Voter turnout lags behind the last Pitkin County coordinated election

Just days away from the Nov. 7 Election Day, the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder’s Office reported the elections process is running smoothly, but voter turnout is just over half of what it was during the 2021 coordinated election at the same time.

“We had a little bit of a state system issue when we were starting our mail ballot processing yesterday, but they got that fixed. We are totally up to date with our processing,” said Ingrid Grueter, Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder. “We got in from drop boxes this morning about 140 more ballots, which we’ll be processing today.”

According to the state of Colorado, Pitkin County had 13,385 active, registered voters in 2022. The county sent mail ballots out to active voters in early October. She said 2,354 ballots have been either mailed back or dropped in a ballot box, 33 rejects for signature or I.D. discrepencies, 31 ballots cast by early in-person voters, and 430 ballots returned to the clerk’s office for an inaccurate mailing address.

“We are, at this point, in early voting and in the lead up to the election,” she said. “(We’re at) only about 60% of ballots received of what we got in the 2021 coordinated election.”

Grueter said she and others speculated that maybe because this cycle’s ballot has fewer state issues and no county or city issues, though there are still a few days left before election day. In total, she estimated about 5,000 ballots were cast in the 2021 Coordinated Election.

If a voter needs to cure their ballot by verifying their signature or I.D., they have until eight days after the election, Nov. 15, to do so by contacting the clerk’s office. 

Coordinated elections usually draw low turnout, so the clerk’s office brings on a tight roster of election judges to assist with the election process. Grueter said this election has about 30 election judges this cycle and recruiting them was not a challenge. 

Mandated by state statute, the Clerk and Recorder’s Office recruits its election judges from a list of interested people provided by local Democratic and Republican parties. Grueter said that her office dismissed one election judge last year for partisan language and behavior, but apart from that blip, her office has seen minimal disruption.

“The rest of them work great together – they make friendships, they understand how the system works,” she said. “And to actually work as an election judge of the best things to show you how safe it is and all the hoops we jump through to make sure that (elections are) safe and secure and anonymous and all that.”

She estimated that about three-quarters of their election judges are party affiliated, while one-quarter are unaffiliated. In Pitkin County, about 52% of registered voters are unaffiliated, 34% registered Democrats, and 13% registered Republicans, with the rest spread amongst smaller parties. 

While election judge recruitment has gone smoothly for Pitkin County so far, Grueter said that her office is already thinking about 2024. After the threats on election staff and partisan extremism witnessed nationwide in the 2020 General Election and 2022 Midterm Election, Pitkin County is making some adjustments. 

Mainly, they plan to move their in-person polling place to the Aspen Police Department’s community room. 

“This election, in person, is in our county offices, but that room is not large enough for the kind of turnout we have in the bigger elections,” Grueter said. “And we have historically used the Jewish Center, but with the whole worldwide geopolitical situation, we weren’t sure if that was a great idea. That’s only one of the reasons. The other reason is logistically – it’s going to be way easier to have our presidential primary next door (to the county building) than across town.”

If a voter never received or misplaced their mail ballot, there is still time to get a replacement ballot at the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder Office, open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday for replacement ballot pickup and early voting.

Election Day is 7 a.m-7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 7, with the sole polling place at 530 E. Main Street.

Financial reports show prominent Republicans backing Lauren Boebert’s primary opponent 

Several prominent Colorado Republicans are supporting an opponent of U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert as she prepares to run for re-election next year, according to campaign finance records made public this week.  

Republican Jeff Hurd, a Grand Junction lawyer, will run against Boebert in the June 2024 primary. He raised $412,000 between his campaign launch in August and the end of the reporting period Sept. 30, while Boebert raised $854,000 from July to the end of September.  

One of Hurd’s Republican financial supporters is Mesa County Commissioner Cody Davis — who once supported Boebert. Other supporters include former Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, former Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn, former University of Colorado President Bruce Benson, former Colorado Rep. Tim Foster, and Chris Murray who served as a longtime attorney for the state Republican party.  

Boebert, a Donald Trump-backed firebrand who has generated national headlines throughout her time in office, made headlines again last month when she was ejected from a Denver theater during a performance of “Beetlejuice” for talking loudly and vaping. She initially denied the disruptive behavior but later apologized after the surveillance video confirmed she had done so. 

“This was just the straw that I think broke the camel’s back for a lot of people,” said Dunn when he was reached by phone Tuesday.

Dunn added that he recently invited a group of Republicans to attend a fundraiser for Hurd and had a 100% success rate.

“I’ve never had that happen,” he said.  

Others who donated to Hurd include Fred Yarger, Colorado’s former solicitor general under Attorney General Cynthia Coffman; as well as Daniel Ritchie, a chancellor emeritus of the University of Denver; and Cody Kennedy, who serves on the Grand Junction City Council. 

But while Hurd seems to be pulling in flashy names with big donations, Boebert is touting her “grassroots-led campaign,” pointing out she’s seeing more small-dollar donations. Nearly 60% of her donations this quarter were less than $200. Only 3% of Hurd’s donations were in that category. 

