Aspen councilman gets tongue lashing from colleagues for email suggesting answers for housing survey
Aspen City Councilman Skippy Mesirow received some harsh criticism from his colleagues during a public meeting Monday, who characterized his recent tactic to push for more density at a future affordable housing project as “duplicitous,” “inappropriate” and “disappointing.”
Council members Rachel Richards, Ann Mullins and Ward Hauenstein levied those words regarding a mass email that Mesirow sent from his Gmail account earlier this month that directed recipients on how to fill out a survey about the Lumberyard affordable-housing project.
The email asks for people to sign a petition promoting as much density as possible at the city-owned, 5-acre site, located at the Aspen Business Center.
The email then suggests for people to go to the project website, http://www.aspenlumberyard.com, and for every question that has a comments box to leave the answer blank and copy and paste in the words, “I don’t know, but I support maximizing density.”
Mesirow, who is a first-term City Council member and ran heavily on affordable-housing issues, has been in the minority on the board when it comes to how many units should be built at the Lumberyard.
The majority of council has said that quality of life trumps density and that more than 350 would be too much in terms of unit size, livability and story height of the buildings, among other issues.
Richards called Mesirow’s email, which he did not inform his colleagues on council or on the local affordable housing board of which he is chairman that he was sending, an attempt at ‘ballot box stuffing,” and to skew the survey results to promote one singular outcome.
“I think it has totally invalidated the results we are seeing now and I have become very upset that one of our colleagues decided to do a separate push and petition drive and tell people only put in words ‘maximize density,’ you don’t have to know anything else,” Richards said.
Hauenstein said he shared Richards’ concerns and thinks the community outreach for the project has been corrupted.
“Public outreach is supposed to gauge what the public feels, what individuals feel, instead of having a push poll or somebody to go on and push their own agenda,” he said.
Mesirow defended his actions, and said people approach him every day telling him they need a place to live.
“I am absolutely within my right to be able to push for more housing in this town, it is why I ran (for office), it is why I work hard every day,” he said, adding he made it known to council that the survey ought to have a density question on it, but fell on deaf ears and it was a missed opportunity to work collaboratively on that issue. “And I also want to reflect, I do hear you. This is not the ideal way to do this, and I will share my thoughts about the survey and where my mind has been changed and isn’t and I respect and agree with all of you about the importance of quality of life.
Richards responded that there is a distinction between being an activist and being a collaborattor and part of a team.
“By excluding your other four council members and deliberately not publicly announcing it at the housing meeting, that’s duplicitous,” she said. “I think trust has been broken and I don’t know how you restore that.
“You can say, ‘I want to collaborate with you as long as I get a “yes,”‘” Richards continued. “Whenever I say ‘no,’ or I get a ‘no,’ I’ll find another way to go out and do it and that’s what seems to be happening with this board.”
Mesirow said that he accepted that feedback and will listen and learn going forward, but the had to defend his character, and being characterized as duplicitous is unfair. He said he posted what he was doing on Facebook and Instagram, and talked to each of his colleagues about his concerns in previous conversations regarding the Lumberyard project.
Mullins said she thinks the survey was created well, and the questions were designed in the abstract to find out more about people’s desires on quality-of-life issues, not density.
She added that Mesirow’s email was inappropriate and as an elected official he is representing all constituents, not just who voted for him because of housing.
Mesirow said his email told people to vote their conscience and that high density was his opinion.
The heated discussion was part of a presentation by DHM, the firm hired by the city of the Lumberyard project to determine preliminary findings in what is now the third round of community outreach since the spring of 2019.
More than 500 people have responded to the survey and roughly 1,300 people have visited the project’s website. They are being asked their opinions on, and council is considering, three conceptual plans that range from 250 units to as many as 330.
Chris Everson, the city’s affordable housing project manager, told council that the team has been counting survey responses as it was made aware of the mass email activity.
He said it represents between 2.5% and 3% of the overall responses.
“If you remove those, it won’t move the needle.” Everson said. “What we’ve found is some of the result are unexpected because what you’re seeing on unit mix actually flies sort of contrary to the notion of blindly maximizing density, … simply asking a number of units provides no context for the overall site and livability.”
The next work session on the Lumberyard project is scheduled for Nov. 23.
The survey, which began Oct. 1, is scheduled to close Nov. 6.
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