Aspen hospital project puts two mayoral candidates at loggerheads

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – The 2013 version of Squirm Night – Aspen’s way of putting candidates for elected office on the hot seat – got off to a tense start Thursday night with an exchange between councilmen Torre and Steve Skadron over the Aspen Valley Hospital expansion project.

Rick Carroll, editor of The Aspen Times, asked Torre what vote by Skadron has disappointed him the most over the past few years. Torre and Skadron are running for mayor, along with four others.

Torre said he couldn’t pick just one, and among his examples he brought up Skadron’s 2009 vote in support of conceptual approval for the hospital project, which many in the community currently view as too massive. Torre was the lone council vote against it.

“I had many questions about it,” Torre recalled. “I was the only one that voted against that hospital plan, and now the hospital’s back (to ask for final approval), and the community is in a total uproar about it.

“Two weeks ago, Steve said they snuck it by him. That was disappointing to hear, as well. We were the review body for that hospital. So if it snuck by us, at City Council, after a half-dozen meetings, I’m just not sure maybe we’re paying attention enough. It didn’t sneak by me. … I voted against the hospital plan.”

After both men spoke briefly of the good relationship they have shared on the council, Skadron responded to Torre’s comment on the hospital vote.

Skadron said he was disappointed in Torre’s vote on the hospital, as well.

“I was disappointed on that vote, Torre, not because you dissented from it but because I thought you failed to craft a comprehensive argument that would influence the outcome of the decision.

“Had perhaps you been more persuasive in your feelings at that time, we might not be in the situation we are in today. I think it’s critical for someone in the mayor’s seat not simply to hold the title of mayor but to conduct a conversation, to have the vision and then to converse in a way, argue points, craft an ideal that persuades the vote.”

Torre asked for one minute to respond.

“If we’re going to throw bulls— around, that’s the kind of political rhetoric that I’m not really up for,” Torre said. “That could be said about any singular vote that you do, Steve, and actually, that kind of tone reminds me of somebody else I serve on council with right now, and I don’t really care for that.”

Torre said the question was about Skadron’s vote, not his lack of leadership.

Skadron said he felt personally let down by Torre’s action on the hospital vote “because I thought perhaps factual points were insufficient to persuade me to go a different way.”

“It’s possible that my compelling arguments snuck by you,” Torre replied.

There were other captive moments during the forum in the basement at City Hall, a departure from the usual Aspen election-season forum in that representatives of the two newspapers, The Aspen Times and the Aspen Daily News, ask pointed questions of the candidates in an attempt to cut through the campaign rhetoric.

In addition to councilmen Torre and Skadron, the mayoral field includes Councilmen Derek Johnson and Adam Frisch, retired attorney Maurice Emmer and Planning and Zoning Commissioner L.J. Erspamer.

Daily News Editor Carolyn Sackariason asked Emmer, who was a driving force in the defeat of the city’s controversial Castle Creek hydropower project last year, if voters can expect harsh tones from him if he is elected mayor. During the hydropwer-plant debate, many saw Emmer’s style in newspaper opinion-page writings as not only forceful but abrasive.

“Some people have dubbed you one of the negative newcomers,” Sackariason said. “It’s shown a little bit of a glimpse in your character. As mayor, is that the kind of tone we can expect, the tone in the letters?”

Emmer replied that there is a difference between being a critic and being a public figure.

“It’s easy to take potshots from the sidelines, which I did a lot of, and eventually of course people would emerge and say, ‘Why don’t you get in the fray and see if you can make a difference?'” he responded.

Sackariason pressed further, asking Emmer if he would react sharply should someone standing before the council take a potshot at him.

“I can’t remember a situation in which I’ve reacted that way in a public forum,” he said. “I believe I’ve always been respectful in the few occasions that I’ve appeared before council or in a public forum. … It’s a totally different setting.”

Frisch was put on the spot when Sackariason asked why he made a late-hour decision to give a “negative endorsement” to November’s ballot question on whether the city should continue the hydropower project.

Some other council members also accused him of awkwardly communicating his decision. Voters ended up narrowly rejecting the city’s hydro plans.

In the months before the referendum, Frisch appeared to be supporting it. Frisch replied to Sackariason that he raised concerns about the project in early 2011, when he successfully ran for council, in addition to council discussions leading up to the vote.

Frisch said he was on the fence in the weeks before the referendum.

“I bought the (city’s) case for a while, … but then I did some math and looked at it,” he said.

Frisch said that after a camping trip with his children, a few days before the election, he sent the other council members an email about his letter to the newspapers saying he would vote against the hydro project. He apologized for not giving the other council members ample notice.

“If you didn’t read the tea leaves in 2011, and all the discussions we had, that I wasn’t happy about it, I’m sorry,” Frisch said. “And I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t have been any griping if the hydroplant would have passed. There would have been a lot of laughing at me and a lot of other things. I stand by what I did, … but my intentions were not to hoodwink anybody, my fellow council people or the community.”


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