“That is definitely part of the plan — expanding that percentage of small-dollar donors as time goes on,” he said. “The strong start that I’ve gotten from the donations I received so far will be used to build and grow on the small-dollar donators who are critical to the success of this campaign.” 

While his relatively successful fundraising could indicate he will be a strong contender, he will still have a lot to overcome to have a chance at defeating Boebert. The congresswoman, who has previously been endorsed by Trump, will have the benefit of both name recognition and running the same year as the former president.  

Polling from one of her Democratic challengers, former Aspen City Council member Adam Frisch, showed the district’s voters would prefer Trump in next year’s presidential race. Trump polled 5 percentage points ahead of President Joe Biden in the survey, 49% to 44%. 

“It’s a tough primary to beat her,” Suthers said.  

He added that he believes if Boebert is the candidate, Republicans will lose the seat, which is a key district in the national fight for control of Congress.  

Hurd had spent about $57,000 so far and had $356,000 in cash at the end of the reporting period. 

Boebert had spent $1.8 million, with $1.4 million in cash at the end of the quarter.  

Russ Andrews, another Republican challenger, raised about $38,000 during the reporting period and loaned his campaign about $251,000. He spent $41,000 during the past quarter.  

Aspen’s Adam Frisch, running against incumbent Lauren Boebert in Colorado District 3, talks to his supporters at a watch party at Belly Up Aspen on Nov. 8, 2022, in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Democratic challenger

Frisch, the Democratic challenger who lost to Boebert in 2022 by only 546 votes, raised about four times more than Boebert during the most recent reporting period, with a whopping $3.4 million. About 65% of his donations came from donors who gave less than $200. 

The polling released by him, which was conducted in August, showed a statistical tie in a hypothetical rematch between himself and Boebert in 2024. 

He so far this year has spent $3.8 million.  

Frisch has the third-highest fundraising receipts in the country for House candidates, according to the Federal Election Commission. He had $4.3 million in cash on hand at the end of the quarter. 

He will also face a primary challenger with Grand Junction Mayor Anna Stout announcing her candidacy for the position in July. 

She has raised about $101,000 and spent $60,000.  

All the other candidates in the race have raised less than $100,000.  

Glenwood Springs’ Cole Buerger announces run for Senate District 5

Glenwood Springs resident Cole Buerger has entered the race for Senate District 5.

The seat, currently held by incumbent Perry Will (R-New Castle) after he was appointed in early 2023 when Bob Rankin resigned, is up in the November 2024 elections.

Buerger, 40, is running as a Democrat. Montrose Mayor Barbara Bynum is the only other Democrat so far entered. Will has also filed with the state and confirmed with the Post Independent on Monday that he is running. 

For Buerger, his new campaign emphasizes that the Western Slope has essentially been addressing the same issues for the past decade without yielding enough results. This includes finding solutions for Interstate 70 infrastructure through Glenwood Canyon, affordable housing needs, water conservation, mental health resources and more, Buerger noted.

“What that shows me is that the same old way of thinking, whether that’s the Republican way of thinking, or the Democratic way of thinking in certain respects, is not answering our questions, it is not solving our problems,” he said. “We’ve got to have people who are willing to rattle the cage a bit and take a different path than we’ve taken before.”

Buerger, who in 2022 also ran for House District 57, lost by 2,385 votes to current incumbent Elizabeth Velasco, D-Glenwood Springs, in last year’s primaries. But for this new race, SD5 has historically been held by Democrats for the past 20 years before it was redistricted in 2021 and Will was appointed later on.

Buerger suspects another factor supporting his 2024 run falls on a separate federal seat  — Congressional District 3 and how this high-profile political arena has affected its voters over recent years.

“When you look at the federal level — certainly with our Congresswoman here (Lauren Boebert) — people are starved for pragmatism and leadership,” Buerger said. “They are starved for voices that are focused on their kitchen table and not on distractions and noise tactics.”

Will, having represented HD 57 from 2018-22 and SD5 for one session now, is a moderate traditionally known for touting his consistency in reaching across the aisle.

“I understand the districts. I know what we need and what people want,” Perry told the Post Independent on Monday. “And I enjoy representing the people in my district.”

As if the world couldn’t get any smaller, Will said he knew Buerger’s parents and Buerger when he was a kid. The two still sometimes have dinner together, Will noted.

“He’s a sharp guy, a smart guy,” Will said of Buerger. “But from my experience, we need more balance in the legislature. Democrats are the supermajority, and I say that’s not good government.”

Colorado heads into next year’s election as Democrats control the house 46-19 and the senate 23-12. 

So what kind of candidate will Buerger become for SD5? 

Buerger, raised on a ranch south of Silt, spent his formative years showing steers, pigs and sheep at the Garfield County Fair. He also runs a small communications company in Silt and a growing recreation-centered events business with his partner. 

