City of Aspen election is underway, with four choices facing voters
Aspen voters are making history in this year’s municipal election as they cast their ballots for the first time ever in the winter months.
Elections for the mayor and City Council members have traditionally been held in May and June, per the city’s home rule charter.
But a group of citizens, which included council candidate Skippy Mesirow, put a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to change the election date to the first Tuesday in March.
They successfully argued that more people are in town in March to vote than during the offseason. The question won in a landslide vote, 68 percent in favor versus 32 percent.
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Now, in the thick of the run-up to next month’s election, the ramifications of the date change for candidates and voters are becoming clear.
The campaign season has been shortened by more than two months, as people have traditionally announced their candidacies as early as January and then used the following four months to lay out their platforms and stump throughout the community.
With the new election date, candidates had to submit their nominating petitions by Dec. 26. They have had two months — in the heart of ski season — to campaign.
Candidates have reported that connecting with constituents in person has proven difficult, with people either not home on weekdays and weekends, or they are unwilling to answer the door at night (when it gets dark earlier) when it’s cold and dark.
The condensed campaign is competing with the high season business activity occurring in the city, and people’s attention span for politics is limited, observers have said.
Eight candidates — four for mayor and four looking to fill two council seats — have under three weeks to convince Aspen residents to vote for them.
Most have said in their campaigns that City Hall is broken and the government has done a dismal job communicating with the public on government initiatives impacting just about every segment of the population.
Whether it was the botched bikeway plan that would have made Hopkins Avenue a one-way street, or the Castle Creek Bridge construction, or the abandoned $2.6 million alternative transit experiment for this summer, or a yearslong legal battle over where new city offices should be built, or a city department head making scourging remarks toward the affordable-housing citizen board, candidates have said it’s time to move on and get to work on the real issues facing the community.
Whoever is elected to office will have a clean slate to do that, since the fallout of those initiatives and incidents occurred in the City Manager’s Office.
Assistant city manager Barry Crook, who used expletives to describe the Aspen-Pitkin County Authority Housing Board, resigned amid the controversy. His boss, long-tenured City Manager Steve Barwick, also resigned at council’s request in January.
City Council is in the process of hiring a recruiting firm to find the right city manager for Aspen.
A new council will hire that individual; the newly electeds will be sworn-in in June.
Assistant City Manager Sara Ott is serving as interim city manager until a replacement is hired, which is expected in the fall.
Three current council members, who have taken responsibility in some of the recent boondoggles, are running again and vow to do things differently if they are elected.
The exception might be Councilman Bert Myrin, who is seeking his second term. He is typically the lone dissenting vote and has not been supportive of council’s direction in many instances.
His challengers for two open seats are former councilwoman and mayor Rachel Richards, along with candidates City Clerk Linda Manning and Mesirow, who ran unsuccessfully two years ago.
Adam Frisch is finishing his second term on council and is running for mayor. He is term-limited to eight years on council but is eligible for the mayor’s seat.
Councilwoman Ann Mullins has two years left on her second term but is looking to leave it to become mayor. She will either keep her council seat or vacate it, leaving it up to council to fill it.
Political newcomer Cale Mitchell also is running for mayor, and so is veteran candidate Torre, who has served two terms on council and has run numerous times for mayor.
Candidates have said the themes that have emerged in their campaigns that Aspenties care about are better communication from the city, traffic congestion, workforce housing, the preservation of local businesses and the lack of child care, to name a few.
Here is a snapshot of where the candidates fall on traffic, housing and the Lift One corridor plan as stated in their answers to The Aspen Times’ questionnaires on the topics:
Frisch said governing, managing and growing the affordable-housing program would be his main focus if elected mayor. Building more units at Burlingame Ranch is on his radar, as well as at the city-owned BMC West parcel near the airport.
Frisch acknowledges that traffic will never be solved entirely, but incremental solutions can chip away at the problem.
That includes direct bus service from the Brush Creek Intercept Lot to multiple locations around town, among other ideas.
Frisch was the swing vote in deciding to have $4.36 million in public dollars go toward the Lift One corridor plan as part of a public-private partnership.
He agreed to rebating development fees to the developers as a compromise to guarantee that a new chairlift would be spinning.
Mitchell’s ideas for more workforce housing include building subterranean units and refashioning shipping containers into tiny apartments.
His approach to resolving traffic issues coming in and out of town is utilizing the public bus system more and giving people incentives to use alternative transit options.
