COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The absence of a city councilwoman Tuesday was key in the defeat of an oil and gas drilling measure in Colorado Springs.
The city council was deadlocked 4-4 in a vote proposing regulations for oil and gas drilling within the city limits. Councilwoman Lisa Czelatdko was absent because she's traveling out of the country. Under council rules, in that situation a tie vote becomes a failing vote overall.
"I don't know how (Czelatdko) would have voted," said Councilman Tim Leigh. "We came in expecting it would be a tie."
The council had been considering the drilling issue for the past 18 months. Part of the issue included the controversial "fracking" technique in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped at high pressure into the ground to retrieve hard-to-reach deposits of oil and natural gas.
A debate raged among council members and the public about whether "fracking" is hazardous to human health and a threat to the environment. Opponents demonstrated outside City Hall several times -- including Tuesday -- and two public hearings were held.
Around 40 people spoke during Tuesday's hearing, and only a few supported drilling. Although the state regulates drilling, the council considered adopting some local regulations as well, for more control.
"The regulations were so lax, that we had no control over where in the city limits (companies) could drill," said Councilwoman Jan Martin. "And there were no air- or water-monitoring requirements."
Ultra Petroleum recently suspended drilling in the Banning Lewis Ranch area of northeast Colorado Springs, describing results of the effort as disappointing. But there was growing concern that more companies would come and invest in drilling, both in Colorado Springs and in El Paso County.
During Tuesday's two-hour hearing, council members often scolded the standing-room audience for being disorderly. Leigh, clearly frustrated, said he wanted to shorten the hearing and vote immediately. But City Council President Scott Hente said he wanted to be fair and allow everyone who signed up, a chance to speak.
Eyebrows were raised when one speaker, Dave Gardner, of Citizens for Community Rights, passed out small jars of water to the council, saying they were samples of water from the "fracking" process. Gardner declined to explain where he obtained the water.
"I stole that from a scene in the Erin Brockovich movie," said Gardner. "I hope, I don't know if it was effective or not."
Councilwoman Angela Dougan, a drilling proponent, responded to hecklers who dared her to drink the water if nothing was wrong with it. She appeared to dip a finger in it and swallow a drop, which failed to satisfy the hecklers.
Council staff then gathered the jars and later poured the water down a drain.
"I wasn't personally scared of it," said Councilwoman Brandy Williams. "If it was something that exploded, that's a different story. But it really was a way to say, there it is -- this is what it's like right here in somebody's back yard."
When the vote came around 5:30 p.m., much of the audience stood, clapped and shouted in joy.
Council members Hente, Martin, Val Snider and Williams voted against drilling. Dougan, Leigh, Bernie Herpin and Merv Bennett voted for the measure.
Bennett said he wanted the city to have some control over drilling and believed the matter had been well-researched.
"Voting (no) takes power out of the city's hands and gives the state power," said Dougan.
Snider said he found the lack of support from the business community troubling, and enough of a reason to vote against the proposal.
Council members said the issue will resurface after new members are elected to the council next month, and it's hoped the new council will resolve matters the present council couldn't agree on.