“For me, the biggest thing about being involved in 4-H and growing up where I did and how I did is that we can never forget the revolution of where we’re going and the ever-more-complex world,” he said. “It’s really just a reminder of what our communities are rooted in.”

According to Buerger’s campaign news release, his main goals if he’s elected are to increase funding to rural areas from roads to water infrastructure to wildfire resiliency; lowering the cost of living for Colorado families, from housing to healthcare to childcare; protecting water and public lands; expanding opportunities for rural Coloradans through greater access to educational and job training; making it easier for small businesses and entrepreneurs to start up and grow; and protecting civil and human rights and our democratic institutions by advocating for good governance practices and greater transparency.

“Something that didn’t change is why I’m running,” Buerger said. “We are in a moment where we need leaders who emerge, who have deep roots but also who are thinking about everyday people and who have experiences with the things that a lot of families have experiences with here.

“I know what it’s like for family and friends to have trouble with housing issues and making sure you can keep a roof over your head — so the drivers are pretty consistent.” 

Buerger’s campaign has already elicited public support from Former Lt. Governor and Gunnison County resident Mike Callihan, former District 57 Rep. Roger Wilson and current Glenwood Springs Mayor Pro Tem Marco Dehm.

“I am supporting Cole because he understands the challenges that families and small businesses face here in Western Colorado, and he has the knowledge and experience to make sure communities like Glenwood Springs have the tools we need to prosper,” Dehm said in a news release.

Reforms possible for polarized political system, Aspen Ideas Festival panel says

When National Constitution Center CEO Jeffrey Rosen introduced the Aspen Ideas Fest discussion with political experts by saying the title of the talk — “Is Our Political System an Ill Fit for the Times?” — the audience jumped in with a resounding affirmation.

Though the question was rhetorical, the enthusiastic response sounded emblematic of widespread discontent and frustration while America seems as divided as at any time since at least Vietnam — and maybe the Civil War.

New America senior fellow Lee Drutman and professors Brandice Canes-Wrone and Lee Epstein sat down to discuss reforms that might lessen polarization and partisan politics.

According to Drutman, the sorting of American politics, nationalization of politics, and close national elections have been filtered through the single-winner election system to bring the country to a moment of hyper-partisan polarization that has become “a fundamental threat to our system.”

“Over the last several decades, what was a vibrant, multi-dimensional, really multi-party system within our two-party system has collapsed, it’s flattened,” he said.

To re-introduce dimensionality into politics, he proposed reforming the single-member district system to create larger, multi-member districts with proportional representation.

“We can get more diversity of representation that allows us to build back a political sector. It makes every vote everywhere consequential,” he said. “Everybody gets to elect somebody who represents them.”

Drutman said that more than a quarter of Americans have unfavorable ratings of both major parties, which both have become radicalized. Fusion voting, where multiple political parties can list the same candidate on the ballot, would revive the political center by allowing it to become a party that endorses moderate candidates, he said. While fusion voting is currently illegal in the United States, restoring it to legal status — as it once was — would give moderate voters a ballot line to follow, he asserted.

“Political parties are the central institutions of modern representative democracy,” he said. “Without political parties connecting people to government, we have demagoguery, chaos.”

Canes-Wrone doubled down on the significance of political parties, advocating for reforms to bolster the ability of political parties to control electoral politics.

“Parties tend to want moderates to be nominated to win in a district,” she said. “When parties are kneecapped in terms of being able to fund candidates, then the individuals who are funding them may not be as moderate as parties.”

Currently, parties are allowed to surpass expenditure limits if the money is used for litigating election results. Canes-Wrone suggested eliminating those carve-outs in favor of allowing parties to spend the money directly on candidates.

Voters often rely on news coverage to learn about candidates. The emergence of local-news deserts across the country has contributed to the nationalization of politics, according to her. As local news outlets dwindle, local candidates, particularly challengers to incumbents, receive minimal media coverage.

“The challenger will just be seen as a member of a party, and that places the emphasis on what are the national parties doing, and not what could that challenger do for your district,” she said.

The elimination of the legislative veto by a 1983 Supreme Court ruling has also contributed to polarization, Canes-Wrone said. 

“The Supreme Court is dramatically cabining Congress’s ability to delegate decisions to administrative agencies, like the student-loan forgiveness, and Congress is powerless to respond,” Rosen said.

While the legislative body is oriented toward compromise, the executive branch is not. The removal of Congress’ ability to veto executive decisions has given the President increased power to decide major policies, according to Canes-Wrone.

“It matters increasingly who’s in the executive branch in terms of what our major policies are, and that’s going to push polarization to the forefront,” she said.

She said that resurrecting the legislative veto would shift power from the executive office back to the legislative branch. However, would require a constitutional amendment.

The courts have not remained immune to polarization, Epstein said, as evidenced by the recent series of 6-3 decisions regarding affirmative action, Biden’s student-debt relief plan, and free speech versus gay rights, which were all split along ideological lines.

