A tale of two civic activists

Rare breed of citizen takes daily stake in the community

Posted 10/29/08

Peter Jones From a beach chair in Clearwater Beach, Fla., vacationer Sue Rosser called a reporter on her cell phone to talk about Centennial’s …

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A tale of two civic activists

Rare breed of citizen takes daily stake in the community


Peter Jones

From a beach chair in Clearwater Beach, Fla., vacationer Sue Rosser called a reporter on her cell phone to talk about Centennial’s efforts to go home-rule. Her husband, Mark, sat nearby, bemused and not altogether surprised by the turn his day on the beach was taking.

Discussing a city’s efforts to garner increased autonomy under the Colorado Constitution may not be on the typical vacationer’s itinerary, but Sue Rosser is not your typical vacationer, nor is she your typical Centennial resident.

Since moving in 1998 to what was then unincorporated Arapahoe County, Rosser, 58, has become one of the city of Centennial’s most devoted civic activists — the rare breed that regularly attends city council meetings, volunteers weekly for civic functions and understands the workings of city government as well as most city officials do.

“I should be doing more, I think,” she said of her seemingly nonstop activities.

The retired geologist and mother of two grown children made her unlikely transition to full-time interested citizen in 1999. She had heard rumblings that a plan by Greenwood Village to annex the Park Meadows mall included taking part, but not all, of her neighborhood and that the only way to stop it would be to found a new city first.

“I realized that the South Metro area was at a crossroads, and if we allowed Greenwood Village to proceed as they wanted to proceed, we would never be able to reel things back again,” Rosser said.

Around the same time, her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, was moved into a nursing home — a development that pushed Rosser to re-evaluate her priorities and venture into the world of unpaid public service.

“For a woman who was very valuable in teaching a lot of lessons, the most profound lesson my mother ever taught me, she was oblivious to,” Rosser said. “What you have in the end is your legacy and your family.”

Before long, a new civic activist was carrying petitions door to door and stopping her neighbors at the grocery store to tell them all about a plan to found what would become the City of Centennial.

A night at the city council

As the Englewood City Council deliberated the merits of a proposal to prohibit smoking on sidewalks near Swedish Medical Center, Matthew Crabtree sat in the back row taking copious notes on his laptop.

“As city councilmembers, you have the opportunity to help myself, help my unborn child, help our neighbors have a peaceful life,” citizen Derek Ball testified, arguing that the hospital’s efforts to prohibit on-campus smoking would encourage hospital visitors to smoke in front of his nearby house instead.

Later, when a representative from the Colorado Band Masters Association detailed the matter-of-fact particulars of parking plans for an upcoming Englewood marching band competition, Crabtree was still typing away with studious abandon.

The 26-year-old in the back of the room is not a newspaper reporter, nor is he the city clerk. And he is not being paid for his time or typing skills as he sits through countless hours of Monday night discussions of code enforcement, land development and tax issues.

“I believe in community involvement in government. That’s how our vision of democracy works best,” Crabtree said. “When I’m sitting there — and sometimes it’s literally just me, not even city employees — there’s somebody from the public sitting there. If I wasn’t there, who would have been there to make it a public meeting?”

For more than a year, as chairman of Englewood Citizens for Open Government, Crabtree has made it a point to attend virtually every regular meeting and study session of the Englewood City Council. The resulting “minutes” are posted to his organization’s Web site, englewoodcitizens.org. Plans call for eventually making audio recordings of the meetings available, too.

According to Crabtree, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the city’s official minutes as transcribed by the city clerk. But it can take more than two weeks for those notes to become available to the public, he said.

Granted, there may be few citizens anxiously awaiting the release of city council minutes, but there is another reason Crabtree has become a fixture of the Englewood City Council.

“I really do enjoy it,” he said. “I’m happy with where I live. I think the city has fantastic potential and when I get to those city council meetings, it’s just an injection of information about the city.”

But Crabtree adds, “Sometimes there have been topics that have been a little bit on the yawn side.”

It takes all kinds

A small group of political gadflies and council chamber regulars is part of the fabric of many cities and towns. But as a result of young Centennial’s contentious incorporation effort, many of the city’s residents have a greater-than-average personal stake in the 7-year-old city — one in which many of its baby-boomer-age founders still walk the city sidewalks.

“Our civic activists have ownership in this city because they helped form it,” said Centennial’s founding mayor, Randy Pye. “They’ve been there since the beginning and they take it really personally if we do something that doesn’t fit quite right for them. I think we will always have the Sue Rossers and I hope we do because she is intelligent and sees things from a perspective that helps us.”

Rosser has burned enough calories for membership in Centennial’s hard-core league of foot soldiers. She says she walked virtually every neighborhood street in west Centennial while carrying petitions in support of the incorporation.

“If you give me a Centennial address, I’m like GPS,” she said. “If I read in the paper that some kid was arrested in the 6300 block of South Raven — that’s Heritage Village. I can almost picture it.”

In a world of busy lives and a depreciating dollar, the life of a civic activist carries its share of social bewilderment. Rosser’s dedication to all things Centennial has sometimes caught her loved ones and friends by surprise and amusement.

“My family just rolls their eyes,” she said. “But they’ve said they’re really proud of what I do. My husband is so patient about all this. I know a lot of people in the community who can’t be as active because of their spouse.”

Among local reporters, elected officials and her fellow civic activists in Centennial, Rosser is known as one of the more useful all-purpose sources about goings-on in the city.

