Coulda, woulda, shoulda
ASPEN In some respects, it has been a disappointing year for elected officials.In the first few hours of a two-day retreat for City Council members and staff, Aspen’s leaders reflected on a list of disappointments they’ve observed in the last year. The exercise was intended to recognize lessons learned and to start with a fresh perspective for a new administration.A common theme was the government’s inaction on a number of issues that affect the quality of life in Aspen. Traffic in and out of town remains a problem. Construction is out of control. Delaying the city’s environmental plan caused important policies to not be adopted. Secret meetings and quick rushes to judgment on public policies caused a perceived lack of trust in government.Mayor Mick Ireland said he was disappointed with the lack of transparency City Hall had when a previous City Council in May decided to grant lifetime city-owned housing to public works director Phil Overeynder. Changing the city’s housing policy behind closed doors, with no public input, isn’t a practice Ireland wants the new City Council to employ.”I think people were asked not to speak about it, which was a huge mistake,” Ireland said.The result is that City Hall’s management team will go forward this year with a new guideline of being transparent in an attempt to create credibility in local government.It’s the second year that guideline has been in place for city staff but it’s still an issue, said City Manager Steve Barwick, who led the effort to grant Overeynder and his wife, Deborah, housing for the rest of their lives.”We failed, we are not perfect,” he said. “It came back to bite us.” Based on prior votes and actions, some council members believe that city government has a perception problem in that the general public doesn’t trust officials as much as it should.Ireland pointed to the approval of the redevelopment of the Limelight Lodge, suggesting that the previous City Council caved in to the Paas/Woolery family, longtime locals and owners of the lodge. Elected leaders believed the redevelopment would not be as impactive as it is and that it would offer moderately priced lodge rooms.”That set the tone for creating a lot of unrest in the community. … It was a bad idea,” Ireland said, adding that it is one of the worst development projects he’s seen. “It hurt the city’s credibility.”Councilman Jack Johnson, who voted for the project, agreed.”I think Mick is right – the Limelight was a disappointment,” he said, adding that growth hasn’t been dealt with appropriately. “I’m also disappointed that we don’t have a construction rate that matches our development.”Ireland also wishes that the previous council would have moved quicker on the city’s environmental plan, known as the Canary Initiative. It was delayed in the hopes for a consensus on a transit plan and included in the policy.”If we were waiting on the Entrance to Aspen, we wouldn’t get anything done,” Ireland said.It is another lesson learned for city staff, who this year will operate from a new guideline of anticipating and acting. Too often, city staff and elected officials are victims of “analysis paralysis,” operating from the mindset that because there is no consensus nothing can be done. “We have operated that way for a long time,” Barwick said. “Trying to get consensus; it’s never going to happen.”After a lengthy discussion, city staff and the council agreed to shift the paradigm into a goal that states, “We achieve excellence by building informed consent to act.” The informed consent concept means city leaders must build consensus by allowing those who are delaying an action to have buy-in on it.Barwick used the missed opportunities in affordable housing in the last couple of years as a good example for anticipating an issue and acting on it before it’s too late. City Hall has millions of dollars earmarked to buy land on which to build affordable housing. But the City Council, for various reasons, chose not to buy the land at the time. Meanwhile, land prices continued to rise. The inaction cost City Hall millions.”We had money in the bank at 5 percent interest, and land prices were rising at 50 percent,” Barwick said. “We saw this pending crisis, and we did not act on it.”That is one we should have been ringing the alarm bells.”City Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss, who has been in office for two years, said one of his greatest disappointments has been not making any progress on the traffic jams coming in and out of town. That’s partly the result of construction and development, which also is disappointing to DeVilbiss.”Construction management is still largely a concept,” he said. “We’re falling behind [in the face of development].”Councilman Steve Skadron, elected in June, said he wished the previous council had found more incentives to get people into alternative transportation. He also wished the city had been successful in passing last November’s referendum to redevelop the recycling center.Councilman Dwayne Romero, also newly elected, would like to improve upon the City Council’s listening skills and appearances of being respectful, which he believes was lacking previously.City staff also plans to reach out to the community to engage more citizens on city issues.”People need more than three minutes at a public meeting,” said Mitzi Rapkin, director of community relations at City Hall. She added that more keypad voting on issues and community gatherings are in the works. “We want them to be informed not just by reading the paper … but through direct democracy.”Carolyn Sackariason can be reached at email@example.com
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