Aurora lawmakers debut new oil pacts, discuss council ethics and transparency


    AURORA | A bevy of controversial topics will be front and center for Aurora City Council members this week: oil and gas development operator agreements, home developer impact fees and a proposed ethics code.

    Council members are expected to discuss two operator agreements with two oil and gas companies during Monday’s study session. Axis wants to operate four wells in Aurora and Conoco Phillips has plans for nine well sites within city limits. 

    The agreements assert that both companies and the city have agreed to regulation terms that are more protective than what the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and Air Quality Control Commission. That was the goal many council members said they were seeking when they approved the ability to use operator agreements earlier this year.

    Council member Johnny Watson said at a previous meeting he believes the operator agreements are exactly what SB181 — the new law that allows local governments to make decisions about and regulate oil and gas development — aims to do.

    But much of what the companies and the city agree to in the draft contracts are based on current state regulations under the COGCC. Legislation this year changed the mission of the state agency to focus on environment, health and safety. 

    Councilwoman Nicole Johnston, who was a vocal advocate of SB181, previously told the Sentinel she still feels there is a need for the city to adopt its own rules and regulations around oil and gas development because the state’s regulations are pre-SB181. 

    “It’s really important to be proactive. Any applications that come in are based on current code, which doesn’t have standards that focus on the health, safety and environment,” she said.

    Earlier this month, council members were told by staff that provisions of upcoming operator agreements could be the basis of regulations council members may adopt.

    City council members have long been discussing the operator agreements in private, during executive session. Under the new agreement process, applications receive a public hearing before city lawmakers take a public vote on the agreed upon terms.

    If council members agree to send the agreements forward, they will have to be formally adopted during a regular city council meeting.

    During the group’s regular meeting, council members Charlie Richardson and Marsha Berzins, who is a candidate for mayor, are bringing back an ethics ordinance that was squashed in November with a vote from Mayor Bob LeGare.

    Then, the proposal faced harsh criticism. Councilwoman Angela Lawson called the bill “flimsy.” Councilwoman Allison Hiltz said she envisioned a “nightmare scenario” if the proposed ethics code was passed.

    Richardson, who is up for re-election this year, disagreed. “It sets up a pathway for citizens to file a complaint and sets how that process works and what the end result will be,” he said of the proposal in November. “I just think it’s going to be extremely beneficial.”

    Johnston had drafted her own ethics ordinance to be presented to a city council committee, but her efforts were thwarted with the introduction of the Richardson and Berzins proposal. It was first introduced in a committee meeting under the “miscellaneous” section of the agenda. It was never obvious to the public the two were planning on introducing an ethics code — some council members said the move was disingenuous, particularly for an ethics proposal.

    In November, Johnston said the failure of that code was a second chance to introduce hers, but it hasn’t yet made an appearance.

    Council members are expected to give approval to a new schedule for impact fees, which have long been the lowest in the region. The fees are paid by home developers for services the city provides to residents, such as fire, police and transportation.

    Council members Charlie Richardson and Angela Lawson are looking to codify certain rules pertaining to the Colorado Open Records Act, referred to as CORA, in the city code. The state law gives direction on how state and local governments should handle requests for public documents.

    The duo wants certain rules, such as eliminating applicable fees for a page that is more than 50 percent redacted, collecting certain data on requests and city residents receiving additional help to refine a request. 

    The proposal also includes practices that are considered standard or law now: Like, citing specific exemptions authorizing specific information being kept from the public and responding to a request within three days — that’s written into the CORA law.

    “The ordinance as presented poses no significant changes to the City’s overall CORA practices. Should Council adopt the ordinance, the City will make adjustments as needed to align with its provisions,” city staff wrote of the general impact of the overall proposed changes to city code. “The City has always met CORA deadlines and expanding its efforts to make public documents more accessible to citizens.”

    The city received 1,009 CORA requests in 2018, according to city documents. In 18 of those requests, the requestor apparently abandoned their effort after a cost estimate was offered by city staff.