When a onetime reporter for the Centennial Citizen inherited a list of phone numbers from the journalist who had previously had the job, Rosser’s entry read, “a woman who knows about everything that’s happening in Centennial.”

Citizen Rosser’s passion for the community has gone beyond a tolerance for four-hour meetings on land use. Her lifestyle stretches into helping her neighbors directly — not just ensuring that their local government is serving them.

Rosser helped introduce a location-detection device for wandering Alzheimer’s patients to the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, Centennial’s law enforcement provider. She also works weekly with Meals on Wheels, a service that delivers cooked food to the low-income elderly.

“I think in different ways, all these things help the citizens of the South Metro area,” she said. “I don’t know that parking issues can in any way be compared to just making sure some elderly person has a meal. But I think both of those things help people with their quality of life.”

After almost 10 years of low-profile support work, Rosser recently took the next step of running for office last year when she served on the Centennial Charter Commission, the 21-member unpaid body that drafted the city’s new home-rule charter. In May, she was elected to the board of directors for South Suburban Parks and Recreation.

Neighborhood politics

Crabtree first began attending Englewood council meetings more than a year ago after buying his first home in the city. He says an over-the-fence conversation one day with a civic-minded neighbor made him realize that the city council had been operating in something of a public vacuum. It was a disappointing revelation for one of the city’s newest taxpayers.

“There seemed to be no community involvement,” he said. “I had always pictured city council meetings as a packed audience and everybody’s there to discuss what’s going on.”

According to Crabtree, without a watchdog — or anyone, for that matter — in the audience, a city council can tend to become lazy about decorum and adherence to the “sunshine laws” that require open government meetings.

“Oftentimes, council is there by themselves and it really creates a lackadaisical feeling. Policies and procedures might fall out of place at that point,” the activist said.

Crabtree’s enthusiasm for civics has yet to catch on in the city of 33,000. Englewood Citizens for Open Government boasts about eight or 10 members by its founder’s estimate.

A broadcast engineer by profession, Crabtree would like to see the council’s actions take a more prominent role in the public square and hopes that the council will eventually broadcast its meetings as some area cities do on public-access channels.

Although Crabtree sees his council monitoring as a public service not unlike the volunteer work he does for Habitat for Humanity, at least one councilmember has expressed skepticism about his organization’s motives.

“I don't know what their agenda is or their complaints are concerning decisions made by city council,” said Councilman Bob McCaslin in a public meeting in September. “… I would like to ask this group to have an open dialogue … or invite us to their meeting, so we can work in the best interest of the citizens and not just special interest groups.”

According to Crabtree, his only “agenda” regarding council meetings is simply to be there. He estimates that he spends about 15 hours a week taking minutes, reviewing city documents and performing other functions that he says keep the public informed and the city council in check.

“I think the whole process is fascinating,” he said.

Anatomy of an activist

Civic activists come in many forms and attitudes — from the one-issue, public-comment regulars and would-be city council aspirants to the citizen who publishes his own city-oriented magazine.

Such interested citizens can play an important function in local government as long as they understand their role, said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, a coalition of most of the state’s cities and towns.

“I admire them, though some view them as a pain in the neck,” he said of the civic activists he has met when traveling through Colorado. “I look at these folks as people that are interested in local government. But they’re not elected officials. They’re not policy makers. If they wish to be, they need to take the next step.”

Many do. Pye was elected the City of Centennial’s top official in 2001 after serving as a leader in the original incorporation movement and taking an active citizen’s role in the Arapahoe County governance that preceded Centennial.

“I guess there are some of us who have this in our DNA and we find this interesting,” he said with some irony in his tone. “I hate to use the word ‘hobby,’ but it’s an interest of ours. We enjoy it. It’s a little like entertainment.”

Very little, according to some.

Crabtree remembers being approached by a bewildered Englewood city employee one evening after a particularly dry council meeting they both had just endured.

“He says, ‘Wow, I’m paid to be here and I have to be here. You just show up to these. You need to get a life.’ He was joking around. He’s a great guy. I didn’t take offense at all,” Crabtree said.

Mamet says he has lightheartedly made the same suggestion about life discovery to a number of citizens who have recognized him from his appearances on government-access television.

“People watch this stuff and they love it,” he said.

For Rosser’s life, the line between her civic and social worlds has become blurry.

“Through the incorporation, I met so many people who have remained friends,” she said. “They’re Democrat, Republican, gay, straight, old, young.”

According to Pye, that diverse array of activists has played a sometimes crucial part in the civic process.

“They are a second set of eyes for us because there are some times when elected officials get caught up in the trees,” he said. “Interested citizens have a tendency to bring a different perspective.”

For example, Pye says he recently changed his mind on a sales-tax issue as the result of a conversation with an active Centennial resident.

While Rosser has transitioned into lower-profile elected positions, Crabtree is comfortable in his role as a sort of civic watchdog and says he has no plans to run for public office.

Both are content with what they say is a sometimes uneventful, but important lifestyle choice — one they are convinced has made a difference in their communities.

“It’s not just the political stuff. On Monday, I combed fur balls out of a cat for a lady,” Rosser said of her Meals on Wheels duties.

As for Crabtree, he confesses that he is in a minority among the 20-something adults in his circle.

“I’m not really terribly into sports, so watching football on Monday night, that’s not really a concern for me,” he said. “Some of my friends think I’m crazy. But this makes me happy.”

Citizens play active role in city government

A common reaction: Do you have a life?


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