take notes, but Marty singled me out and told me I couldn’t, so I quit going.”

Bolt said he didn’t like Cernanec’s level of participation.

“Phil wasn’t a participant, but he was still taking notes,” Bolt said. “When somebody’s taking that many notes, I want to know what they’re going to do with them.”

Bolt said he didn’t tell Cernanec to stop taking notes, but drew attention to it.

Fey, a regular Sunshine attendee who along with Steven Esses is challenging Cernanec for the District 3 seat, has made her opposition to Cernanec and his role in the approval of The Grove a central theme of her campaign, going on the attack at a recent candidate forum against what she characterized as his indifference to her concerns about an earlier proposed development in her neighborhood.

“I tried to talk to my District 3 representative about working with the city to oppose a building that was twice the size zoning would allow,” Fey said. “He told me ‘don’t even try — the developer always wins.’”

Fey has recounted the exchange in press releases, campaign events, emails and interviews, though she said she’s “determined not to make this a personal thing.”

Cernanec said the exchange never happened.

“I just wouldn’t say that to someone,” Cernanec said. “I’m a councilmember. I wouldn’t tell a citizen not to bother getting involved.”

Fey said her frustration with the city goes beyond Cernanec.

“There are several hundred city employees, and they aren’t necessarily friendly or helpful when you first call,” Fey said. “They become that over time, but they don’t like hearing from citizens because they think it means complaints and trouble. Not everyone, but a lot of them.”

Critics open up

Some councilmembers who have dealt with Sunshine activists don’t hold much love for the group.

“They have an agenda and they are pushing it hard,” Brinkman said in an email. “They don’t stop at stretching the truth, hiding the truth, and fictionalizing reality to make their point and to gain support.”

Brinkman said that Sunshine’s opposition to The Grove has falsely centered on the notion that citizens were shut out of the approval process, though the project was approved as use by right through the normal zoning process. The claim is currently being fought out in court.

Brinkman expressed concern at the thought of adding Sunshine members to council.

“There is an overall theme of anger and negativity that permeates from them,” Brinkman’s email said. “I would hope that their fevered pitch of anti-everything would be toned down so that there can be a healthier level of discussion and debate. Their continued trajectory backwards doesn’t serve the community and its future.”

District 1 councilman Bill Hopping said he sees hypocrisy in the group’s actions.

“This is the group that fought the historic designation of Main Street, which is Littleton’s heartbeat and a regionally and nationally recognized cultural icon,” Hopping said in an email. “Yet now they complain about the loss of downtown’s historic culture. They fought a building that would have been built at the Grove location and would have had much less impact than the Grove, then complain about the Grove.”

City Manager Mark Relph said the group enjoys no special influence in his office.

“The city manager has a responsibility to listen to all groups and favor none,” Relph said. “I see Sunshine as no different than many groups I have to reach out to periodically. I don’t make a value judgment about them — I just listen. My role isn’t to discuss their influence.”

A different perspective

Another slate of council candidates has emerged, drawing support from business interests seeking to counter Sunshine’s influence.

District 1 candidate Patrick Driscoll, and at-large candidates Karina Elrod and Kyle Schlachter — both of whom serve on the city’s urban renewal board with Brzeczek — have drawn endorsements from board members of the nascent Littleton Business Chamber. Elrod and Driscoll have also drawn sizable campaign contributions from the group, city documents show.

Driscoll acknowledged that he represents a different wing of the race.

“There’s a pro-business, pro-growth slate,” Driscoll said. “That’s reality.”

“Everything I know about the Sunshine group is skewed, because it’s the view of a few people — or a lot of people,” Driscoll said. “But I don’t really know them. Nobody’s reached out to me to have a conversation. I get what their agenda is, and that’s not looking for a lot of change. I’m hoping at some point I get to meet these guys and find out why they’re pushing back on moving Littleton forward.”

Elrod could not be reached for comment, but Schlachter was reserved on the matter of Sunshine.

“I wouldn’t call them a positive or negative influence,” Schlachter said. “They’re a voice. They work on a variety of topics. They could do more to bring in younger residents and new residents. I haven’t seen a lot of new faces. They invite a broad range of guest speakers, but the core seems to be static.”

Whether it wins more seats on council, regular attendee and councilmember Doug Clark said the group will continue to work to be a resource for concerned citizens, adding that the affiliations of council members ebb and flow.

We’ve had situations with four Sunshine folks on council in the past,” Clark said. “I don’t think the world came to an end.

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