Damned if they do, damned if they don’t
April 24, 2003
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” might be the motto of public office in Aspen, at least these days.
The seated City Council, with four of its five members seeking election to one post or another May 6, has been alternately accused of doing too little, doing too much or just plain doing it wrong.
Six challengers are vying to wrest council seats from incumbents Tom McCabe and Tony Hershey, while Mayor Helen Klanderud faces opposition from within and without. Councilman Terry Paulson and local TV talk show host Andrew Kole are trying to unseat her after one term at the council helm.
Only Councilman Tim Semrau, in the middle of his freshman term, remains above the election fray, though he has hardly remained safely out of firing range as the ballot box battle heats up. It’s enough to make Semrau think twice about seeking re-election in 2005.
“If you asked me today, I wouldn’t say no, I’d say, hell, no,” he said.
Dissatisfaction with the present council may or may not be more intense than usual. Observers are as divided on that point as they are on just about every issue framing this spring of discontent.
Recommended Stories For You
“I think we’re all unhappy with our present majority of City Council,” said council hopeful Cliff Weiss, referring to the contingent of Aspenites who butted heads with the council over the Entrance to Aspen last year.
Weiss and others battled unsuccessfully to prevent the city’s conveyance of open space to the state for a new Highway 82 alignment before the populace could vote anew on the entrance.
The council voted 3-2 to proceed with the already-agreed-upon land swap, then asked voters after the fact which alignment they preferred. The community endorsed the existing S-curves, but isn’t likely to get the other route back.
“How could they proceed with giving away land when they had no clear idea of what the community wanted?” Weiss said. “I think a lot of people in the community have become unhappy with that attitude.”
But council veteran Rachel Richards, who lost the mayor’s race to Klanderud two years ago, doubts the council is dodging more slings and arrows than usual.
“Elections always create greater scrutiny of past actions and a public reckoning,” said Richards, who has taken the council to task on various issues in her latest bid for a council seat.
The perception of great dissatisfaction, Klanderud contends, comes from a small but outspoken group of S-curves proponents that has produced several of this spring’s council candidates.
“It’s been very obvious in the past few months that a small group of people can make a great deal of noise,” she said.
Many others appear to be satisfied with their elected representatives, according to Klanderud, echoing the observations of some of her council colleagues.
“I don’t know that they’re happy with everything, but in general the comments I hear from the greater community are quite different from what a few individuals are saying,” she said.
Every decision is likely to displease some segment of the community, Hershey added. They add up over time.
“At some point, everybody’s mad at you,” he said.
Democracy or dysfunction?
Criticisms levied at the council of late have their roots in everything from residual indignation over the entrance issue to a sweeping zoning initiative dubbed infill, but at the core is an oft-repeated complaint that the council is not listening to the citizens, or even to each other.
Council meetings have been spicy during election season, conceded one member, but contention is nothing new in the council’s chambers. McCabe remembers plenty of fireworks when he and Hershey first took their seats at the table in 1999.
“It was better than Jerry Springer. We were yelling and screaming,” he said. “There was nothing but animosity.”
Richards, however, chides the present council for bogging down in personality conflicts that hamper decision-making.
“They do not seem able to communicate well enough to focus on the issues at hand, like passing a resolution to replace the Maroon Creek bridge,” she said. “Differing opinions are greeted with sarcasm. The public is often interrupted, and they interrupt each other.”
“You can look at the infighting that goes on at council meetings,” agreed Torre, a council candidate. “They don’t even work well together.”
“I think people don’t have as much accessibility to the council as they once did,” complained Paulson, who decried the end of the council’s informal Monday lunch sessions, where citizens often showed up to broach their concerns.
Klanderud offers a different take: The council reflects the divergent viewpoints of the greater community it represents.
“The fact that we disagree – that’s how it ought to be,” she said. “That’s not dysfunction.
“This current council, with its differences of opinions, represents nearly every constituency in this community – not as a whole, but among its individual members,” Klanderud added. “That has always been a positive thing about this council.”
“I’ve heard people say this is the best council,” Hershey agreed. “Do you want five people who all think the same?”
Certainly, current council members do not always think alike, though a review of past votes indicates they actually agree frequently. When the membership is split, alliances rearrange with the issues, noted Klanderud, who reviewed all of the council’s actions from the time she took office in June 2001 through March of this year.
She tallied 119 unanimous votes of the members present and 25 4-1 votes. The sole dissenter on 10 occasions was Paulson; six times, it was McCabe; four times, Klanderud; Hershey, three; and Semrau, one.
There were 16 3-2 votes, with six different combinations of council members on the losing end, according to Klanderud.
“It has been portrayed that there are always three people in this 3-2 bloc [Hershey, McCabe and Semrau]. It’s certainly not that way,” she said.
