Lawmakers Fuming Over State Hiring A Mediator

Opponents Say Lawmakers Should Negotiate Over Bills

Republican lawmakers are fuming over a decision by the Ritter administration to hire a professional mediator to help craft a bill that would guarantee tenant rights, calling it a waste of time and public money.

The mediator, Steve Charbonneau, said he was paid $5,000 by the Colorado Division of Housing for six months' work to build a consensus among landlord and tenant rights groups to back the bill.

He said the deal fell apart in February when lawmakers and lobbyists got involved.

Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, said it was wrong for the administration to bring in a mediator. McElhany, who objects to the bill, said it's the job of lawmakers, who often work with lobbyists to draft legislation, to negotiate and carry bills.

"It's outrageous. That's what we're supposed to be doing. You bring in both sides, close the door and see if you can resolve their issues," McElhany said.

"We shouldn't be in the business of using taxpayer funds to mediate their pet project bills," said Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial.

Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs, sponsored the measure (HB 1356). He said the state has been trying since 1969 to regulate low-income housing partly funded by federal community block grants.

Kathi Williams, director of the Housing Division, said it was time to try something new. She said Colorado and Arkansas are the only states that have refused to pass legislation known as warranty of habitability, and that Gov. Bill Ritter backed her decision.

She said the money came from community development block grants which allow 2 percent to be used for administrative purposes. Hiring Charbonneau fit federal guidelines affecting the $40 million spent in Colorado each year for safe and affordable housing, she said.

"This is one way to demonstrate to the Department of Housing and Urban Development we are fulfilling all those goals," Williams said.

Groups that participated included the Colorado Association of Realtors, the Colorado Apartment Association, the Rocky Mountain Home Association and affordable housing activists, Williams said.

Merrifield, who sponsored a housing bill last year, said he didn't ask for a mediator for this year and did not know how the Division of Housing paid for it. But he noted that landlord and tenant groups have years of bad blood between them.

"Both sides would have to be able to say there was give and take and it was negotiated in good faith for this bill to succeed. I think we got a lot further than we would have if we did not have a mediator," he said.

Merrifield said Charbonneau persuaded landlords to agree to a very basic warranty that an apartment has four walls, a roof with no leaks, hot and cold running water and a sewage system that works. He said tenants groups agreed not to pursue fines in exchange for making it easier to get out of leases.

The consensus fell apart when landlords requested that tenants provide a list of defects in writing and time to fix the problems. The bill is currently on hold, awaiting action in the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee.

Charbonneau, who teaches courses on mediation at the University of Colorado-Denver, said it was the first time he has worked on legislation. He said he excluded lawmakers and lobbyists because he wanted to provide both sides a "safe environment" to negotiate.

"The way they've done this in the past was for one side or another to draft a bill and the other side takes shots at it. It's easier to take it apart than to be constructive," he said.

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