Get Stuffed

Let us now give thanks.
It was one big, dysfunctional family reunited in U.S. District Judge John Kane's courtroom last week, picking at the carcass of this year's biggest turkey: Guide the Ride.

The $3.5 billion, or $8 billion, or $16 billion, or $20 billion (depending on who's counting) mass-transit measure crashed and burned at the ballot box three weeks ago, despite support from metro movers-and-shakers, including Mayor Wellington Webb and Governor Roy Romer, despite polls that showed the measure winning handily and despite the fact that Transit '97, GTR's booster group, outspent its opponents by sixteen to one. "Everyone blames the board for losing the election," says RTD board chair Ben Klein, the only Colorado politician certified sane (a requirement for retrieving his license to practice law back in the Seventies). "They need to blame themselves. These people are totally wrong to call the board continually dysfunctional."

You might think that the November 4 election results would have rendered moot any matters related to Guide the Ride, but then you would be the proud owner of a mind that goes quickly, efficiently, from point A to point B, with no detours in between. In other words, you would not be an RTD boardmember. This board never takes a direct route anywhere, unless it is going straight to hell in a handbasket, which is what many of the state's politicos thought last August when the RTD board approved a cap on Guide the Ride donations. People were welcome to donate to Transit '97, the board determined, but if they donated more than $100, they were not eligible for any contracts stemming from Guide the Ride.

And that meant just about anyone with a real interest in the $3.5 billion, or $8 billion, or $16 billion, or $20 billion boondoggle, whose vagueness about finances was only matched by its vagueness regarding actual transit projects.

But even corporate fat cats have the right to buy an election. It's a matter of free speech, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which stepped forward to file suit against the RTD board. In September, Kane concurred, granting a preliminary injunction. The judge set a trial date for November 20, sixteen convenient days after the election.

Even with the campaign cap removed, Guide the Ride tanked.
But there was still a legal leftover, so last Thursday, several members of the dysfunctional RTD family met in Kane's courtroom. Black-sheep boardmember Jon Caldara, who led the anti-Guide the Ride forces, had been subpoenaed.

Also on hand was boardmember and Guide the Ride supporter Jack McCroskey, known as the "father of light rail" for his politicking to get the demonstration line downtown in the early Nineties--and more recently as a traitor by civic boosters, who objected to McCroskey's insistence on a full accounting of GTR's cost. The lead ACLU attorney, Ed Ramey, had been an economics student of McCroskey's at the University of Denver, "a Keynesian for seven days" before the good professor got to him.

And then, of course, there were more lawyers, and pollsters, and one campaign contributor who was ready to testify that he'd been strong-armed by Transit '97.

Just one big dysfunctional family, which had sustained quite a shock two days before, when Big Daddy Romer announced that he was moving ahead with his own plan to build light rail along I-25 by asking the feds for $355.5 million and throwing in a spare $90 million from Colorado.

Although a meeting of metro leaders, including RTD general manager Cal Marsella, had learned that Romer planned to hijack RTD's responsibilities the day before, Klein learned of it only half an hour before Romer's announcement.

So now not only did the GTR campaign cap appear moot, so did the board that had passed it.

Ramey, who'd filed a "suggestion of mootness" with the court the preceding Monday, argued that "to proceed, we would need to conclude that there would be another referendum like this" (Romer's plan, however, requires a vote of Congress, not of the people) and that "RTD will adopt a very similar resolution." It felt unlikely, he said. "It's not a question of feeling, believe me," replied Kane.

But Jack Pfeiffer, the RTD board's attorney, was about to get downright touchy-feely. The people wanted campaign finance reform; another poll, this one by Floyd Ciruli, proved that, if he could just share it with the court. And, yes, given the opportunity the board would propose a similar campaign cap. "Eight people think they did the right thing," Pfeiffer said.

"They didn't," Kane snapped, "not according to my court."
Pfeiffer pressed on: "The ACLU will be back here with other nominal plaintiffs and press this matter," even though "evidence shows that 80 percent of the people believe contributions led elected officials to do things the public didn't want."

"You need to address those remarks to the Congress of the United States," said Kane. "I'm not in the business of running opinion polls."

With that, the judge put the brakes on RTD, ruling the matter moot, pending some discussion of the ACLU's fees.

Kane promised a written ruling next month. After that, RTD could "file your appeal, and go on your merry way upstairs." And so the dysfunctional family reunion ended, without the witnesses saying a word.

But RTD boardmembers have never had any trouble speaking for themselves. The board hasn't decided whether to appeal Kane's decision, Klein says, but the matter is "not as moot as I think Judge Kane decided." Nor is the matter of light rail, which Klein supports. "I don't care where the funds come from," Klein says. "I don't want to penalize the people. It should be built."

Clearly, though, Klein chafes at Romer's new role as the "martyr of mass transit," as well as legislators' recent suggestions that RTD either be moved under the Department of Transportation or returned to the appointed, rather than elected, board system it had two decades ago. "RTD is alive and well," Klein says, "but I don't know how well we'll be at end of session."

Klein is just warming up on the subject of Romer. "Both RTD and the people can't be bought with this flood of media stuff," he says. "Romer's endorsement is kind of the kiss of death...31 mayors and a zillion bureaucrats and $500,000 doesn't win the Guide the Ride election."

"He's messed with RTD during my seven years," Klein adds. Indeed, this is not Romer's first attempt to push mass transit. There was the MTDC, and the TCA, set up as a taxing district until McCroskey got it defeated in the legislature.

"It never ends in this city," says McCroskey, who once called Klein the "most hypocritical man I know," and is now his unlikely ally. "It never stops. There's no question in my mind that special-interest groups are taking over government more and more."

But McCroskey gives Romer credit. "I have to applaud him to a degree," he says, "I have long thought the major problem facing us is along I-25 and Colorado Boulevard." But Romer is wrong to exclude RTD, he says. After all, he points out, "RTD can borrow money, the state cannot."

Caldara thinks Romer is just plain wrong. First, there's that exit poll the governor cited, which argues that the people who voted against light rail actually support light rail. It was conducted by Talmey-Drake, the firm responsible for the poll the week before the election that predicted an easy victory for Guide the Ride.

"It's remarkably insulting," Caldara says. "The people voted. Doesn't that mean anything? Why won't our politicians listen?"

Listen, for example, to the only poll that counts: the actual vote on November 4 that wrung the neck of that turkey.

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