E-mail shows Union Station officials sought to influence public comments submitted for project

Union Station.

Denver Union Station’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, prepared by the Regional Transportation District and other local agencies, is one of the final pre-construction steps in the station’s protracted redevelopment. It’s also one of the last chances the public will get to officially comment on the project before the feds green-light it. And people have seized this opportunity to weigh in, submitting so many concerns about the project to be included in the Final EIS that officials behind the document decided to take matters into their own hands.

An e-mail obtained by Westword revealed that yesterday, the last day allowed for public comments about the station, Gina McAfee, RTD’s Union Station EIS project manager in charge of collecting the comments, contacted Denver City Planner Ellen Ittelson about lining up more upbeat public comments to be included in the Final EIS. In an e-mail titled, "We are getting a flood of comments inn on DUS – all negative," McAfee, an environmental planner with Union Station consultants Jacobs Carter Burgess, wrote to Ittelson, "Can you get some folks to write something positive? About the wing walls and also just about the project as it is now configured? By the end of the day?"

Ittelson did as requested. She forwarded McAfee’s e-mail to community members associated with Union Station, appending a note: "This is the last day of comments on the FEIS for Union Station. There has been a flood of negative comments. Can you get a few people to e-mail positive comments today? I'll be happy to help compose the basics if you can recruit a few people."

"It’s not out of line at all," said Ittelson when asked about the e-mail. "Given the current EIS and the backing and involvement of people in the plan that underlies it, I think it is appropriate to ask for their opinion because there has been a lot of misinformation coming in from other people. So we are trying to get a balanced view."

Recently, Open Space Initiative Group, a citizen advocacy organization, has been vehemently speaking out against the plan to build wing buildings on either side of Union Station’s historic train depot. On the other hand, says Ittelson, "People who have been working on this for years may be taking this stage for granted."

To remind folks about the Final EIS, Ittelson says, "I’ve asked for comments regarding the project from a few people I know who have been participating for years. They could send whatever they wanted."

Speaking on behalf of McAfee, Roger Sherman, chief operating officer for lobbying firm CRL Associates and RTD Union Station spokesman, said this: "I talked to Gina, looked at the e-mail, and I read into it that she has been involved with the project for a long time, since its inception, been here for the long public process that has occurred and knows that the plan in its current configuration has widespread community support. She saw that comments were strongly biased and wanted it to be balanced. She looked at it not at all wanting to influence anything, but wanted to make sure people in the community who have been involved with the project – and they are numerous – that their silence not be misconstrued as not supporting it, when we know there is a lot of support out there. She just wanted to make sure that the known widespread support in the community is reflected in the comments received. Not to sway comments one way or the other, just to make sure there is a balance to the comments."

In the process, however, she may have caused a PR train wreck. -- Joel Warner

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner