Changing of the guard on Aspen City Council
Every two years there’s a chance for a changing of the guard at the Aspen City Council dais, as three seats are always up for grabs, but the majority of voters in this month’s election sent a message that a change-up is not needed.
Incumbent Councilman Ward Hauenstein won a second four-year term with the highest number of votes at just over 1,000.
A close second was John Doyle who garnered 993 votes, which was enough to avoid a runoff election as the city’s home rule charter requires council candidates to win with a threshold of 45%, plus one.
Avoiding a runoff would’ve been a significant electoral achievement on its own, but with eight candidates vying for two council seats it was even more surprising, local election observers say.
Both in the 2017 and 2019 elections there were runoffs. In 2017, Hauenstein beat Torre for a council seat. In 2019, Torre and Ann Mullins faced off in a runoff for the mayor’s two-year term.
Torre won that election, as well as this most recent one in a landslide vote against challenger Lee Mulcahy.
Doyle, 60, will replace Mullins, who is term-limited after serving two consecutive four-year terms.
Mullins, 70, will step down in June when Doyle is sworn in.
The two are not far apart in their political views when it comes to the environment and preserving Aspen’s character.
However, they were on opposite sides of the spectrum on the Lift One development at the base of Aspen Mountain’s west side that includes 320,000 square feet of commercial space and a $4.36 million city subsidy.
Mullins, along with Hauenstein, supported the public-private project and the taxpayer contribution, which will go toward a skier’s museum, park space and infrastructure improvements to Dean Street, where a new chairlift will be located.
Doyle’s opposition to the proposal propelled him into the city’s political arena as he actively campaigned against the ballot questions asking voters to decide on the development. The question passed by just 26 votes.
Doyle was against it for many reasons, including the development not having enough affordable housing, environmental concerns and limiting growth.
Mullins said some growth should be embraced.
“I’ve always said that you can’t ignore development and you can’t just say no to it because it will happen and the role of council is to control it,” she said, adding she believes Doyle will push back against big development.
Other than that issue, the two hold fairly similar philosophies of public service. The Mullins-to-Doyle transition may mean more strident opposition to development but is unlikely to radically shift the moderate Aspen City Council that tends to favor compromise.
The city is expected to face new waves of development pressures as the tourism economy rebounds in the years to come, and it’s likely that the new council will decide on land-use applications.
The Aspen Area Community Plan, the city’s guiding principles document on growth, employee housing, transportation and other quality of life issues, is due for an update in 2022. It is updated every 10 years and is used as a basis for council to make decisions.
It also will be up to the new council to lead the resort community out of the novel coronavirus pandemic and to make future decisions about economic aid for individuals, nonprofits and businesses suffering economically from public health closures.
The controversial topic of how many units should be built at the city-developed Lumberyard site at the Airport Business Center will likely be determined by this new council. At least one member is pushing for high density — as much as 500 units — while others are leaning toward roughly 300, arguing for more “quality of life” and open space on site.
They’ll also lead the move into the new 37,500-square-foot Aspen City Hall that is set to open in late November.
Torre will be sworn in on April 13, and Doyle will be sworn on June 8. The different swearing-in times are a result of a change in the election date from May to March that voters approved in 2018. Those who were elected prior to 2019, like Mullins, have terms that expire in June 2021. Elected in May 2019, Torre’s term ends in April.
Torre, as mayor, will lead Doyle, Hauenstein and the other two council members, Rachel Richards and Skippy Mesirow, for the next two years, when their seats are up in 2023.
As a newcomer to public office, Doyle will spend a considerable amount of time in the early stages of his tenure learning how governance and government process works in City Hall.
But because of his prior politicking and activism for limiting growth in Pitkin County from decades ago, he has a head start compared to other political newbies.
“John Doyle and Ward, they probably are in a good position because they came in with definitive ideas on what they want to get accomplished,” said Mick Ireland, a former three-term mayor of Aspen who also served as county commissioner for 13 years and worked with several different elected officials over his political career.
Ireland and Steve Skadron, the latter of whom served as Aspen’s mayor for three terms following two as a council member, agreed that it takes almost a full term to have a complete understanding of the job and how city government operates.
“It’s like when you try to teach someone how to play chess … you can tell them how to make the move but before they can put those things into a strategic array, that takes a little time,” Ireland said. “You can show them a budget and a land-use code and a community plan but how all of those things work together with various election referenda, that takes a while to understand and figure out how to do something with those pieces.”
Skadron said those who served on a citizen board like the planning and zoning or the historic preservation commission prior to being elected helps newcomers navigate through the system.
Mullins, who served on the Historic Preservation Commission for seven years, said even with that experience, it took her a while to get up to speed to start working toward changing policy and starting initiatives.
“When I started to think what I wanted to get accomplished but hadn’t, you realize how long it takes from when you start cooking an idea and bring it to staff and other council members … you are talking six months to a year sometimes before an idea gets finalized or even off the ground,” she said. “Eight years is a long time but it has gone really fast.
“So every two years the council changes and the dynamics change incredibly,” Mullins continued. “Alignments change, focuses change.”
Ireland said having new council members can be a strength because they have fresh ideas and ways of thinking about issues.
Torre said as mayor he will make sure Doyle’s on-boarding experience is comprehensive and he will serve as a resource for him prior to taking the seat.
“I know John and I’ve worked with him and will continue to do so in a spirit of collaboration,” he said. “We work as a team.”
Ireland said he believes that growth pressures will be one of this administration’s biggest challenges.
“City Council has to respond to what the outside world does, how it tries to crush your bubble of Aspen,” he said. “Aspen has a lot going for it, we are fully amenitized, we have beautiful weather but the rest of the world wants to change Aspen to its knees so I think council is always responding to things.”
Torre, who has served two terms as a council member, from 2003 to 2007 and again in 2009 to 2013, understands that consistent pressure.
He said he believes that the next council will continue to govern with Aspen’s long-held community ethos of controlled growth in mind.
“I think what you are going to see are people who want to make Aspen-values decision making,” he said. “We’re going to see a real effort toward the ethics of Aspen and the legacy of Aspen to be at the forefront of decision making.”
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