Aspen City Council reflects on 2007
ASPEN ” It’s been a productive year for members of the Aspen City Council, who individually say that they are in line with each other philosophically ” even if it means agreeing to disagree.
With three rookies and two veterans on the board, City Council members have spent the past six months learning each others’ personal styles while at the same time reviewing and voting on some high-profile development projects.
Most of the development applications proposed have been shot down, which is indicative of a council majority that’s committed to slowing growth.
The newcomers ” Mayor Mick Ireland, and councilmen Steven Skadron and Dwayne Romero ” entered the political scene in June when they were sworn in. They quickly came in sync with colleagues J.E. DeVilbiss and Jack Johnson, who were both elected in 2005.
All eyes have been on them ever since. Controversial development applications that have come before the council in the past six months include the Lodge at Aspen Mountain, a large hotel and fractional condo development; the Cooper Street Pier and Weinerstube redevelopment projects, as well as the La Cocina redevelopment. All but the latter were rejected by the majority of the council, whose members said the developments were either too big or didn’t fit into the character of town.
The council also found itself embroiled in controversy when it approved a complicated and drawn-out historic preservation law that put many property owners on the defensive because they felt government was impeding on their rights to demolish or alter their homes and buildings.
And through all the analysis and disagreements, council members remained unified in their shared belief that their decisions should always come back to protecting Aspen’s community and residents.
“Each of us are concerned with the future of this community and its citizens,” Johnson said. “Remarkably, we are of one mind …
“I think the five of us are intellectually honest,” he added. “There is very little conflict on the direction of this town.”
And that direction is to slow development to a rate that’s acceptable for residents who have grown tired of dealing with construction, and losing their mountain views as a result of large buildings. It’s estimated that $750 million worth of development is occurring right now within city limits, representing 1 million square feet of new construction.
“That’s like rebuilding downtown every year,” Ireland said, adding he believes many development applications would have either been fast-tracked or delayed with the previous council.
“This council is willing to make decisions and not just kick the can,” he said.
Sometimes those decisions can be painful. As a rookie, Skadron has found himself agonizing over having to finally say “yeah” or “nay” to applications that he and the council have picked apart for months.
“I came from the Planning and Zoning Commission where members become specialists in land use,” Skadron said. “I’m grateful for that experience. But the breadth of council is so much greater. Knowing how to make informed decisions, that are objective, and in the best long-term interest of the community, on a range of issues takes time.
“It’s like jumping from college to the pros: The game is faster. The intensity is higher. The scrutiny is greater.”
It’s a quandary his colleagues know all too well and say it’s a tough job no matter how they slice it.
“It can be a pain in the ass,” Johnson joked. “But I get a great deal of satisfaction.”
That’s echoed by the other four council members, who said they’ve enjoyed the job tremendously, even though it’s more work than they bargained for. In some respects, it’s a 24/7 job if one considers elected officials are routinely stopped on the street by constituents wanting to discuss issues, and are required to study hundreds of pages of documents and sit through countless hours of public meetings.
“I think the biggest challenge is balancing council responsibilities and my day job,” said Skadron, owner of a marketing firm. “I didn’t expect council to consume as much time as it does. Basically, it’s a full-time job itself.”
The workload is something that Ireland didn’t expect either, nor did he expect the position of mayor to be as high profile as it is.
“I’m really impressed at how hard these council people work,” he said, adding he finds himself having to be accessible to the public and other governmental entities much more than he anticipated.
“Because the council is part-time and the level in which they are paid and the work they do, I have to do a lot of things in their absence and bring it back to them.”
For Romero, who has voted for every development application that has come before him since he took office, being in the minority was something he expected, but not to the degree it has played out.
“But that’s OK,” he said. “I’m having a good time and I’m enjoying it.”
DeVilbiss, a retired judge, said working on the council is a level of service he never was able to achieve until now.
“All the time I was on the bench, I was never able to be on a jury and be part of a deliberative and collaborative process,” he said, adding now that he is in the middle of a four-year term, DeVilbiss has mastered the skill of scrutinizing developers’ proposals.
“I’m skeptical of representations that developers make,” he said. “They have to have projects that make sense.”
His fellow colleagues agree and say they will only approve projects that blend in well with the community and are representative of what the populous wants in town.
“I’m not opposed to development and I don’t think this council is opposed to development, but we need to approve projects that don’t take us backward,” Johnson said.
What the council sees as moving the community forward in the past six months includes getting voters to approve three taxes that will help pay for clean energy, water and air. Council members also said they are proud of acquiring land for affordable housing even though land costs were high ” nearly $35 million was spent this year.
Other accomplishments in 2007 noted by the elected leaders include temporarily lowering the mill levy tax rate so property owners wouldn’t get a full hit on their sky-rocketing assessed land valuations.
And some believe just showing up is an accomplishment.
“We adopted a budget, kept a city running and did reviews in a timely fashion,” DeVilbiss said.
Going into 2008, council members will deal with the tasks at hand while still learning how to handle each other’s personal styles, which can often times be on opposite ends of the spectrum. As mayor, Ireland is in charge of running the meetings and his leadership style can sometimes come off harsh with the public and his colleagues.
DeVilbiss said that’s a result of Ireland’s informal way of managing the meetings. However it’s interpreted, council members say they are gratified by serving with Ireland.
But how each one of them talks to each other is important, Romero said.
“We have very broad perspectives and leadership styles and we have a healthy respect for each other and our core beliefs but there are points of friction and impact,” Romero said. “In the realm of organizational effectiveness, we have some groundwork in front of us in terms of how we convey our style and respect to the citizenry.”
Skadron agrees that the council must convey respect to the public and to each other.
“Regarding the tone, yes, there are rough spots,” he said. “I’m hopeful as the council matures it can work through them.”
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