Aspen council reflects on past year
August 1, 2009
ASPEN – Aspen’s elected officials and the City Hall department convened Friday for the first day of a retreat reflecting on their accomplishments, disappointments and the work that needs to be done in the next year.
The group met in a conference room at the Pitkin County Airport, kicking off its meeting with the past year’s disappointments and accomplishments. It spent minimal time on the first topic compared to its discussion on the positive aspects of city government’s work.
Facilitator Tim Ditzler said he recognized that Aspen City Council members might not feel comfortable speaking candidly because members of the press and public were present, but council members shared their views regardless.
Mayor Mick Ireland started by saying he was disappointed that this past May’s election cycle started early, forcing him to campaign prematurely. Former mayoral candidate Marilyn Marks, who lost to Ireland by 177 votes, was present at the retreat. Marks is publicly questioning the handling of May’s municipal election’s first-ever Instant Runoff Voting method.
Ireland also noted his disappointment with the failure of the Aspen Art Museum ballot question this past May, which asked voters to authorize officials to negotiate a new facility on city-owned land. Ireland said a new museum would have strengthened the resort and made it recognized as a world-class place for the arts.
He said while he is disappointed in himself and has recognized his mistakes, Ireland said he’s bothered by 2 percent of the population in Aspen who see the cup as half empty even though they live in a place that is so special and beautiful.
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City Councilman Steve Skadron said he was disappointed that polluting buses are still driving down Main Street; and the work being done by a citizen-appointed task charged with changing historic preservation policies has been politicized and hasn’t concluded.
Skadron also said that some new buildings are too big, specifically the Limelight Lodge on Monarch Street. He noted that the new building obstructs the view plane from the Wheeler Opera House.
Skadron also lamented the lack of an exchange of ideas at the council table, and that macro-economic issues negatively affect Aspen’s vitality. He cited the example of the local housing program receiving less money because the tax that funds it depends on real estate prices, which are falling.
City Councilman Derek Johnson, who was elected in May, said he wishes that the work on the Aspen Area Community Area plan was finished and that there had been more time given to the citizen task force to fully flush out a master plan for base of Lift 1A at Aspen Mountain.
Johnson also said he was disappointed that the fund that pays for the affordable housing program has been depleted by government spending on land.
Even though Ireland listed the renovation of City Council chambers as an accomplishment, Johnson said he was disappointed because the room doesn’t lend itself to communicating effectively with the public. He added that he feels the council and members of the public are too far removed from one another.
Johnson said he is concerned about the number of local businesses leaving town.
Newly-elected councilman Torre refrained from detailing any disappointments because he has only been seated for two months.
“I didn’t run a campaign based on disappointments,” he said.
Councilman Dwayne Romero wasn’t present for the conversation.
Council members spent about an hour discussing the city government’s accomplishments, which included its environmental initiatives to financial responsibility to community solidarity.
Skadron said the city has done a good job of handling its budget and finances in a time of economic unrest, which is proven by Aspen’s high bond rating.
Johnson said the council is off to a good start to “right size” city government.
Skadron said he is impressed with the city’s leadership in environmental stewardship and residents appear to honor that work. He added that Aspen is recognized regionally by other municipalities in the environmental work it does.
Johnson said while he is disappointed that the Lift One task force didn’t finish its work on a master plan at the base of Aspen Mountain, he is proud of the work that was done.
“It brought out some good ideas,” he said.
Ireland agreed, and said the recommended master plan was better than the original proposals generated by two hotel developers. It also recognized that 100 percent of those hotels’ employees should be provided with affordable housing, and the process rightfully brought to the forefront the issue of how big one of the properties was being proposed.
Torre said making Galena Street and Cooper Avenue one-way for three blocks to increase parking spaces was a good move and appears to be working well.
Skadron said he’s proud of the city’s policies and actions on affordable housing, which have allowed families to live and grow here.
Torre said he feels a stronger sense of community than before, but he couldn’t elaborate on why. He also said the city has made good progress at Burlingame Ranch, an affordable housing development outside of Aspen that last year came under fire by government critics in how the city developed it.
“It’s been a long road to get where we are,” he said.
Ireland said he is proud that the Aspen Police Department had an open line of communication with other agencies when disgruntled government critic Jim Blanning effectively shut down commerce in Aspen on New Year’s Eve with a bomb scare before killing himself.
“We got through the Jim Blanning crime spree with no one getting hurt,” he said.
Ireland spent more time on accomplishments than his colleagues did, and cited a laundry list of things the city has done in the past year that has made life better for Aspenites.
The list included mention that traffic levels didn’t rise; the pine beetle infestation on Smuggler has been constrained with the felling of infected trees; and special events have been expanded that bring Aspen closer to a tourism-based economy, Ireland said.
Also, greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 23 percent at the city’s 30 facilities over the last year, officials noted.
Ireland said city staff is top notch and other governments wish they had the level of competency that Aspen’s City Hall did.
“We have people working for us that could get paid twice as much in the private sector,” he said.