Retro vs. progressive
Regardless of who voted for what on a particular issue, the council’s record includes a number of accomplishments, several incumbents note.
Yet ask Paulson, who has the longest tenure on the council, about recent city achievements and he comes up empty.
“It’s funny when you try to think of the positives – all you can come up with is negatives,” he said.
The rewrite of the city’s historic preservation rules and its new “green” building code are both advancements, he concluded, though he criticized fellow council members for delaying implementation of the latter.
Several council members included the new historic preservation regulations among the group’s accomplishments. The new rules are more palatable to property owners and earned kudos from Colorado Preservation Inc.
The recently approved Obermeyer Place, a mixed-use project that will include housing, offices and new space for a number of local-serving businesses, will make Aspen proud, McCabe predicted.
The Aspen Recreation Center, under way before Klanderud and Semrau took office, opened this spring to an enthusiastic local reception. The council played a behind-the-scenes role in keeping the ice rink on track for completion when fund-raising efforts threatened to stall it, Semrau said.
“We jumped through a zillion hoops to keep that thing alive,” he said.
The city also finished construction of 99 units of additional rental housing for workers at Truscott Place – a project that, like the ARC, won approval during Richards’ administration.
If the newest council members get undue credit for the ARC, finished while they were in office, they also took the heat when the community decided the Truscott expansion was ugly.
The council has also revamped the operations of the housing office, handing design and construction to the private sector, which can create housing more cheaply and quickly, said Semrau, a builder who helped lead the privatization push.
Construction of 40 new one-bedroom units near the Aspen Business Center is slated to begin this summer. And the city is poised to break ground on the infrastructure for the first phase of Burlingame Ranch, a controversial project Richards has charged the council with delaying needlessly while Aspen’s downvalley exodus continues.
When Richards left office, Burlingame was “a mythical project,” Semrau countered. “We could never do it.”
Since then, the council has negotiated a new deal that allows the city to build up to 330 units instead of the original 225, which justifies the $9 million or so in infrastructure costs, he said. And for the first time, Semrau added, the city will be in the position to build housing as it’s needed.
Burlingame, which voters endorsed in August 2000, is often cited by those who complain that the council has dragged its feet. On the other hand, Paulson, a Burlingame opponent, wonders if the city is moving too quickly on the first 110 homes in a slowed economy, though no one will actually move in until 2005.
“Rachel says we’re not going fast enough on Burlingame. Terry says we’re going too fast,” Hershey observed. “So, I think we’re going at exactly the right speed.”
The claim that the council hasn’t done anything, Klanderud said, “relates solely to the housing. On the other side of that, there are many people in this community who are delighted when government does nothing.”
Several council members have painted Paulson as the leader of the do-nothing forces.
“Everything the council has gotten accomplished comes despite Mr. Paulson’s efforts to keep the status quo,” said Semrau.
“In a certain way,” he added, “this election will reflect whether a majority of citizens want to keep the status quo – have retro candidates and a powerless council.”
“There is a group of people who want nothing to happen – Bert Myrin is a perfect example,” Hershey agreed, referring to Myrin as a “snow-glober.” The snow-globe mentality, Hershey explained, is: Put a bubble over Aspen to freeze it in time and shake it up once in a while so it snows.
Myrin, a frequent council critic and early candidate in the council race before he withdrew, concedes he opposes change that jeopardizes Aspen’s character. Klanderud has expressed the same sentiment, as have a number of other council candidates.
“I don’t think the current council has accomplished much, at least so far as preserving our town,” Myrin said.
Infill, a proposed rewrite of the city’s land-use code to foster redevelopment and greater density, is among the biggest threats to the town’s character, according to Myrin and a host of others.
The legislation is still in the public hearing stage and several council members have indicated they won’t adopt it without changes, but it has nonetheless earned the council one of Aspen’s harshest labels: “pro-development.”
Oddly, “infill” was on everybody’s lips during the council campaign two years ago. As a concept, especially to put more worker housing in town, everybody liked it, Semrau recalls.
“The current crucifixion of infill by the retro group is a perfect example of `be careful what you ask for,'” he said.
While infill rules may allow projects that would have been unfeasible under the city’s current code, Aspen would retain its current 2 percent annual limit on growth. Actual growth has hovered around 1 percent in recent years, noted Semrau, expressing a willingness to drop the cap to 1 percent.
McCabe equates Aspen’s growth to a car traveling 2 mph, compared to communities with runaway growth that travel at 100 mph.
“Two miles an hour is making Terry dizzy – he falls off his bike,” McCabe said. “Most of us think 2 miles per hour is reasonable, it keeps us vibrant.
“What we’re all arguing about is zero or 2 miles per hour, essentially,” he continued. “We fight about it passionately. I think it’s healthy.”
Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com