Council members pledge to get along with each other | AspenTimes.com

Council members pledge to get along with each other

John Colson

The members of Aspen’s City Council made it clear this week that they really want to work together, and are willing to devote considerable effort toward that goal.

Whether they’ll succeed or not, however, is not so clear.

The council got together Monday and Tuesday for its first “retreat” since the May municipal election. It was also the first time the members have had a chance to talk openly since new council member Tony Hershey made incendiary public remarks about former Mayor John Bennett, now a private citizen.

Hershey recently told a news reporter that Bennett is an “arrogant prick” and an “erudite asshole.” He was angry because Bennett, just before leaving office, issued a confidential memorandum about transportation funding issues to a number of local politicians, but had excluded Hershey from the list. Hershey has been openly critical of Bennett’s policies as mayor, particularly on transit-related issues.

The remarks added a new level of tension to the already touchy relationships among those on the City Council.

Although Hershey has apologized for what he admitted was an unwarranted outburst of hostility, it was obvious at the opening of the retreat that the remarks left others on the council in a state of apprehension. High on the agenda At the top of the agenda for the two-day retreat was a discussion of the question, “How do we want to work together?”

But even before the meeting got to that point, another newly elected councilman, Tom McCabe, suggested that what he most wanted to come out of the retreat was an understanding of the members’ “collective values.”

Those values, he said, include such things as trust, communication and some idea of how best to work together, “so that we kind of take these things into consideration in our dealings with the public.”

McCabe’s proposal was seconded by Councilman Jim Markalunas, who urged the others to “be kind to each other … end this internal bickering.” He added later that what the council should strive for is “a sense of collegiality … that each of us are equals, and everyone’s viewpoint is heard.”

Throughout Monday afternoon and evening, led by facilitator Gary Severson of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, the council members went through problem-solving exercises. They talked about their differing styles and goals concerning service on the council, and other issues related to their abilities to work together.

Richards pointed out that one of the exercises differed from real council meetings in one important respect – there were no “vested interests” that might clash.

She and Severson remarked that, during the retreat, council members did not interrupt or override each others’ statements or engage in personal jibes or attacks. There was even considerable humor evident in the back-and-forth dialogue, and abundant references to the need for council members to show each other respect and trust in the course of doing their jobs for the public, to “agree that it is OK to disagree” without rancor. Hold the bad habits “I feel really fortunate because we’re in our first month [as a council] and none of our habits are ingrained,” Richards commented during the retreat.

She said all the council members need to avoid “gossip” about each other outside of the meetings, both among the members and with the public, and refrain from inflammatory or judgmental remarks.

“We all know we’ve had a couple of chapters of that recently,” she said pointedly, referring to Hershey’s remarks about Bennett.

“Your statements have hurt me a little bit,” she said to Hershey, accusing him of regularly lumping Bennett and Richards together in blanket condemnations of the council’s pro-train actions.

She said Hershey’s outburst led her to wonder if he feels the same way toward her and “anyone who disagrees with you,” what he says about her when she is not around, and why it was that he was still so angry about the memo, since he was interviewed about it more than a week after it was distributed.

Hershey apologized again, and was cautioned by Severson that such public outbursts can undermine the council’s standing with the public.

“They begin to lose trust in the body that was elected,” he said.

McCabe, trying to lighten the mood, noted that one night before the city election he found an “anonymous note” taped to his door, charging Richards with an unspecified violation of the law. Rather than take it to the local news media or otherwise publicizing the accusation, he said, he called Richards on the phone, learned that the accusation was baseless, and dropped it.

“That’s how I’d like to deal with everybody in the room,” he said. A rocky road? Throughout this segment of the retreat, the council members obviously were working hard at improving relations, if not achieving cordial friendships.

And in discussing actual issues that will be coming before them soon, they demonstrated that they can work together without resorting to personal attacks and fiery verbal exchanges.

As the first day of the retreat broke up at around 8:30 p.m. on Monday, though, there was still a hint of tension in the room.

That tension may simply be a carryover from the heat of the recently concluded election campaigns, which will likely dissipate over time.

Or, the remnants of tension might persist, and sparks may continue to fly among the council members whenever controversial issues come before them. From the tenor of the retreat, it was obvious that no one on the council wants that, but they may not be able to help themselves.

And if the council members find themselves locked in perpetual interpersonal combat, Aspen is in for a rocky couple of years, at least.


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