Aspen council candidates share views during wide-ranging event
Annual Squirm Night event hosted by local media drills down on views for the 8 people vying for two seats on city council
Of the eight candidates vying for two seats on Aspen City Council, four of them did not vote in the last municipal election, and all of them have not attended a council meeting in years, except the incumbent, and only two said they have not violated local COVID-19 public health orders.
Those revelations, among others, were made public Thursday during the traditional, albeit non-traditional Zoom platform, Squirm Night debate among the candidates hosted by The Aspen Times, Aspen Daily News and GrassRoots TV.
After 90 minutes of answering questions, candidates showed their differences on development, the government’s response to the pandemic, the environment and city spending, among other topics.
One of the biggest opposing viewpoints was between candidates Casey Endsley and John Doyle, when asked how much the city should be focusing on the environment.
“I think we do a good job with it now, and I think we have to continue to keep our eye on that, but I don’t think we need to be spending a whole lot more money other than what we are doing already,” said Endsley, who is a hunter and fisherman. “I think for the most part Aspen is a very green community, and I don’t feel like our very small footprint here is doing much to change that one way or the other.”
Doyle said the city should be very focused on climate change because every single issue that comes before City Council has an environmental component and it’s why people visit Aspen.
“Without a stable environment we are not going to have visitors coming here,” he said. “Currently, 50 percent of the American West is under severe drought, the whole state of Colorado is under exceptional drought and forest fires are becoming more frequent and intense.”
Endsley and candidate Mark Reece agreed on their criticisms of the Pitkin County Board of Public Health’s decision to enter into the Red-level restrictions last month, which shut down indoor dining.
Both said the board was not well informed and could have listened more to outside influencers before going after local businesses.
Endsley said the board should’ve listened to more medical staff.
That’s despite health professionals, including Dr. Kim Levin who is the county’s medical officer and a physician at Aspen Valley Hospital, serving on the board of health.
Reece said the board should’ve trusted local residents more on how they were handling the spread of the virus and instead target the airport, because everyone coming through there was supposed to sign an affidavit and take a COVID test.
Endsley said one of the biggest threats to the community that is overlooked is mental health, citing that five people have died locally related to that issue in the past 72 hours.
When asked in hindsight what the city could have done better in its response to COVID, incumbent Ward Hauenstein said overall the local government has done a good job considering all that’s in play.
“I’m very proud of our efforts,” he said. “It’s like designing a plane in mid-flight … it’s been a balancing act between public health and economic sustainability of the town and personal and civil liberties.”
Candidate Sam Rose, who is the lead contact tracer for the county, said he would have done so many things differently.
“I think communication has been just flat out terrible,” he said. “I think if people knew what contact tracing was and what it was supposed to accomplish I think we would have a lot more realistic approach than the idealistic approach that we take.”
Erin Smiddy and Kimbo Brown-Schirato agreed that there will be lasting effects of COVID on the community, particularly businesses that will not be able to stay open.
And in the process, a division is occurring in the community, among small business owners who can’t afford to shut down and reopen as opposed to major conglomerates like Aspen Skiing Co., Smiddy said.
Brown-Schirato said one of most egregious examples of spending she’s seen from the city was the six-figure survey to poll people outside of the community on what type and how much affordable housing should be at the lumberyard parcel at the Aspen Business Center.
She said the survey should have had demographic information of the respondents.
“Those types of decisions should be dictated by data and not by the larger community that may or may not wish for employee housing in any way shape or form in any place,” she said.
She also said the city could be more efficient in how it spends its tax revenue to fund housing each year.
Candidate Jimbo Stockton, who also was asked what the most egregious spending has been by the city, was at a loss for words and passed on answering.
He did the same when asked how to expedite building permit review for homeowners looking to do a remodel, or a business owner renovating a commercial space or a developer trying to redevelop a property.
When asked that question, Doyle responded that more staff should be hired in the building department.
Smiddy said she her biggest pet peeve, or one of them anyway, is the amount of money the city spends on outside consultants.
“Someone from the city who has no idea what goes on in our town comes in and makes a decision and we spend a ton of money and we just go with it,” she said. “I’m pretty much a never on the consultant issue.”
Reece, who was asked the same question, said the city should draw on the intellectual talent of the town’s residents.
“(Put a) simple ad in the newspaper asking if anyone has any experience and can you help?” he said. “I bet people would come out of the woodwork, and we could probably solve so many of these problems.”
Both Hauenstein and Smiddy agreed that the current land-use code incentivizing small lodges by allowing developers to not have to fully mitigate for employee generation needs to be changed.
That hindsight comes after developers of a 320,000-square-foot commercial development on the west side of Aspen Mountain’s base area were able to provide less employee housing than other projects due to the land-use code.
“I think we should change the incentive so that workforce housing becomes more important than smaller lodges,” said Hauenstein, who voted on council to approve $4.36 million in public money toward the Lift One project that brought the issue to the forefront.
Smiddy, who voted against the project, said it drove her crazy to see that developers were able to use the land-use code to their advantage.
“I don’t think we’re at the point where eventually we’re going to run out of locals, we’ve hit that point and the more of these developments we keep letting them get away with that, who’s going to work there? Who’s going to be the volunteers, who’s going to be the City Council candidates?” she asked. “We need to enforce every development and have developers hold up their end of the bargain and be accountable.”
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