There’s something about Marilyn Marks
June 30, 2008
ASPEN ” Meet Marilyn Marks, City Hall’s newest foe. A relative newcomer to Aspen, Marks is an activist who won’t let up in getting to the bottom of the Burlingame boondoggle, which has raised more questions than answers when it comes to finding out how much the affordable housing project really costs.
Marks, 55, is responsible for finding the error published in a city-produced brochure circulated to citizens shortly before a May 2005 vote on Burlingame, a planned 236-unit development across from Buttermilk.
City officials have apologized for the misleading brochure, which told voters that the total project would cost $74.3 million when in reality it’s nearly six times that. The taxpayer subsidy was supposed to be $14.7 million but now city officials say the total taxpayer subsidy will be $85.5 million.
Top city administrators and some members of the City Council would prefer to put the mistake behind them, move forward and continue building much-needed affordable housing at Burlingame.
But Marks continues to persist, believing that city government has lost control of its spending on the Burlingame project and taxpayer money is at stake. She is searching for answers but is finding it difficult to get them.
That’s partly because some officials are done talking to her and others have reached the peak of their frustrations with her constant requests for information.
Government officials and elected leaders say Marks has ulterior motives to privatize affordable housing and is playing a political game to jump start the next election cycle. She counters those accusations by saying she is simply a concerned resident who believes Aspen’s government is not as open as it should be to public scrutiny.
While many have varying opinions of Marks, they all agree that she’s focused ” almost to the point of obsession ” with Burlingame and other issues relating to government policy. She shares that view of herself as well.
“There’s nothing more dangerous than a retired person with time on their hands who cares,” Marks laughed.
Perhaps her biggest political enemy, Mayor Mick Ireland reserves his comments about Marks.
“She’s bright, tenacious and dedicated to what she believes in,” Ireland said. “I don’t want it to be personal and I don’t want it to be between me and her.”
Those who have worked with Marks on policy issues, or on the housing subcommittee of the City Council-appointed Citizen Budget Task Force, have described her as crafty, highly intelligent and focused.
“If it weren’t for Marilyn’s hard work, none of the Burlingame numbers would have come out,” said Ward Hauenstein, a fellow subcommittee task force member who has worked with Marks for the past three months on reconciling Burlingame’s costs.
“Marilyn is obviously very motivated and a very cool cat,” Hauenstein said. ” I also think the biggest thing that works against Marilyn Marks is her drive.”
Those on the receiving end of her curiosity can expect dozens of e-mails in the middle of the night, early in the morning and varying times of the day. She is relentless in asking city officials to cough up documentation and she is at nearly every City Council meeting with her laptop juiced up and her cell phone within texting range.
City Councilman Jack Johnson, who lashed out at Marks earlier this month in a public meeting, has gone so far as to block her e-mails and refuses to meet with her.
When Marks speaks to the council during public comment, there are plenty of rolling of the eyes by elected leaders, as well as those who have worked with her on the task force.
Marks wasn’t always involved in civics and in the face of public officials.
She moved to Aspen in 2002, after coming here for a vacation. A friend had a house, where she stayed for 10 days shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Marks immediately fell in love with the city and rented a home six weeks later. She bought a house on West Francis Street shortly after.
A retired CEO and owner of a trucking company in Atlanta, Marks was seeking respite after her company, Dorsey Trailers Inc., went bankrupt after 15 years of her running it as a lucrative business.
Marks started her career as a certified public accountant in the late 1970s and went to work for a conglomerate that encompassed well-performing businesses and one that wasn’t ” Dorsey Trailers.
“I thought it was a diamond in the rough,” she said, adding that despite her repeated requests to be transferred to Dorsey so she could manage it, she was given a job as troubleshooter for the conglomerate. “They didn’t promote women to those positions then.”
In 1987, Dorsey was put up for sale and with only $75,000 to her name, Marks was able to raise $20 million to buy the company, which was losing $500,000 a month. Within three months, the company was making a profit.
She said strokes of luck like landing UPS and Fed Ex as clients helped turn the company around.
Coincidentally, while running Dorsey, Marks competed against the Crown family, which owns the Aspen Skiing Co. The family also was in the trucking business.
“I respected them even though I lost deals to them fair and square,” Marks said. “The Crowns took major industry positions, and put safety and quality above profitability.”
Marks said she took the company ” which generated $250 million a year in sales and had 1,300 employees ” public in 1994. Eventually she sold the majority of shares she owned, which allowed her to focus on new endeavors. In 2000, she left Dorsey to start an Internet-based company. Marks stayed on as chairman and hired a new CEO at Dorsey.
