New Aspen mayor, new city council. Now what?
If it’s change that Aspenites want in their quality of lives or the resort town’s political landscape, then that’s what they will get.
At least that’s what they’ve been promised by the three new members of Aspen City Council, who were elected over incumbents in the recent municipal election.
If they live up to their campaigns, a lot will get done by a group of self-proclaimed doers who all have pledged their hard work to champion more workforce housing in the community.
And if their persistence to land a low-paying, thankless job is any indication, they’ve got something to prove.
It’s a unique mix this time around and a deviation from the traditional make-up of a board that has had mostly older, established residents who are either self-employed or retired and live in free-market housing.
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On the opposite spectrum of that is Torre. Soon to be Aspen’s one-named mayor, he is a tennis instructor and lives in a deed-restricted apartment downtown.
A two-time council member who served eight years on the board, this election was Torre’s sixth run at mayor, making his record 1-5 in wins versus losses for the city’s top political seat.
“Torre is a living example of when you really want something, never give up,” said Councilman Ward Hauenstein at the first post-runoff council meeting April 8. “It is a good lesson to everybody that when you have a vision, keep going.”
His vision reflects Aspen’s core values of a strong affordable-housing program, environmentalism, family services, local business and community building.
Torre, 49, will join council members-elect Rachel Richards, 58, and Skippy Mesirow, 32, along with seated electeds Ward Hauenstein, 68, and Ann Mullins, 70.
When they are sworn in June 10, it will be one of the most diverse Aspen councils, in terms of experience and age, in recent history.
Born between the 1940s and 1980s, Council members represent five decades of age brackets and vary in elected experience from zero to 25 years.
Four of the five work for a living and will squeeze in council duties around their jobs, or vice versa.
Council members make $20,400 a year while the mayor’s salary is $27,900.
Richards is the only other council member on the new board who lives in a deed-restricted apartment.
Mesirow rents an apartment on the east side of town. Mullins owns a home in the West End and Hauenstein owns a house in the east end neighborhood.
Council will have a millennial presence in Mesirow, who showed energy, passion and hard work in his campaign leading up to the March election.
As a result of his impassioned positions and causes he’s taken on since he got involved in local politics, he’s earned the nickname “Skippy Ocasio-Cortez” by his critics for the flowery platitudes he’s been known to use while campaigning. It’s a reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected 29-year-old New York congresswoman and social media phenomenon.
Mesirow lost his bid for a council seat in 2017 but said he took lessons in political style from that campaign and applied them this year.
This will be his first time serving as an elected official; he has served as chair for three terms on the citizen-led planning and zoning commission and was a board member for the NextGen commission, which addresses issues facing 30- and 40-somethings in town.
Mesirow pledged in this latest campaign to get things done: building affordable housing, nurturing local business and lessening the traffic woes at the Entrance to Aspen.
“It’s time to stop talking and act,” he wrote in one of his answers to an Aspen Times questionnaire.
While he did a lot of talking in his campaign, Mesirow does act on his convictions. Evidence of that was his ability to lead an effort last year to change the municipal election from May to March, when more people are in town. What Aspen saw was historic voter turnout in both the March election and the April runoff, with 57 percent and 45 percent of registered voters coming to the polls, respectively.
This year’s election was historic for another reason: the biggest development proposal at the base of Aspen Mountain in almost three decades was decided by 26 votes.
Voters narrowly approved the Lift One corridor plan, which includes over 320,000 square feet of commercial space, including a timeshare project and a hotel, as well as a new chairlift that extends to Dean Street and a ski museum.
Council last fall put the ordinances approving the lodges and amenities on the ballot because of proposed changes in city open space and a rezoning of land.
Council also agreed to pony up $4.35 million toward the development of a ski museum and improvements to Dean Street, which will serve as the skier and drop-off portal.
Torre will be the sole member of council who was against the plan, saying during his campaign that it was ill-conceived and doesn’t deserve a cash payment from taxpayers.
Before construction begins, a few elements of the projects may end up back in front of council, and only time will tell how elected officials receive them.
Time also will tell how Torre and Mullins get along on the board, as they had a pretty contentious run at each other for the mayor’s seat, with some fairly pointed accusations levied toward the end of the runoff campaign.
