United Way teaming with Colorado Springs Forward to shape public policy
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A longtime community organization that relies on a corps of volunteers for quality of life issues is working with a newly formed organization that has the goal of shaping Colorado Springs public policy.

Pikes Peak United Way is ready to appoint a task force to study three issues that rose as top priorities in dozens of community meetings in recent months. Those issues are education, income and health.

Simultaneously, a group of businessmen and women have pledged to spend $100,000 to campaign in favor of a stormwater initiative on the ballot in November. It's the first major agenda item of Colorado Springs Forward, a group modeled after Colorado Concern in Denver made up of 100 CEOs who spend money on political campaigns and issues.

Both efforts were born out of frustration over the local political scene and a feeling that the city was in a holding pattern, said John Cassiani, executive director of Colorado Springs Forward.

"The Regional Business Alliance and the Housing and Building Association were having discussions saying this city is not going in the right direction," he said.

Cassiani said his group's mission is to work with other organizations to affect public policy. It has met with business organizations and nonprofit and neighborhood groups.

In April, United Way president and CEO Jason Wood brought in public innovation expert Rich Harwood to talk to a group of people about reclaiming Main Street. Hundreds of citizens who attended United Way community meetings said the No. 1 reason why planned programs were stymied was political rancor and personal agendas. They were ready to work on programs and issues, they said, even if it meant doing so without elected officials, Wood said.

At the same time, Colorado Springs Forward incorporated and filed its 501 (c)(6) paper-
work with the state. People were tired of watching the city's executive and legislative branches fight over which branch controlled which aspect of the city's budget, Cassiani said.

"It wasn't the kind of discussion that a progressive city who is trying to grow the economy would be having," he said.

Colorado Springs Forward has a goal of raising upward of $400,000 to support candidates in city elections and local ballot issues. The group is interviewing potential candidates for the three at-large City Council seats up for grabs in April. Cassiani said there has not been a decision on which candidate the group will back for mayor.

While United Way sees its role as changing from only funding programs to actively leading local initiatives like employment and affordable housing, it needs to work with a group that can affect policy, said board member Stephannie Finley of the United Way.

"I think what Colorado Springs Forward is trying to do is the public policy piece of it," Finley said. "United Way is not political. Colorado Springs Forward can be political, and politics is not a dirty word."

In the past year, the city's executive and legislative branches have agreed publicly on one project: a tax-free zone around the city's airport to help attract aeronautical business. But the two branches have clashed on every other issue, from City for Champions to paying for stormwater and drainage projects. There have been dueling press releases and press conferences. Elected officials use the word collaboration and then a political storm is played out in the media, for example, around spending money for pothole repair.

Colorado Springs Forward supports the council-mayor form of government, Cassiani said. But the group may be interested in a review of the city's charter "to make sure the defined roles are clear and the infighting stops," he said.

Among the 500 people who have signed up to be part of Colorado Springs Forward, none are elected officials. City Council president Keith King and councilwoman Jan Martin said elected officials were not invited to be part of the group.

"It will be interesting to see what they do," Martin said.

In May, Harwood told about 200 people at a United Way luncheon that citizens could force change in political dialogue by doing one small project at a time and demanding that politicians listen to them.

Wood said the United Way task force, which will be named in October, will work on an initiative dubbed "cradle to career" that includes education, income and health. Some of the programs may include early childhood education and post-high school education and training to fill gaps in the local job market such as in the manufacturing industry. Job training also is among the goals of Colorado Springs Forward, Cassinani said.

"We put items on the public agenda that they wanted on the public agenda," Wood said. "We invited them to be a part of the process."

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Contact Monica Mendoza: 636-0187

Twitter @Mendo1987

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