“That looks quintessential, but it doesn’t characterize this term very well,” she said. “This term has seen some unexpected victories for the left side of the court. … The center has moderated a little bit compared to what we saw last term.”

In referring to the “center” of the court, he was talking about Justices John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

However, the current makeup of the Supreme Court displays unprecedented partisan sorting. It is the first time in history that all of the liberals on the court are Democrats, and all of the conservatives are Republicans, according to Epstein.

“You might think that’s business as usual on the Supreme Court, but it isn’t,” she said. “This is actually the first time in history where we’ve had such a clear, partisan split.”

To ensure judicial independence and move away from a partisan divide in the court, she suggested changing the way judges are appointed.

“The more political actors that are involved in selecting justices, the more political the court,” she said.

Currently, there are 101 political actors involved in the process of selecting justices. Epstein pointed to the United Kingdom’s supreme-court appointee process, which uses a selection committee based on legal expertise, removing political influence from the courts.

“These proposals aren’t designed to help one party or another but to resurrect basic principles of democracy, like nonpartisan deliberation,” Rosen said. “It makes me hopeful that there is a way out of the polarization that afflicts our parties.”

A 15-year discussion: How to improve pedestrian safety in Aspen’s Park and Midland neighborhoods?

It’s become an age-old question: Should a sidewalk should be added to Aspen’s Park Avenue?

The city over the years has considered ways to improve pedestrian safety in the Park and Midland neighborhoods due to the high number of pedestrians sharing the same space with vehicles on a narrow roadway.

In 2008, the City Council decided to not pursue modifications to traffic patterns, which turned out to be not the end of the conversation, only a very long pause.

A decade or so later, the city’s engineering department began meeting with the community once again to learn of the safety concerns along Park Avenue. 

“There are extreme physical constraints with this area,” Deputy City Engineer Pete Rice told the council Monday. “We need to create a system that is not a parking lot and find a way to invent an environment that doesn’t violate the law and satisfies the community’s need for reassured safety for pedestrians.” 

The northern block of Park Avenue functions is a key connection between the downtown core via East Hopkins Trail and one of the most popular hiking trails in town, Smuggler Road. 

Also, the Park and Midland neighborhoods currently have no functioning stormwater infrastructure. Historic drainage patterns cause a variety of drainage issues in the area. During periods of intense runoff, private properties in the area flood. And in spring during freeze and thaw periods, the neighborhoods endure unsafe travel conditions.

Previous drainage issues prompted the city to complete an in-depth study and create the Smuggler Hunter Surface Drainage Master Plan in 2015. 

All five council members Monday supported storm drain work, but Councilmen Bill Guth and Sam Rose opposed the addition of a sidewalk in the plans. 

Some residents along Park Avenue have planted landscaping and trees in the city’s right of way, knowingly so, and are angered that their perceived beautification would be impeded by this redesign. 

“I know a lot of people who live on Park Avenue full time and have lived there a long time that are not excited about this project, to say the least,” said Guth. “And they all seem to be quite informed about it. Are there other lighter touch solutions?”

Rose questioned if there has ever been a recorded accident in this area between a pedestrian and vehicle. There has not been a single accident. So why put in a sidewalk when there hasn’t even been a problem? he asked.

“I don’t want to wait for an accident to help,” said Councilman John Doyle. “I also think bicycling will be safer and in the winter, as well. I fully support the project it as it stands.”

Councilman Ward Hauenstein said, “This survey in our packet indicates that 67.9 percent of surveyed individuals support pursuing a sidewalk in the design. There’s community support for what’s proposed.”

Mayor Torre observed this is one of those decisions that can give one heartburn.

“Although no accidents have been recorded, there’s conflict, vehicle and pedestrian conflict for sure,” he said. “I agree with the light touch method. If the project looks like the rendering presented, it would be a success.”

Hauenstein said he walked the neighborhood earlier in the day and thought only a lilac bush would be impacted.

Rice corrected him: It would be four trees/bushes and one driveway that would need to be adjusted to create the sidewalk. 

The question will linger a while longer. City staff will return to the council later this year with a contract for construction.

Editor’s note: The last sentence was changed to more accurately reflect that the staff will bring a contract for construction rather than more options for the project at this point.

Colorado Secretary of State Griswold on what election security means to her office ahead of 2024

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold stopped in Aspen on her way back to Denver after meeting with Mesa County officials over recent charges related to an election security breach and government obstruction against former Clerk Tina Peters — so election integrity was top of mind. 

With the 2024 presidential election less than two years away, Griswold is already working on a slew of election protection legislation bills, the 2023 Colorado Votes Act, to safeguard what she said are the biggest threats to election security: disinformation, foreign interference, and obstructed access.

“One of the biggest threats is actually not hacking or anything like that. It’s a coordinated effort to try to decrease Americans’ confidence in our elections that started with our foreign adversaries,” she said. “All the election lies are used as justification to suppress the voting rights across the country, hundreds of voter suppression bills have passed. They’re used as a justification to try to steal elections when candidates don’t win.”