Mitchell said the city’s $4.36 million contribution for the Lift One Corridor Plan is a small expense in relation to its $120 annual budget.
The redevelopment would inject more jobs, lodging, restaurants and vitality to town.
Mullins said a complete census of how many units and who is living in them is needed before solutions to the local housing program can be realized.
She supports building new inventory at Burlingame Ranch, the city employee development at Water Place and three rental complexes that the city is building with a private developer.
She said there is no one solution to traffic and does not support more lanes coming into town. But there are incentives that can be offered to continue to convince people to use alternative transit.
Mullins was an early supporter of the Lift One corridor plan and the public-private partnership. She said it would reinvigorate the western side of the mountain and honors the historic Lift 1 that created Aspen’s status of a world-class ski town.
Torre said affordable housing is the greatest challenge facing the Roaring Fork Valley. He supports finding new properties and partners to supply more deed-restricted units.
Torre also wants developers to pay their way when having to mitigate for the employees generated by their projects.
On the traffic front, Torre said he supports a multi-prong approach toward solutions, including serving mass transit riders better and increasing users.
He also supports a slip lane at the roundabout allowing outbound traffic to move faster, along with a reversible three-lane Castle Creek Bridge, alternating the direction of traffic in the morning and afternoon.
Torre is the only mayoral candidate against the Lift One Corridor Plan, calling it “ill-conceived” and “unfair.”
He said he supports redevelopment in the area but not as proposed with a taxpayer contribution, minimal employee housing mitigation and a rezoning of land.
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Manning said getting a handle on the current inventory and making sure people who are living in the units are qualified should be the first priority for the affordable-housing program. If elected, she would like to explore some type of workforce housing incentive program to persuade business owners to provide units for their employees.
She also supports building more units at Burlingame Ranch and the BMC West parcel.
Manning’s idea on relieving traffic congestion in and out of town is to use the West End neighborhood and Power Plant Road as a formal secondary means of egress.
She supports the Lift One proposal because it would deliver lodging that has been a longtime goal in the community. Manning also supports the city financial contribution because of the public benefits, such as the new chairlift coming into town, the public parks and the Lift One historic assets being restored, among other pluses.
She also likes the plan because it would create economic benefits for the town, including real estate transfer and sales tax revenue that fund the affordable housing program and the Wheeler Opera House.
Mesirow supports building new inventory and convert existing free-market properties through buy-downs to create more affordable housing for the local workforce.
He also supports incentivizing current residents in the system to move into smaller units if their family has downsized to make way for growing families.
He said providing housing to 60 percent of the workforce in Aspen will help to reduce traffic congestion. He also is open to finding creative solutions to reduce vehicle use.
Mesirow supports the Lift One lodge corridor plan because it rejuvenates the historic base and brings the chairlift farther into town, although he is against the public money contribution and the breaks given to developers on affordable housing.
But despite that, he said he will vote yes on the plan because the alternative of private homes and no new chairlift is worse.
Myrin’s approach to addressing the lack of affordable housing is to make commercial development pay its own way by mitigating for employee housing and stop giving developers breaks through the land-use code by phasing out the discounts they receive.
He also supports developing housing at the BMC West parcel and Smuggler Racquet Club.
On the traffic issue, Myrin said allowing more development puts more pressure on traffic congestion, and the community needs to have a serious conversation about carrying capacity.
And that is a main reason he is against the Lift One Corridor Plan, along with a reduction in employee housing that he said is worth $11 million in breaks for developers, per the city’s land-use code.
Myrin doesn’t support the $4.36 million cash payment from the city and said the community does not need more lodge rooms.
Richards acknowledges that Aspen is facing a labor shortage as a result of a lack of affordable housing.
She supports building housing at BMC West and Burlingame Ranch, and seeking out public-private partnerships to create more inventory.
She said she hopes the recently passed property tax increase throughout the valley to fund the local bus system will make travel easier for commuters.
Short term, the Intercept Lot should be upgraded to expand capacities and create a facility.
Richards also said the city should convene a working group to work with the private sector to offer shared courtesy vehicles and other mobility programs.
She supports the Lift One corridor, while recognizing it’s not perfect. She wishes the city had required an independent financial analysis to vet the public contribution and allowed more time for the decision by holding a special election later this year.
But lodging should occur at the base of the mountain, and prior public-partnerships have improved the bottom of other ski areas like gondola plaza near the Little Nell Hotel, she noted.
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