Seven squirm in council race | AspenTimes.com

Seven squirm in council race

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Hot topics from both past and present elections were discussed Friday at a Squirm Night forum for Aspen’s seven City Council candidates.

But first on the agenda was the candidates’ views on council responsibilities, as well as their roles as community representatives.

Each of the seven candidates was asked early in the debate at City Hall to remember a time they dealt with an angry customer or member of the public. Some challengers stated that this subject spurred them to run for election in the first place.

“I think it’s important that people feel as if you actually listen to them,” candidate Lisa Markalunas said. “Too often in public government, people are not treated with the respect that they deserve.”

Incumbent Tony Hershey, whose treatment of those who address council meetings has been criticized at times, explained his stance. When citizens address the council to “come up with an issue that’s clearly been resolved,” council members must drive the point home, he said.

“I think Lisa’s right – you have to listen. But you also have to be honest,” Hershey said.

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Candidates had a variety of suggestions for keeping the peace in council chambers. Incumbent Tom McCabe, a former parochial school student, remarked that he wears a tie to every council meeting “to make me behave myself.”

Affordable housing projects – Burlingame Ranch, in particular – also sparked debate among the candidates. Discussion of the Burlingame project divided the group as they argued the merits of a new housing complex.

Pepper Gomes supported his vote against Burlingame in August 2000, stating that he was “running more along the lines of recycling the housing we have now.”

Cliff Weiss also denounced the project, questioning its proposed location.

“I voted for Burlingame, but have since changed my mind,” he said. “I’d be much happier to see it built somewhere else.”

“Like where?” countered Hershey, a three-year councilman.

Rachel Richards, Aspen’s mayor at the time of the Burlingame vote, expressed her interest in proceeding with the project to counter the loss of middle-class families and younger citizens to downvalley communities.

“I respect that [2000] vote, and I want to proceed with Burlingame,” Richards said.

Torre voiced fears that affordable housing creates “cement boxes” rather than quality homes for families. However, he supported the Burlingame project Friday – as long as the units are reserved for those who “keep the community vital.”

He said he recently spent 45 minutes with an Aspen resident frustrated by the city’s affordable housing program.

“It’s number one on my priority list,” Torre said. “But my concern with Burlingame is what’s being built, and who is it going to?”

Markalunas questioned the growth of the Burlingame project from the 225 units originally proposed to the 330 units currently planned. Hershey defended the changes – in order to make Burlingame a financially viable option, he said, the city had to make the project larger.

“To make this project work, we increased the number of units,” he said.

Hershey said the project will be “phased” to prevent sprawl. The first phase will see 110 units, and the project will add units “as needed” over the next decade. Burlingame could then provide a “`spare gas tank’ of housing,” Hershey said.

Candidates had only a brief discussion about the preservation of Shadow Mountain. Both council challengers and incumbents expressed their interest in “saving” Shadow Mountain from developers. Hershey and McCabe pointed out that they were currently working with the county to resolve the issue.

A discussion of the city’s proposed infill legislation was also short, as a question from an audience member asked only if the candidates had “actually read” the infill ordinance. Many candidates agreed the proposal needs work.

“I think it needs some changes,” McCabe said.

“Honoring past votes” was also a frequent topic of discussion Friday. Council candidates were polled for opinions on seemingly resolved topics, such as undercover police work – all said it would have a negative effect on the community – and the 30-year-old entrance to Aspen debate.

Gomes called the entrance a “mind-bending problem” that he would be willing to examine as a council member. Weiss agreed.

“The solutions [presented] so far aren’t in scale with the community,” he said.

Weiss suggested that improvements to the Maroon Creek bridge and the intersection of Highway 82 and Cemetery Lane would, in turn, improve traffic congestion. Hershey and Markalunas also supported a petition for a new bridge, and called for a better mass transit system to help cut down on the S-curve bottleneck. Torre supported bus-rapid transit funding that would promote mass transit improvements.

Richards also supported a new Maroon Creek overpass, along with an improved bus system, but asked that Aspen “move past the [entrance] debate to bigger things” affecting the community.

Though McCabe said he could still “make a case” for the straight shot, he would respect the November vote and work to optimize the S-curves if re-elected.

Friday’s forum was largely civil – that is, until the last question of the night was posed by an audience member. Aspen resident Lenir Drake charged council incumbents with “rushing” the transfer of the Marolt property to the Colorado Department of Transportation last fall, and asked about the possibility of getting the easement back.

Hershey and McCabe defended the decision as forum mediators attempted to bring the evening’s discussion to a close.

“If we hadn’t done it, I’m thoroughly convinced we’d be in court right now” with Pitkin County and CDOT, Hershey said.

Jennifer Davoren’s e-mail address is jenniferd@aspentimes.com

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