Election workers, who are experiencing record burnout, frequently bear that burden. In conjunction with county clerks, Griswold led a 2022 state law that criminalized retaliation against election workers to better protect them from threats. Conspiracy theorists and disinformation are her current focus.

“Election workers have been directly threatened. They face insider threats, they face people screaming at them and intimidating them. And across the nation, we have seen them step down. As part of the attack on democracy they threaten good people — Republicans and Democrats — so they don’t feel safe doing their job, get them to step down, and get untrained or even worse, conspiracy theorists, in their place.”

As it stands in Colorado law, a candidate can request any amount of discretionary recounts following an election, so long as they pay for it. Griswold calls that law out as an opportunity to sow disinformation and exhaust already stretched election workers. She proposed a cap on the margin of loss at which a candidate could request a campaign-funded recount. 

“There is a point where the margin is so big between the winner and loser that a recount is not going to make a difference,” she said. “And so it suddenly becomes a burden, a burden that can be used to drive further election denialism and destabilization of elections.”

She has met some pushback in the state Legislature, according to reporting from The Colorado Sun, regarding her proposed recount cap. She noted that a double-digit margin of loss is an unacceptable number for recounts but also proposed a 2% margin for discretionary recounts. Ultimately, she said, the percentage threshold is less important than actually implementing some kind of cap.

“I do believe in the right to recount if the races are close. We should do recounts. Even if the races are not within the mandatory recount, a candidate should have the option if they truly believe something’s going on,” she said. “But (not) if you lose by double digits, or really, you’re predominantly looking at an attempt to fuel conspiracies.”

In the 2022 midterm elections, Aspenite Adam Frisch shocked the district and nation when he nearly unseated firebrand conservative Lauren Boebert for the 3rd Congressional District House seat. 

That razor-thin margin triggered the state’s automatic recount for elections with a less than 0.5% margin of victory. Frisch has already announced he will run against Boebert again and should a future margin of victory exceed 0.5%, Griswold’s desired recount cap could affect candidates’ options. 

Other components of her proposed elections package include a requirement for counties of 10,000-plus voters to start counting ballots four days ahead of Election Day to ensure timely results. As of May, Pitkin County has 13,642 active registered voters. 

Expanding access to historically-suppressed voter blocks — specifically the Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian tribes — is also a priority in the proposed act. It would establish a process to allow tribal membership lists to be used for automatic voter registration and guarantee early voting on tribal lands on the Friday, Saturday, and Monday before an election, as well as on Election Day. 

The No. 1 tool that officials like her have to protect confidence in elections is letting voters know that they are targets of election-related lies and telling them where to find trusted information — like a county clerk, FBI, DHS, or other trusted sources. Though for someone who already distrusts the government, a path to regaining that trust is less clear. 

“We just have to remain vigilant that an attack on one person’s fundamental freedoms is an attack on all of us,” she said. “So we have to continue to protect all of our freedoms and democracy in this country.”

Aspen City Council continues Lumberyard discussion, looking for flexibility for developers

What is an eight-week continuance in the face of a multi-year or multi-decade, depending on how you measure, affordable-housing project? Worth it, according to the Aspen City Council.

The council voted to resume the discussion and possible vote on granting entitlements for the Lumberyard Affordable Housing project to Aug. 8 after five hours of presentation, public comment, and conversation among the council on Tuesday. 

A work session will take place between now and then to explore the flexibility in entitlements and potential financing models for the project, which has been projected to cost up to $400 million. 

After years of work sessions and city staff work, the Lumberyard project plans to construct 277 APCHA deed-restricted affordable-housing rental and ownership units near the Aspen Airport Business Center. The construction plans include 435 off-street parking spaces, a new RFTA stop and traffic light, and all-electric infrastructure.

City staff and consultants from firm Cushing Terrell presented a variety of funding options in the first half of the entitlement presentation on June 6, noting that securing government grants and attracting private developers for a partnership is much easier — sometimes only possible — after entitlements are secured. 

Granting entitlements is like granting a right to develop, according to the city’s affordable housing project manager, Chris Everson. It is not the same as approving the start of construction. 

Still, a majority of the council members expressed hesitancy to approve the planned development.

Council members Sam Rose and Bill Guth, in their first major affordable-housing decision since taking office, said they wanted to learn more about potential financing avenues before they approved entitlements.

And Guth questioned staff’s objectivity in its review of the city’s application, specifically calling out senior planner Kevin Rayes. 

“It doesn’t feel like the city staff has been objective,” Guth said. “It felt today — although Kevin did a nice presentation, and I’m sure has spent a lot of time and effort reviewing this project — that it was that Kevin was advocating for this project and not acting purely objectively.”

The city land-use code requires that when the city is the applicant, that the code be applied uniformly — like it is for any other applicant, though some criteria are more subjective than others. 

