Council, mayoral candidates face off at Squirm Night

The City Council candidates from left to right, Art Daily, Skippy Mesirow, Ward Hauenstein, Torre, Ann Mullins, and Sue Tatem at Thursday night's squirm night at City Hall in Aspen.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

From newspaper questionnaires to public debates, the candidates for Aspen City Council and mayor are provided ample opportunities to make known their stances on policy and the issues.

But there’s only one Squirm Night.

And, as the title implies, the object of Squirm Night is to see how the men and women who want to represent Aspen’s residents in City Hall handle the spotlight and corresponding pressure that goes along with it. Or, as one member of the audience was overheard commenting, “This is about theater, not politics.”

Thursday’s Squirm Night at the Aspen City Council chambers in the basement of City Hall featured the six candidates for City Council and the two candidates for mayor. Questions from Aspen Times managing editor Rick Carroll, Aspen Daily News editor Curtis Wackerle and Aspen Public Radio news director Carolyn Sackariason allowed each to sink or swim.

Incumbent City Councilman Art Daily sat in his customary seat at the far end of the council table and, as is his custom during council meetings, answered questions in a barely audible voice. This caused audience members sitting in the front row to repeatedly shout at him to speak up and into the microphone.

One of the first zingers sent Daily’s way came during the beginning of the evening when candidates were allowed to ask each other questions. Ward Hauenstein told Daily he’d sent him 30 emails during Daily’s four years in office but never received a response.

“No one has received a reply,” Hauenstein said. “Do you read them?”

Daily said he doesn’t use the city email system and prefers to use email connected to his law firm. Hauenstein pointed out that the city’s website offers his city email as a way to contact him.

“I wasn’t aware the public didn’t know,” Daily said. “If I’d heard about this earlier …”

Like his fellow incumbent, Ann Mullins, Daily spent a lot of the evening defending his record. The council’s about-face on plans for the former Aspen Art Museum was because the proposal kept changing, he said. In addition, Daily said he’d rather see a lot fewer development decisions referred to voters and believes that the newly approved City Hall was carefully reviewed and is necessary for city employees to do their jobs.

Hauenstein, who led the opposition to developer Mark Hunt’s Base2 Lodge on Main Street, was asked to square that opposition to his complimentary statements about the Gorsuch House proposal. The two developments are not the same and planned for very different areas, he said. And while he’s not a “cheerleader” for the Gorsuch project, Base2 on Main Street was too full of variances to fit, Hauenstein said.

Daily asked Hauenstein if he was out to remove Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick from his job. Hauenstein said that wasn’t his goal, but he wants Barwick to be given “expectations” from the council about what the governing body wants.

Mullins wanted to know if Hauenstein and fellow candidate Torre were aligned with Councilman Bert Myrin — who strongly criticized the records of Mullins, Daily and Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron in an email sent out earlier this week — and if they would undo the land-use code changes the current council has made.

Both Hauenstein and Torre denied an alliance with Myrin and said they weren’t out to overturn recent land-use code changes.

Hauenstein denied that Referendum 1, which stripped the council’s power to grant variances in height, mass, parking and affordable housing without a public vote, was a “bypass of the system.” He said such action was built into the system and that waiting for elections to correct problems would lead to “major mistakes.”

Skippy Mesirow, who is being supported by developer John Sarpa, was asked if he could stay independent in the face of such support. The current chairman of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission said his campaign team has a variety of voices and that he is “not pro-development.”

Mesirow also defended his support of Base2, saying Aspen needs affordable lodging and that it can’t be just a town of five-star Little Nells. On affordable housing, he said the city should look at new products that are “greener, cleaner and house more people on a smaller footprint.”

In reference to the fairness of the City Council allowing the new City Hall to be 47 feet tall while other buildings downtown cannot exceed 23 feet, Mesirow said the city should stick to its own rules and lead by example.

Mullins also was forced to defend her support of Base2 after being asked how she thinks she’s in touch with voters when the proposal was defeated 2-1. She cited the loss of small lodges and said residents may have been suffering from “sticker shock” related to other development controversies.

However, she admitted mistakes were made.

“We didn’t assess the whole situation properly,” Mullins said. “It got a little out of hand.”

Mullins also defended the council’s actions in regard to possible dams in the Maroon Creek and Castle Creek valleys. The issue, she said, is about water rights and the fact that Aspen will lose them if the dam applications aren’t filed.

“The last thing I want to see is a dam up there,” Mullins said.

She said the new City Hall is necessary to accommodate all city staff and that the building will benefit Aspen residents “in the end.”

Sue Binkley Tatem was a woman of few words Thursday.

She declined to ask a question of a fellow candidate. And she said all buildings downtown look “pretty good” when asked to describe the biggest blight.

Though she didn’t answer the question in an Aspen Times questionnaire, Tatem said Thursday that she wasn’t likely to vote for dams in the Maroon or Castle Creek valleys.

Asked how government might be improved, Tatem advocated electing different people “if it’s not working.”

Torre, who previously served on council, said the former Aspen Art Museum should have been allowed to organically evolve into a community center. He also said the city should stand behind residents of the Centennial affordable-housing complex, which is in need of serious maintenance, and offer low-interest loans.

In general, there’s a disconnect between City Hall and the citizens of Aspen, he said. Torre said he’d like to open a dialogue and spawn a more collaborative relationship.

At one point, Sackariason pointed out that Torre voted for a downtown building that remains vacant on the ground-floor level. Torre acknowledged the vote, but said, “Did I vote for it to be vacant? No.”

The mayor’s race portion of the evening between incumbent Steve Skadron and local artist Lee Mulcahy was bit more of a free-wheeling affair.

Mulcahy, who is currently being sued by the local housing authority for alleged violations of the affordable-housing program, began his remarks by talking about that situation.

“I hope this doesn’t become just about you and your situation,” Sackariason said.

Skadron asked him about that housing authority fight and whether it was “possible that you’re wrong?”

“I’m the first to admit I’ve made mistakes,” Mulcahy said, though he complained about unfairness on the part of the housing authority.

The only real fireworks between the two occurred when Mulcahy was asked to explain his allegations of corruption on the part of Skadron. In the end, he listed Base2, Referendum 1 and the fact that the council holds executive sessions as examples of Skadron’s corruption.

“This corruption stuff — it’s insulting and shameful,” Skadron said. “It’s embarrassing for Aspen.

“You should be ashamed, because that’s not the case.”

Skadron was later asked if he ever has taken things too far in dealing with people.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I could have done (at least one situation) better.”

However, he said he has thousands of conversations and that was just one of them.

Asked to name one thing about each other that they admired, the men smiled.

“He’s very well-spoken,” Mulcahy said.

Said Skadron, “Lee always treats me cordially in private.”