Marilyn Marks: Guest opinion | AspenTimes.com

Marilyn Marks: Guest opinion

Marilyn Marks
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Councilman Jack Johnson’s column on Tuesday (“The controversy that doesn’t have to be,” Aug. 12) posed the question: “Are we really going to throw away years of hard work creating a housing program … because of a mistake in a brochure that should have never been written?”

I hope not. However, council continues to deliver bruising blows to the program and its previous widespread support, as they react to continuing bad news. Criticism and public scrutiny have not jeopardized the program; they have identified major funding problems and serious system weaknesses. Rather, poor management, the efforts to intimidate and silence critics, and misrepresentation of audit findings continue to undermine the public trust.

Workforce housing is fundamental to our resort town economy and character. Few people disagree. The health of the program relies on public confidence in the program, its efficiency, and in city leadership. Aspenites want to see the program regain its health. The tonic prescribed is willingness from our leaders to undertake a higher level of fiscal discipline, diligent assessment, and listening to new ideas and expert counsel ” the “increased transparency” to which Johnson refers.

Johnson continues, “This is a controversy that does not have to be.” Indeed, it should not be controversial. However, I believe that it MUST continue to be an important dialogue, perhaps at heightened levels, until that transparency goal is achieved.

Johnson asks us to blindly trust the city to become worthy stewards of limited housing resources, although all reviews from citizen experts and both auditors found the city lacks the experience, financial controls, and expertise to develop Burlingame. As Johnson suggests, read the audit findings. Ask why the Citizens Budget Task Force appointed a subcommittee to challenge the summary results.

In Burlingame I, the city wandered into the deep water of complex real estate development and got quickly in over its head, and is now headed into deeper waters of Burlingame II/III. The easy mark, grade-on-the-curve performance auditors say that the city is more than a year away from building the kind of organization to plan or manage Burlingame II ” if they start in earnest today. In short, the complex needs of the community outstrip the skill set in City Hall.

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Charging ahead without massive improvements in the systems and delivery model is begging for the deadening blow to the program. Some officials blame “anti-housing” forces, forgetting that nothing is more damaging to housing than squandering our limited resources. The difference between the city’s 2005 “known cost” and the increased cost through subsequent decisions and errors could have built approximately 150 more homes. What could be more anti-housing than permanently squandering the opportunities for 150 families?

Jack’s comments imply that the audits were investigations focused on fraud or corruption. Neither review was designed to be a forensic investigation, nor should they have been, in my opinion. The financial audit was to assure that the bookkeeping was complete and properly classified the expenditures as Burlingame costs. The performance audit was a review of systems and procedures ” improvement opportunities. Unfortunately, the city grossly misled the press and citizens in reporting audit results in a shameless attempt to exonerate themselves on issues of accountability. This troubling pattern of misrepresentation is continuing, even in the most recent statements by Mayor Ireland. So long as the pattern continues, the challenge needs to continue for Aspen citizens who care about the fundamentals of good governance.

I support the call for an objective, unbiased investigation by independent legal counsel, examining compliance with election laws during the city’s 2005 voter campaign. We still do not know the circumstances of how so many official communications to voters vastly understated the then known total cost and taxpayer subsidy. The questions continue to compound as more facts surface. The city’s explanations lack logic. The continuing pattern reinforces the need to fully understand and remedy the compliance shortcomings before we “move on.”

Burlingame II/III is the most valuable long-term opportunity our community will have to address a meaningful amount of our workforce housing need. It is a treasure which merits the time to thoroughly plan and optimize every aspect of the development. It merits a professional, experienced team of dedicated development experts to do so. I encourage council to strive toward that transparency goal to rebuild public enthusiasm for the housing program.

If our leaders are unwilling to lead the exploration of solutions in a thoughtful, responsible and transparent way, the community needs to seek other leadership. The passion for workforce housing is admirable, but passion without accountability and skills will lead to the bankruptcy of our already weakened program.

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