Councilor Ward Hauenstein and Mayor Torre also advocated for a continuance, though, expressing a desire to further investigate the extent of flexibility allowed in an entitlement. 

They did not want to tie the city or a future developer’s hands by leaving stringent requirements on unit number, floor area ratio, or building height. Including language of “up to 277 units” seemed to be favored among the council members, though staff cautioned that might lead to unintended consequences. 

“I wish we didn’t have to make compromises or concessions, but I don’t see how we can answer our housing needs without making some concessions or some adjustments to height, density,” Hauenstein said. “I really want to have as much flexibility in this entitlement without tying our hands.”

Guth also voiced disapproval for ownership units at the Lumberyard.

“I am not supportive of any owner-owned APCHA units at this property. Not because I want to penalize anyone or strip an opportunity for somebody to own real estate because I believe that the Lumberyard can meaningfully address some of the issues we have with our local workforce,” he said. “But I think doing so means that the units should be rental units primarily.”

Public comment reflected the council discussion in that no one would deny the need for housing and the need for a project like the Lumberyard, but some issues arose. 

Potential neighbors at the Aspen Airport Business Center raised questions about traffic access to Highway 82 and pedestrian safety with hundreds of cars coming into the area. Density and its impact on traffic is a major factor in any growth conversation, and a number of public commenters shared their worries over traffic jams and air quality.

“When you’re considering this project, this new road, 400-plus new cars plus the heavy construction equipment is going to be necessary to build this project, as well as all the cars in the future that will be required to go in there and maintain such a large project,” said Aspen Airport Business Center resident Lorraine O’Hara. “They’ll need delivery services, Amazon drivers, everything else. (We ask that) you consider the traffic and the pedestrian safety in our little neighborhood and work with the county to make sure that we are safe and as pedestrian-friendly as possible.”

Two members of City Councils past — recent, and less recent — strongly advocated for the Lumberyard. Rachel Richards, who retired earlier this year, urged her former colleagues to approve. And Mick Ireland, a longtime resident with decades of local public service experience, did the same. 

“I look at all the buildings that are closed in Aspen right now that are not drawing from our limited employee pool and wonder where the employees will come for those businesses. Once they do re-open at Main Street Bakery and the Bamboo Bear and the Crystal Palace and the old Red Onion and all the businesses that are closed, I think you’re going to be seeing an awful lot of new demand for new employees,” Richards said. “I think it’s very important that the city council approve this project now with these entitlements. Because when you have the entitlements, you’re in the driver’s seat.”

City Manager Sara Ott noted that the contract funds for Cushing Terrell ran out with Tuesday’s special meeting. Council members signaled support for a new contract and supplementary funds to allow the firm to continue their work on the project. 

New Aspen City Council works to understand one another

Tuesday evening’s reading of new goals divulged two big issues for the Aspen City Council.

One, a sleepless night for Councilman Ward Hauenstein due to Councilman Bill Guth’s comments about environmental priorities in last week’s council work session. 

“Something deeply concerned me. I thought about it a lot. And I don’t know how to bring it up. And it’s really a three-part question for you, Bill, because of a comment you made about environment and funding of environmental incentives,” said Hauenstein.

“I’m looking for a clarification from you, Bill, because I lost a night’s sleep over being concerned about your comment funding the environmental initiatives. It’s really important to me to get an understanding of what your mindset is on that.”

Aspen City Councilman Ward Hauenstein said to Councilman Bill Guth, “I lost a night’s sleep over being concerned about your comment funding the environmental initiatives. It’s really important to me to get an understanding of what your mindset is on that.”
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Guth’s response: “Number one, do I believe in global climate change? Yes. Number two, do I think that local governments have a role in addressing that? Yes, to a certain extent, particularly with efforts that are not virtue signaling efforts.” 

He added, “Focusing on tangible, result-driven initiatives makes a lot more sense to me than virtue signaling efforts. And number three needs a lot of context. This was in specific regard to the composting initiative.”

Aspen City Councilman Bill Guth said Tuesday, “Focusing on tangible, result-driven initiatives makes a lot more sense to me than virtue signaling efforts.”
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Guth was referencing the 70-30 split of the short-term-rental tax revenue and how that 30% percent should be spent. 

“And my recollection in that you said that all the money should be spent on infrastructure, and that it would be irresponsible to spend it on environmental initiatives. You’re right,” said Guth.

Hauenstein did hear correctly. 

“I still believe it is irresponsible to not allocate the money 100 percent towards capital infrastructure needs because of how great the needs are there and that those needs outweigh the needs or desires elsewhere,” said Guth.

He was originally impressed with his first retreat session. It all seemed rosy after the encampment for the annual workday at the Aspen Firehouse.

“It was a great experience,” Guth said. “Everyone had an opportunity to voice their goals. I’m excited to have the following as top goals: improvement of customer service (including major building permitting process improvements), enhancing community fabric/health (including a food hall at the Armory), and traffic/mobility improvements. 

