Koch reflects on 40 years of politics in Aspen
Ryan Summerlin April 6, 2014
The future of fur, the Battle of the Ritz and the recall of four Aspen City Council members were all decided in 1990, with national and foreign press awaiting the results. Journalists from as far away as Japan arrived to film City Clerk Kathryn Koch — custodian of city records and elections — as she counted the ballots.
“People were really emotional about both the Ritz and furs and the recall vote,” said Koch, who is retiring at the end of April after 43 years of public service. “One of the important things about working in the City Clerk’s Office is that Aspen is made up of many different ideas, strong ideas, and you need to take them all seriously, listen to them all, treat them all the same. So you don’t really have an opinion.”
Three council members — including Mayor Bill Sterling, who was accused of pushing his own personal agenda, in part, because of the idea to ban fur sales in Aspen — were retained, while a fourth council member was removed. Prohibition of fur sales was shot down 1,701 to 898, while the Ritz-Carlton, which is now the St. Regis Aspen Resort, won approval. Aspen voters were presented with two options: the Ritz’s development plan or the city’s, which was more restrictive on height and square footage. Voters chose the hotelier’s version, 1,561 to 1,059.
In all the turmoil, Koch found her job interesting but “incredibly stressful.” After 40 years of City Council meetings, she acknowledges that Aspen remains divided over the same issues as it was in 1990 — height, mass and scale of major development projects.
Even going back to the 1970s, she remembers one meeting that went to midnight, as the council and community members debated a major rewrite of land-use and subdivision standards. She said they had to call Toro’s, a Mexican restaurant, to keep the kitchen open.
By 1980, the city wanted to reduce the seven-member council to five members. Some were under the impression that having fewer voices, and fewer long-winded opinions, on the board would mean shorter meetings. She laughed at the idea and said, “That didn’t prove to be true.”
“I’ve worked for nine great mayors, really bright, really committed, and the same with the council,” she added.
With fewer members on the board, voters also were asked at the time if they wanted to approve salary hikes, from $400 a month to $550, for the council. The question won, 884-883. Koch said there was no request for recall, and nobody asked to see the ballots, which, she said, would not have been the case with such a close vote today.
Koch said Aspen hasn’t changed much physically since she arrived in the late 1960s as a “hippie of sorts” from Palo Alto, Calif. She didn’t fall in love with the place instantly. For a year and a half, she lived as a stay-at-home mother, trying to raise her daughter and meet friends during her first marriage. Her first day of employment with the city was Jan. 1, 1971, when she began working as chief secretary for the Aspen Police Department. She said it was in the new job that Aspen began to make sense.
This was around the same time as Aspen’s “Hippie Trials,” when the city’s police magistrate, Guido Meyer, and his men were put on trial in Colorado’s first civil-rights lawsuit for harassing long-haired transients. She remembers then-Police Chief Dick Ritchie embarrassing himself when a few kids lifted his keys, handcuffs and nightstick.
“We didn’t let him go out again by himself,” she said.
During her third year with the Aspen police, the city decided to make city clerk an appointed, rather than an elected, position. That decision didn’t sit well with Koch’s predecessor, who ended up quitting.
“I went to the City Council and said, ‘There’s only one person perfect for this job, and that would be me,’” she said. “And they said, ‘OK.’ That’s a way that (Aspen has) changed. That’s not how we do things anymore.”
Today, every city position is fully vetted, which Koch said is not a bad thing. Another way the town has changed, she said, is that there are no more locally serving retail shops, places where you can find what you need: “flannel shirts and long hippie skirts.”
Koch said more young people lived in town when she first moved here, too. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that people began to move downvalley, she said, and back then, there were no buses to Glenwood Springs.
“I had friends that lived on Cemetery Lane, and I thought that was really far away,” she said.
In her retirement, Koch said she’s looking forward to a few things: reading with her three book clubs, knitting and continuing to make costumes for Aspen Community Theater performances. She’s also looking forward to having an open schedule on Monday nights, when the council meets. That way she can attend more classes, like “From Athens to Aspen,” at the Aspen Institute.
Koch does not want to relinquish all election duties. She’s already told her successor, Linda Manning, that she will be happy to help, and if it’s not necessary, she will serve as an election judge. She joked that she’s also been threatening Gram Slaton so that he’ll hire her at the Wheeler Opera House.
“I love Aspen,” she said. “I think there is so much to do here and stuff that I probably don’t know about because I’ve worked all these years. I just think we’re so lucky, when you think about it. You can go to the Wheeler, the Writers’ Foundation, the Institute or go to the jazz club at the Little Nell. It’s just endless the things you can do, and I’m hoping to do more of them before I run out of money.”
Koch’s husband, John, works as a lift mechanic on Aspen Mountain, and her daughter, Megan, works for the Aspen Historical Society. She has three grandchildren, who play sports for schools in Basalt.
“So John and I find ourselves in the position of cheering for Basalt against Aspen schools,” she said.