Aspen council discussion about city-sponsored mental health events gets testy
Passions about helping the community with mental health issues boiled over Tuesday night as the Aspen City Council debated the urgency of the city putting together a plan to host a community event and training in the coming weeks.
During what turned into a 30-minute conversation that turned heated, Mayor Torre voiced his frustration with the city manager’s office in not putting together a community event sooner than the first of the year, while Councilwoman Rachel Richards said the mayor’s comments were “unfounded” after he expressed his displeasure with the progress of the previous request.
On Oct. 12, the council behind Mayor Torre’s asking said it wanted to host a series of community meetings before the holidays. Last week, he reiterated he would like the city to host events before or near the start of the ski season.
City Manager Sara Ott said Tuesday the city does not have personnel who specialize in putting together these kinds of mental health events and her staff is the one trying to put together the request among other priorities given by council. She said there could be possible calendar conflicts with other events hosted by nonprofits such as Aspen Hope, Aspen Strong, Mind Springs, Here House and others.
Ott added that local nonprofits who work in the mental health arena have seven events planned that people can attend or watch online in the next few weeks.
“I really do think the city is better as a partner to amplify those voices rather than generate original content in a community meeting this year,” she said. “That is different than your direction you gave me last week. Is that acceptable or not?”
That’s when the mayor started to go back to the ideas presented at the past two meetings and said the fact that Aspen is a seasonal town the city should take advantage of the seasonal opportunity and try to reach out before the ski season gets into full swing.
“I would be looking for a plan. Sara, the last time we talked about this at this table, we are trying so hard to give you policy guidance and overarching without being prescriptive, the word was used. And I think we’re still wanting to stay there, but you’re not giving us back a plan,” Torre said Tuesday. “So, if we’re not going to do community meetings this year, I would like to know what we are going to be doing this year. Because, frankly, I’m sorry, waiting til the turn of the year is too long for me. … I would prefer a community event this year to be honest, but if it’s beyond our capabilities, I’m open.”
Ott stressed the production of an event, marketing the event, a marketing plan of general well-being and marketing plan of these seven events planned already was a heavy lift, adding there did not seem to be consensus among the council previously.
“Mr. Mayor, the problem with the timeline is when I was asked to deliver it before Thanksgiving by Nov. 20,” Ott said.
Torre said the conversation was “going around the wheel one too many times for me. I’m not seeing the difficulty. … I’m seeing a lack of nimbleness and ability to do something here.”
That’s when Richards stepped in an attempt to pump the brakes on the idea of trying to have something this year. She agreed with Ott that the timing felt rushed and the city in the meantime should help promote the nonprofit events on the calendar.
Richards reiterated the staffing issue as well as this being the budget season, the move to the new city building, the holidays coming up and the seven nonprofit events are a lot right now.
“I think you’re asking for a little bit of the impossible,” Richards said to the mayor. “If we want to do this, I’d be glad to make a motion right now to approve $40,000 out of the general fund and hire a subcontractor to do it. … I have a feeling it’s going to be a great disappointment that it wasn’t exactly how Torre had envisioned it while we’re trying to get five different people to talk about what it is.”
Torre took offense and responded, “I think your comments are unfounded.” To which Richards shot back: “I think your comments about our manager are unfounded.”
Richards added that she also was not comfortable waiting for January for a community event sponsored by the city, but “I’m not going to ask for the Ringling Brothers Circus to come in and perform it either.”
When Councilman Skippy Meisrow weighed in and said everyone should take a deep breath, the mayor retorted: “I don’t need a deep breath.”
Along with Torre, councilman Ward Hauenstein stressed it is “really important” to have a city-sponsored, council-driven event to bring public awareness to this. He was the one at the Oct. 12 meeting who floated the idea of a community meeting.
“I thought we did give a clear direction. … I’ve been working on this for four or five weeks, and I thought two weeks ago we gave a consensus that we wanted to have city-wide training and awareness,” Hauenstein said Tuesday. “The banter that is going on here just gets in the way. … It pains me to see this bickering going on when we all want the same thing.”
After a bit more conversation about the nonprofit offerings coming up and the temperature in the council chambers lowered, Ott said she would continue working on a city event.
“What I’m hearing is I need to produce an event this calendar year, and we will figure out how to do it,” she said, adding later, “I will review with my team this week what we are going to do.”
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