Second, Guth will need to email City Council his preferred language for two resolutions about workforce housing and customer service that he was not satisfied with per the language.

His issues: “I have semantic related questions. But in Section 2 affordable housing, the term workforce is not used in there anywhere. And I think that is a critical word that I would appreciate having incorporated somewhere within there.”

He added, “I do not believe in an exclusively community-based housing program, I believe that our workforce needs to be prioritized and has to be prioritized for this to be an effective program. I think that’s a critical semantic change that I would like to make.”

The other issue: The word “customer” is missing.

“The city of Aspen will continuously improve services and processes with our customers in mind,” Guth said. “I think customer service together has a strong meaning that’s missing. This is not as critical to me as the housing section.”

Language will need to be rewritten before the goals are approved by the City Council.

The other first-time councilman, Sam Rose, said, “I think our council retreat went really well and we accomplished what we set out to accomplish. We all discussed our goals and priorities and through that we established three primary goals and three secondary goals.”

“It went smoother than I was anticipating,” veteran Councilman John Doyle agreed. “The new council got to know each other better, as well as learning more about what we each feel, is most important for our community.”

“Most of what I brought up was put into the goals other than unleashing the Wheeler RETT arts fund for more and higher dollar uses,” Rose said. “Otherwise, I believe we have a good roadmap and framework to work with for the next two years and beyond.”

“It was a very productive advance, not retreat,” Doyle said, “and I’m really excited about our new council’s goals for the next two years.”

A retreat veteran, Mayor Torre, said, “It was a great opportunity for the five of us, along with management level staff, to get together and just talk about how we feel about Aspen and where we’re going and what our values and goals are. I want to thank Ron LeBlanc, who was facilitating and of course, Sara Ott.”

Basalt aims to streamline town contracts

Eggs, rent and now procurement policy. Inflation came after many pockets of life in the region, requiring nearly everyone to adjust their budgets. And now the town of Basalt has raised its threshold for contracts that require council approval as costs in sectors like construction climb ever higher. 

Town Council members voted last week to amend the procurement policy in terms of request solicitation, raise the threshold price of purchasing authority for town staff, and raise the threshold for approval of modifications to a contract, updating the process with the times technologically and financially. 

The cap on contracts for goods, services or construction that will only require approval from the town manager, and not Town Council, went up from $49,999 to $74,999. And the total sum of change orders, or modifications, on a contract cannot exceed more than 10% of the contract price or $250,000, whichever is less, without approval from the Town Council.

And the town approved an update to the policy allowing the publication of requests for bids to an online platform like BidNet Direct, which is used by many governmental entities nationwide to expand reach to potential contractors. 

Contracts less than $5,000 will still only require town manager or department head approval.

Some council members expressed hesitancy at letting go of the dollar amount tied to the change order limit in favor of contract percentage, which Town Attorney Jeff Conklin noted is easily triggered on large, multi-million dollar projects.

“I think if we’ve already approved the project in scope and in whole, if there’s a giant change $300,000 I think in today’s world when you’re constructing something like Midland Avenue isn’t that much,” council member Dieter Schindler said.

After some back-and-forth, Conklin suggested adding the $250,000 amendment.

“If it’s a big number, one that’s going to exceed the budget, we’d need to be back here to get an ordinance to amend the budget and do a supplemental appropriation anyway,” said Conklin.

Basalt’s planning director, Michelle Thibeault, said one of the most likely examples of an instance in which town staff would make use of the amended policy is to commission a study. When staff encounters an engineering issue on a project, a study lays out alternative, potentially more affordable paths forward. That process would require a change order, likely one less than 10% of the contract budget.

“If we’re going to be over budget, we’re going to have to come back and ask you anyway,” she assured the council. That would apply to line items in a contract, not just the overall contract budget. 

The town would save time bypassing council approval for such a request, Thibeault said. Staff also echoed the appeal of being nimble and moving efficiently, as the Town Council only meets every other week.

“I’m all for being nimble. I just don’t want to have a bunch of public comments in here about how we’re doing things behind the back of the community,” council member Elyse Hottel said.  

The change comes as Basalt is early in the Midland Avenue Streetscape Project, a multi-million dollar project to update infrastructure and aesthetics in downtown Basalt. 

Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said the desire for the amendments sparked from an outdated policy, adopted in 2018 well before pandemic pricing, and the desire to keep delays on efforts like the streetscape project to a minimum.

“We just want to make sure that, because time is of the essence for so many of these projects, particularly those that end up in the right of way, that we can move and make decisions pretty quickly,” he said. “And 2018 compared to today, the world has shifted in the sense of the cost of our projects. We just wanted to have the procurement policy reflect better on costs.”

He could not quote specific numbers, but Mahoney said change orders that hit the $250,000 threshold are not common.

To maintain transparency, Mahoney said, the town will “do some kind of reporting out on a semi-regular basis like we do with our general financials,” much of which is available in regular meeting agendas. And other backstops will keep Town Council involved, he said.

