Denver frets over antistress ballot initiative

One man's long-shot proposal has prompted a mile-high debate over how to tackle day-to-day pressure.

All he is saying is, give peace a chance.

That's what Denver activist Jeff Peckman serenely replies to the critics and naysayers who blast his singular scheme for reducing stress in Denver: He wants to require the city to implement communitywide stress-reduction measures - such as mass meditation sessions, piping soothing music into public buildings, and serving natural foods in school cafeterias. And he's gathered enough signatures to put the proposal to a public vote on Nov. 4.

Entitled "Safety Through Peace," Initiative 101 ambitiously claims that by employing techniques proven to reduce stress, the city will "help ensure public safety by increasing peacefulness." Moreover, it declares that reducing Denver citizens' stress levels would result in "reduced war and terrorism," plus a net financial gain for the city.

With promised benefits like that, who wouldn't vote for it? In fact, that's exactly the feedback Mr. Peckman says he got when collecting the 2,462 signatures required to get the initiative onto the ballot. "The response was, 'Who would be opposed to this?' People saw that it was needed, and that there was no risk," he says.

Talk of the town, and elsewhere

Somewhere along the way, the tide apparently turned; the upcoming vote has become imbued with something of the air of a sideshow. And thanks to the proposal's "say what?" factor, it's shot quickly into the orbit of worldwide media attention, with headlines blaring from Hungary to Taiwan.

Commentator George Will jeered that Denver is "competing with California to be the capital of low political comedy" - and soon may be passing out incense on city buses. Even Rush Limbaugh weighed in (none too kindly). Meanwhile, some of the most outspoken opponents of the proposal are Denver's own City Council members - who would be charged with implementing the ordinance. Their biggest gripe? The whole thing is stressing them out.

"I think it's an embarrassing thing for the City and County of Denver when you have a Looney Tunes initiative like this around," rants City Councilman Charlie Brown. "This is a waste of our time when we have serious issues to deal with."

Offers Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriquez: "I think stress is clearly a significant issue in this country. But I think that anyone's stress issue is a personal journey, and outside the purview of government."

And heck, "some people thrive on stress," she says.

Put another way, one person's plan for stress-reduction may be the recipe for another's bad day. Or, it could be that having to field yet another phone call from an intrigued journalist has outworn council members' tolerance for far-out citizen-initiated ordinances.

"This isn't California; this is Denver, Colorado. If people want fantasy, they can go to Disneyland," exclaims Councilman Brown. "I live in the real world."

Promoting awareness of stress

Not everyone has concluded that Peckman is on a Rocky Mountain high, however.

Editorials in the Waco, Tex., Tribune-Herald and the Journal Tribune in York County, Maine, suggested Peckman might be onto something worth trying. That's all he's asking for, says the Denver activist: "The idea is to get a discussion going. Stress is a global epidemic."

Peckman is a walking advertisement for the lifestyle he encourages. He practices Transcendental Meditation and yoga, listens to sitar music, and eats organic foods. Even in the face of widespread criticism, he emanates inner calm.

Although Peckman suggests options he says are proven to reduce stress, the ballot initiative doesn't dictate specific techniques that Denver should adopt, but leaves that up to the City Council. If approved, the ordinance would give the council six months to devise and implement a plan of its choosing.

Denver: the New York of the West?

In Denver, a picturesque city near world-class ski resorts and mountain recreation, citizens aren't known for off-the-charts stress. They tend to be laid-back and outdoorsy. But this city of roughly half a million has its share of crime. "Every city has too much crime, and every city can do things to significantly reduce stress and violence," says Peckman.

From Brown's perspective, Denverites' stress will decline the moment the ballot measure is defeated. "This is New Age religion that he's trying to force on our New West city," he says. "But we're going to return to our Old West common-sense values and soundly defeat this in November.

"If people want to practice yoga or do Transcendental Meditation, that's absolutely fine with me," he adds. "My wife's at a yoga class right now. But do it on your own time with your own money. Don't force it on the city and force taxpayers to pay for it."

Ensuring "public safety and domestic tranquility" is precisely the responsibility of government, counters Peckman. "We the people said that's why we wanted to create government."

For many, the question isn't whether stress reduction is a worthy goal, but whether government should be mandating citizens' personal lifestyle choice.

Denver resident Peter Heller, an author and poet, says he doesn't buy the notion that stress reduction should be the province of government. It's dangerously close to social control, he says. "I do believe global change begins in the heart of an individual. But do you want to give something this important over to the hands of government?"

Still, Heller finds the stress-busting initiative amusing. "It's written so loosely that city government doesn't have to do anything," he says. "And no one's going to put up with New Age music being piped into elevators."

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