City clerk logs 30 years with Aspen |

City clerk logs 30 years with Aspen

Brent Gardner-Smith

This May, three of the five seats on the Aspen City Council will be up for grabs. The election will likely bring change to the board, and some fresh faces may take a place at the City Council table.

One face that’s not likely to change, however, is that of City Clerk Kathryn Koch (pronounced “cook”), who has been at her own seat in council chambers for the past 25 years.

Koch was honored this month for being a city employee for 30 years, a record only two other employees can best. She started with the city in 1970 as the secretary for Aspen’s chief of police, moved over to the city attorney’s office, and then was appointed city clerk in 1974.

“I got sworn in with Marty Hershey,” Koch said. “Marty was being sworn in as chief of police.”

Today, Koch dutifully records the words and actions taken by Marty’s son, Tony, who was elected to City Council two years ago.

As city clerk, she has worked under five Aspen mayors – Stacy Standley, Herman Edel, Bill Stirling, John Bennett and Rachel Richards – and she’s had a ringside seat for every political battle in the modern era of Aspen, including whether fur sales should be banned, the Ritz-Carlton hotel should be built, or four out of five council members should be recalled.

“The Ritz seemed to go on and on, and right in the middle of that we had the fur election, and right in the middle of that we had the recall election,” said Koch, who manages to smile at it all.

And in a feat of endurance that few others would want to emulate, she estimates she has sat through at least 550 City Council meetings.

“I find the process really interesting,” said Koch, “and I find the public interaction at our meetings interesting. I’ve always thought it was a credit to our process and to the citizens that people do turn out. I’ve talked to clerks in other towns and they have very small public participation.”

Through the years, council chambers has often been packed with citizens ready to express their opinions. Koch remembers one meeting in the ’70s when the police were on standby because it was thought citizens were going to march on City Hall – over a parking issue.

During the fight over whether to build the Ritz, now the St. Regis, there were 100 people in the old upstairs council meeting room and another 100 downstairs watching the proceedings on television.

Last week, there was an “intense” meeting on the issue of limiting house size in Aspen.

As city clerk, Koch has responsibility for other city boards, not just the City Council. The Historic Preservation Committee, the Planning Commission, the Board of Adjustment, the Commercial Core and Lodging committee, and the Liquor Licensing Board all require agendas, minutes and the recording of official actions. Mercifully, she has a staff of four to help her cover the meetings.

Koch also manages city elections.

“I bought the infamous Vote-A-Matic punch machine and we have been using that for 25 years with no problems and I attribute that to the intelligence of the Aspen voters,” Koch said.

She’s handled one recount, when the question of buying what is now the Red Brick Arts and Recreation Center passed by only three votes.

As a veteran city clerk, Koch has been honored by the Colorado Municipal Clerk’s Association and recognized by the International Institute of Municipal Clerks as a “master municipal clerk.”

But 550 City Council meetings? How does she get through the 22 council meetings each year? And how does she tolerate the meetings of the current council, which sometimes have the same numbing underlying tension as a packed family car too long en route to a vacation spot?

“I know it’s not a secret anymore, I thought it was a secret, but I do The New York Times crossword puzzle,” she laughs.

At a recent employee holiday party, when Koch was honored for her 30-year tenure, it was Mayor Rachel Richards who finally blew Koch’s cover.

“She said `Kathryn always does The New York Times crossword puzzle’ and I yelled “I didn’t think you knew’ and (City Attorney) John Worcester said `Everyone knows,’ ” Koch recounted.

But Koch has clearly learned to monitor even the most convoluted council discussion. It’s not unusual for a council member to suddenly ask Koch to read a hopelessly tangled motion that was just hammered out.

It often occurs with a casual question from a council member along the lines of “Kathryn, could you read the motion?” Miraculously, she’s often able to do just that, crossword puzzle or no.

“You have be tuned in,” she said. “And you have to be on your toes.”

Koch is highly regarded for her unflappable manner and her perpetual cheerfulness. Her office on the second floor of City Hall is one of the most welcoming places in the building. Many a freshman council member, and many a cub reporter, has settled into the chair in front of her desk looking for insight into how the city process works. Koch is unfailingly helpful and patient.

“I have a really good relationship with the press and the public,” she said. “They can have what they need from this office. I’ve always tried to make sure nothing was secret.”

But she’s also the model of discretion, politely refusing to discuss, at least on the record, the different styles of the mayors she has worked under, which now span three decades and as many eras.

The first era that Koch happened upon in 1969 as a “wannabe hippie” from California was very different from today’s Aspen. On Friday afternoons, city workers could often be found hanging out, drinking a few beers.

“A lot has changed,” she said. “When I got here, there were two people in the planning department and the city needed one floor of City Hall.”

From her long-term perspective, Koch has a few tips for the public seeking something from the council.

“First, you should know if it is something council can do something about,” she said, pointing out that county issues have been brought up to City Council more than once. And she also urges citizens to not ramble on past their allotted three minutes.

“If you can be succinct, it really helps,” Koch said.

And veteran council watchers have learned to watch Koch for signs of discomfort, because if she’s squirming, then it’s clear that somebody has also stretched the limits of the council’s patience.

“I try to really have a poker face,” Koch said. “But my husband tells me I should never play poker.”

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