Civic participation waning in Aspen
ASPEN If you’ve got a gripe with the direction the city is going, then it’s time to stop complaining and do something about it.That’s the message from some elected officials who find themselves short on bodies to serve on citizen boards, which make recommendations to the Aspen City Council on everything from development to historical preservation to downtown issues.The City Council earlier this week interviewed three people interested in serving on the Planning and Zoning Commission, and three on the Historical Preservation Commission. Another four citizens have applied but haven’t been interviewed because they are out of town.All told, 10 people have applied for the two boards. The P&Z needs four members and the HPC needs three. Both commissions have been prone in recent years to constant vacancies either because their members move out of the city, are elected or appointed to a higher office, or are too busy to serve any longer.”People are reluctant to devote that much time and are reluctant to participate generally because they are so busy with their lives,” said City Councilman Jack Johnson, who previously served on the P&Z. “But people who live and work here can have a say on how this town should be.”Only two people who ran for City Council this past spring have applied to serve on a citizen board. Michael Wampler, owner of Aspen Velo bike shop, was interviewed on Monday for a seat on the P&Z. Former City Council candidate Andrew Kole has applied to serve on the Commercial Core and Lodging Commission, which deals with issues surrounding downtown Aspen. L.J. Erspamer, who ran unsuccessfully for a City Council seat, already holds a position on the P&Z. That leaves six people who ran for City Council who said they wanted to be involved in their community no where to be found when their city government needs them the most.”We had all these people who ran for office … Everyone wants to be a hero but no one wants to be a grunt,” said City Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss. “They don’t want to slug it out in the trenches.”Some former members of citizen boards have complained that it wasn’t worth their time to serve because their recommendations to City Council on development proposals and other city issues have been ignored.But that was then and this is now, said City Councilman Dwayne Romero, who was involved in civic life for many years before being elected in May.”This council will strive to be attentive to ensure that input from these commissions will be heard,” Romero said. “They should be given a louder voice.”Johnson said he was never frustrated working on the P&Z and felt his recommendations were carefully considered by the City Council.”Some people claim that ‘if you are not going to listen to us, I am not going to serve.’ But the very nature of giving advice is that there is a possibility it won’t be followed, not that it won’t be considered,” Johnson said.Johnson said he volunteered his time because he wanted to be part of directing the city’s future.”I wanted to be of service to the community that nurtured me,” Johnson said.City Councilman Steve Skadron, who also served on the P&Z, had no political aspirations beyond being a volunteer. Now, he realizes that his time was well spent not only for being an active participant in the community but also because the experience served as a spring board to get elected.”I thought it was really rewarding,” he said. “I was privy to a lot of information that most people don’t have and I actually had a say in the direction my city was going.”Johnson said the misnomer for many people is that they need expertise to sit on citizen boards, although his architectural background helped while serving on P&Z. “These are not specialized questions, we can educate them,” he said. “There needs to be a representative cross section of people, not just experts.”But how to entice people to take time out of their personal lives remains a mystery for city officials. Some have suggested that incentives be offered to citizens who want to serve – like ski or golf passes, or access to the city recreation center. But so far, it’s just been a suggestion and it’s up to elected leaders to recruit willing and able citizens.”We have to make a more conscious effort to reach out,” Romero said. “We recognize there is a tremendous amount of talent in town but they are busy with their lives.”There are two seats and one alternate open on the HPC; three regular and one alternate on the P&Z; two vacancies and one high school student seat for the Wheeler Opera House board; three seats open on the CCLC; one seat for the open space and trails board; and one seat for the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board.Applications are still being accepted via the city of Aspen’s website, http://www.aspenpitkin.com. Go to the City Clerk’s department to download the application. The only requirement to serve is that a citizen must have been a resident of the city for the past 12 months.Carolyn Sackariason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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