He also said the town staff and council have worked hard in recent years to earn public trust to make changes to the procurement policy like this, and that living documents are always subject to further amendment. 

The updated policy went into effect upon council’s approval. The policy maintains its preference for local businesses, which directs the town to grant preference to a local business if its bid is within 5% of the lowest responsible bidder on procurements up to $100,000 or within 2% of the lowest responsible bidder on procurements over $100,000.

‘Aspen amendment’ on a state housing bill still leaves local electeds wary

A state bill that would limit local governments’ power to regulate growth through land use laws got tagged with an “Aspen Amendment” before passing Thursday. 

But local leaders still oppose the bill, saying it is too vague and does not sufficiently protect affordable housing measures.

HB-1255, or the Regulating Local Housing Growth Restrictions bill, is part of Gov. Polis’ “More Housing Now” package of proposed legislation. Its goal is to implement “uniformity in land use laws” to tackle the housing crisis by prohibiting the enactment and enforcement of local anti-growth laws, which includes population growth limits and limits on development or building permit applications. 

The stakes, as set up by the bill, correlate to the need for Colorado to add an estimated 162,000 housing units by 2027. Whether those units are free market or deed-restricted affordable housing is not specified.

Compared to its larger counterpart, SB-213, that aimed to compel localities to allow greater residential density and other housing-related requirements, HB-1255 has flown under the radar.

The Denver Post reported late Monday evening that SB-213 died in the Senate.

HB-1255 passed third reading in the state Senate on Thursday and is now headed for the governor’s desk. 

State Sen. Perry Will and state Rep. Elizabeth Velasco routinely voted against the measures.

Early drafts of the bill, first introduced in March, did not include any affordable housing language. After blowback from entities including Pitkin County and the city of Aspen, the Local Government & Housing Senate committee got in amendment L.024, which reads: Amend re-engrossed bill, page 5, line 12, strike “REQUIREMENTS,” and substitute “REQUIREMENTS THAT REGULATE OR RESTRICT MARKET RATE DEVELOPMENT OR REDEVELOPMENT IN ORDER TO ENFORCE AFFORDABILITY REQUIREMENTS.”

In relation to the rest of the bill, that amendment would still allow a governmental entity to regulate growth so long as that regulation enforces affordability requirements. 

Inclusionary zoning or impact fees are potential real-life examples of this amendment. But Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said the bill is still too vague. 

“I know that (Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-8) was trying to thread a needle on this, and I appreciate that,” she said. “But how it plays in with our growth management system is just really unclear to me from that language.”

McNicholas Kury went on that not regulating free market development on its own and regulating it through the lens of enforcing affordability requirements does not make sense, in her opinion. 

And even though the amendment allows for governmental entities to deny permit applications, a framework for denials is not spelled out, which concerns McNicholas Kury.

County Commissioner Francie Jacober agreed that while the amendment helped to return some agency back to government bodies like the Board of County Commissioners, it did not go far enough for the county to fully support it. 

“We just didn’t think it was a significant enough change for us to support it. But we would like to work with legislators to come up with something that works for all the jurisdictions,” she said. “We don’t want to abandon all of our municipal partners and other county partners for whom this could be a heavy lift.”

Aspen Mayor Torre concurred in a Monday afternoon email to The Times.

“The overlap between SB-213 and HB-1255 is where growth policy meets land use implementation,” he wrote. “All of this will do very little to forward attainable, affordable housing without some provisions for maintaining affordability and accessibility.”

The bill originally only made exceptions for instances of disaster emergencies. Now, the bill would allow for government entities to enact temporary, non-renewable anti-growth laws during disaster emergencies, when developing or amending residential land use plans, or extending/acquiring public infrastructure and services or water resources. 

The bill also would allow governments to deny a permit based on lack of water resources. 

Pitkin County aligned with a number of government entities and organizations in opposition to HB-1255 and SB-213. Some of those partners include the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, Colorado Counties Inc., Club20, and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments — plus a number of counties, boards of county commissioners, and municipalities. 

Jon Stavney is the executive director of NWCOG, a regional association of local governments. He said many of their members routinely expressed exasperation with the state. 

“There are people that I talked to who are very tuned into these things … that just breathe a sigh of relief when the legislative session is over,” he said. “Like, we’re playing defense. We just have to keep track of what’s going to move our cheese or what’s going to gore our ox.”

McNicholas Kury said that the county does not currently have a legal strategy in terms of pursuing legal action against the state to prevent HB-1255 from taking effect. 

All that could stop it now would be a referendum petition filed or action from the governor. 

Jacober was adamant that the state legislation will not sway Pitkin County from its goal to deliver affordable housing and reasonably contain growth, while continuing to prioritize natural resources, open space and agricultural lands. 

But HB-1255 will have a say in the county’s ability to realize those goals. 

An update on SB-213 and a debrief on HB-1255 between the coalition and their lobbying teams in Denver is scheduled for Tuesday. The legislative session ended Monday at 11:59 p.m.