Mullins’ final two years on her four-year term will coincide with Mayor Torre’s two-year term.
The mayor has an equal vote of other council members but is responsible for setting the agenda and prioritizing initiatives.
In his campaign, Torre focused a lot on environmental issues he wants to move forward on, including a citywide composting program and saving the Rio Grande Recycling Center from a possible shutdown.
Other proclaimed priorities for Torre include government assistance with affordable child care and more attention paid to health and human services.
While they were the two top vote-getters, Mullins and Torre didn’t make the 50 percent-plus-one threshold in the March election, which per the city’s home rule charter forced them into a runoff.
Mullins only gained two more votes in the second round than in the first, losing to Torre by 343 and 341 votes, respectively.
With just over 6,000 registered voters in Aspen, some observers wonder if it’s time to change the city’s elections to “approval voting,” in which the top vote-getter wins and the runoff process is eliminated.
Candidates would likely appreciate that, since campaigning is hard enough the first time around.
Mullins on more than one occasion lamented how difficult it can be stumping in front of an impassioned electorate.
“I hope the citizens of Aspen, and I think they do, appreciate the people that stepped up because it’s hard. … It’s not even close to easy,” she said at a recent council meeting. “It’s physically exhausting, it’s mentally taxing. … So everyone should appreciate the people that put themselves out there and made themselves vulnerable.”
Richards has become a pro at persevering through political vulnerability, with 25 years under her belt as a former council member, mayor and most recently, a Pitkin County commissioner.
The typical hot-button issues of growth and development did not take center stage during this past election, as most candidates focused more narrowly on the issues that continue to bedevil Aspen — workforce housing, traffic, locally serving business and other quality-of-life topics.
But the next council’s biggest and most significant decision to make will be choosing a new city manager.
The city government, which is 326 people strong, is currently being run on fumes in the manager’s office as two key administrators — City Manager Steve Barwick and Assistant City Manager Barry Crook, were asked to resign in recent months.
Assistant City Manager Sara Ott stepped up as interim city manager and is expected to apply for the permanent position.
In the meantime, she is steering the rudder of captain-less ship in rough seas as City Hall has been the target of public criticism on a number of initiatives in the past year.
The search for the city’s top administrator has just gotten underway with a small committee currently reviewing recruitment firms. It could be as late as the fall before someone is in the chair.
Beyond keeping that process going, Aspenites shouldn’t expect much to get done between now and June 10 when the majority of council gets sworn in.
Because the election was moved to March, it effectively extended the “lame duck” session of outgoing council members to 14 weeks when it used to be four or five.
When council members were elected in May, they were sworn in about a month later. In this unique situation, newly elected council members have to wait more than three months before taking their seats, and for Torre, it’s just over two months.
Richards on Election Night likened it to a hockey player stuck in the penalty box unable to do anything except watch.
Outgoing Mayor Steve Skadron is leaving after six years due to term limits, as is eight-year Councilman Adam Frisch. Councilman Bert Myrin lost his bid for a second term. They were all elected to serve until June.
With a short-staffed City Manager’s Office and elected officials’ hands tied to a certain extent on what can get accomplished in the next month and a half, this stretch will be a quiet time in Aspen politics.
“We have a couple of months to let things gel,” Mullins told the council after losing her runoff. “It’s a unique opportunity we won’t have again.”
She congratulated the winners and said all of the candidates were top-notch, bringing excitement and enthusiasm to the discussions.
“I do look forward to working with this council,” Mullins said.
So, what can we expect? Energy, results and creative leadership from Torre and Mesirow, with Richards likely supporting them as she builds her legacy in Aspen politics, and two incumbents who stay the course.
Hauenstein, who beat Torre for his council seat in a 2017 runoff, said that in politics you work with what you’ve got: “Government goes on after elections. I pledge to continue to be connected to Rachel, Skippy and Torre and be sensitive to their points of view.”
He also asked to catch up with Torre, who was in the gallery at the April 8 council meeting, where he has been a fixture this spring.
“I look forward to working with you for the next two years, Torre,” Hauenstein said.
In making general comments about the election at the meeting, Skadron wished his successors luck and acknowledged the type of person it takes to be a public servant.
“It’s hard to sit at this table and it’s even harder to run,” he said.
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