Cortez City Council voted Tuesday to allow citizens to appear in person for public comment at its next meeting.
Council consulted with Southwest Memorial Hospital’s Dr. Kent Aikin on safe ways to open meetings to the public. The motion, which passed by a slim margin, requires that individuals wear masks and pass a health screening at the building’s entrance. Capacity will be limited to the guidance provided by the state’s COVID-19 dial.
Montezuma County is at Level Blue on the dial. Indoor, seated events can be held at 50% capacity or 225 people, whichever is fewer.
“I think that we need to be taking steps towards being regular council chambers,” said Councilor Robert Dobry. “This is a public meeting. It needs to be open to the public. It needs to be as accessible as reasonably possible, as well as be safe.”
Dobry also mentioned that not everyone has the necessary computers and internet connections to join the meetings online.
Others on the council were hesitant.
All but one of the council members were present at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Councilor Orly Lucero said that he would not feel comfortable attending until he received the second dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
Public comment has been conducted over Zoom to this point.
Councilor David Rainey felt that it may be too soon to have the public present for meetings.
“I think we should approach this with caution,” Rainey said.
The measure passed on a 4-3 vote, with members Lucero, Rainey and Huckins against it.
Council unanimously voted Tuesday to purchase new body cameras, Tasers and an upgrade to the interview room recording system for the Cortez Police Department.
A public hearing on the matter will take place at the council’s March 23 meeting.
The five-year contract with Axon Enterprise would cost $69,206 for 2021 and $66,456 for each of the next four years.
The Axon interview room will cost $28,326. Total cost would be $363,356, spread over five years.
The department was an early adopter of body cameras.
But some of them require replacement, and the department will need cameras for every officer to comply with a state law going into effect in 2023.
Its current Tasers are past their end of life, and a new interview recording system would allow the department to manage all digital evidence on one centralized cloud-based server.
Eighteen cameras are shared among 30 officers, and five are inoperable. Officers coming off duty must dock their cameras to download captured video and charge the battery. Officers starting their shift have to pick a camera that has finished uploading its video and will be charged enough to last for 12 hours.
“You can probably get into the weeds and say that 18 cameras is sufficient as long as on officer that’s on duty has that on,” Police Chief Vernon Knuckle said. “But in a critical incident, if I had to call out all of my officers to take care of something, they all will have to have a camera.”
City Attorney Mike Green told council members that the new cameras would be helpful in ensuring that officers are protected legally.
“One of the biggest things when you’re looking at civil litigation is to have evidence proving you didn’t do it, or that it didn’t happen the way it’s been said,” Green said. “This looks like a huge step forward for the city to have this evidence. As a former elected district attorney, this should make the DA’s life so much easier and sweeter.”
The contract with Axon would mean 30 new cameras for the department.
Council also signed off on Knuckles’ request for money to hire a new assistant chief of police.
Knuckles told council members that his patrol and detective lieutenants have too many added responsibilities at this time.
The department’s patrol lieutenant is responsible for managing the patrol division, dispatch center, animal shelter and community services.
The detective lieutenant oversees the detective division, records division, evidence and property and the victim advocate coordinator.
Both lieutenants also have additional responsibilities such as maintaining training standards.
“It spreads them so thin that often times things get missed because there’s just so much to keep track of.”
Knuckles argued that the hiring of an assistant chief would allow those lieutenants to dedicate more time to their respective divisions.
The new hire would handle many day-to-day operations, allowing Knuckles to focus on community relations and the long-term future of the agency.
“My policing philosophy leans toward community policing and less of the traditional arrest and summons,” Knuckles said.
The assistant chief would also be a clear second-in-command that could take over in the event that Knuckles is absent.
Knuckles is a member of the National Guard.
Knuckles told the council that he has two qualified candidates within the department.
“That’s a thing that’s very important to me,” Knuckles said. “If there’s somebody within the agency that’s qualified, that’s where I’d want to go.”
The additional cost to the 2021 budget, between the salary, computer equipment and office furniture, would come out to $131,147.
The motion passed unanimously.
Other city business Tuesday night included setting a June 8 date for a special election that would give Cortez the option to provide its own internet services.
Council also approved a multi-year contract with Atlas CPAs to get to work on the city’s backlog of financial audits.