“I took my eye off the ball and 11 months later, we were in bankruptcy,” Marks said. “The meltdown happened almost instantly.”
After salvaging what she could at Dorsey for creditors, Marks came to Aspen for a break and to regroup.
“I’m still on that 10-day vacation,” she laughed, although those in City Hall would hardly consider Marks on vacation or in retirement.
Marks said she was completely committed to her neighborhood in Atlanta, with plenty of friends in the area and family close by in Charlotte, N.C.
That wasn’t the case in Aspen.
“I didn’t know a person,” she said, recalling that when she had to sign some paperwork for her home, she was unable to list three local emergency contacts.
Marks said she was attracted to Aspen because of the cultural offerings, the natural beauty and the lifestyle was more informal than city life.
She learned to snowboard at the age of 50, and pursued bike riding and photography as hobbies.
The daughter of a Baptist minister and a school teacher, Marks said nearly everyone in her family pursued one of those professions. Marks has one brother; she was married once a long time ago and has no children.
“It was hard not to be the black sheep of the family,” she said. “They don’t understand me at all.”
That appears to be the case in City Hall as well.
Marks had no desire to follow local politics, or be involved in it. As a property owner, she got involved initially by attending a few City Council meetings on legislation designed to prevent older homes from being demolished and replaced with bigger, more expensive ones.
The treatment one citizen received from City Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss after she spoke about how the legislation would negatively affect her prompted Marks to write a letter to the editor.
“It was the first time I said a word about civics,” Marks said. “J.E. said the woman was dishonest and what he was saying was totally out of line. I didn’t know her or J.E.”
The day the letter appeared in local papers, Marks said she received several calls from citizens who cheered her on.
Then one July day last year, Marks was reading the local newspapers, which reported the City Council had passed an emergency ordinance restricting properties 30 years old or older from being demolished.
She gathered some friends and went to City Hall that evening for a public meeting on the issue.
“I couldn’t stand the thought of the process, the public not commenting on it,” Marks said. “I took issue with the way it was done, without any public process.”
That was the beginning of Marks’ civic involvement in Aspen. She hasn’t stopped since. She and another activist, Mike Maple, spent countless hours with city staff rewriting the historic preservation ordinance, which is still being considered by a citizen task force in which Marks is involved.
City Councilman Dwayne Romero, perhaps Marks’ only supporter on the council, told her she will lose her complaining rights if she didn’t apply for a city-appointed board. She said she applied to the Planning and Zoning Commission and Historic Preservation Commission. She wasn’t picked for either of them.
But she was selected to sit on the housing subcommittee of the Citizen Budget Task Force, which she resigned from earlier this month after she received a tongue lashing from some City Council members.
Elected leaders apparently lost their cool and let out their frustrations after months of Marks’ relentless involvement, but it was prompted because she paid GrassRoots TV to tape a work session regarding Burlingame.
When the task force learned that elected leaders planned to ask voters this fall to approve up to $75 million in bonds to finish Burlingame, Marks was assigned the task of tracking the project’s finances.
“I really thought this was going to be a 10-minute project and here we are 90 days later,” she said, adding the numbers keep changing by the day and no acceptable answers are being offered by city officials.
“In late April, I realized these numbers aren’t making any sense and they couldn’t reconcile them,” Marks said, adding that an April 30 task force meeting when her numbers were presented changed the dynamics of her relationship with city officials, who went on the defensive.
Some of Marks’ colleagues on the task force said her biggest downfall was to make the Burlingame issue a witch hunt and her attempt to assign blame as if there was some conspiracy or malfeasance.
Andy Modell, a supporter of Marks and an observer of local politics, said it’s difficult to stand by yourself in a fight against City Hall. He said he admires Marks for that.
There’s plenty of talk about Marks within City Hall among elected leaders and staffers, all of which has been based on speculation on what her motives are and who she is. She has been called a house flipper, and has been accused of contributing to illegal campaigns, setting up political action committees and planning to run for local office. Some think she is anti-housing.
None of it could be further from the truth, she said.
“If I am a house flipper, I am terribly unsuccessful at it,” she said about her home that’s been on the market for more than a year. She plans to build on an empty lot off of Cemetery Lane once her home on West Francis Street is sold.
Marks takes a more serious issue with other accusations, which she said is damaging to her reputation in the corporate world.
The bottom line for Marks is good governance and transparency ” two buzz words she continues to use in council chambers that raise the cackles of some public officials.
“There is nothing more anti-housing than wasting money,” Marks said. “I am for a government that welcomes the public process and handles criticism. I’m not seeing that right now.”