Incumbent’s demeanor hashed out in Aspen mayoral debate |

Incumbent’s demeanor hashed out in Aspen mayoral debate

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen CO Colorado
Michael Faas/The Aspen TimesMayoral candidates, from left, Mick Ireland, Ruth Kruger and Andrew Kole, at the Squirm Night forum Thursday at City Hall.

ASPEN – The two challengers in the Aspen mayor’s race flirted with differentiating themselves from incumbent Mick Ireland, but the hour-long debate at Squirm Night featured more fizzle than sizzle.Neither challenger Andrew Kole nor Ruth Kruger seized an opportunity to directly grill Ireland about specific votes he has taken in the last four years in office when moderators of the debate gave the three candidates the opportunity to quiz the others. Instead, differences emerged through questioning by the editors of the local newspapers.Kruger set the tone early in the hour-long debate when she said it is evident that Ireland’s style of running City Council meetings and his personal behavior intimidate some people.Kruger said she believes Ireland has the best interests of Aspen in mind, but he has trouble remaining civil when discussing issues and encounters disagreement. “I think he has so much passion that he can’t control it,” she said.It is clear that some Aspenites don’t get involved in the political process because they are concerned Ireland will exact revenge if they oppose him, Kruger continued.When asked to cite specific examples, she said she wouldn’t “out” anybody, then pledged, when pressed, to quit using criticism of Ireland’s behavior in her campaign material since she won’t offer specifics.When Kole was asked why voters should support him, he jumped on the differences between himself and both other candidates.”Ruth has made a comment that she has been in hibernation for the last four years in Aspen politics,” Kole said. He said he always remains plugged into the political debates, follows the processes and has a much better knowledge of issues before the council and the city.Kole credited Ireland with being the best current campaigner in Aspen politics but he suggested the mayor is too domineering in council deliberations. Kole said he would empower citizens appearing before the council and he would give the four other council members a chance to “shine.” There is a difference between letting members of the public speak to the council and actually listening to them, he stressed.Ireland acknowledged that he is “sometimes too passionate and too quick to speak out” while discussing city issues. But he said he feels his treatment of others and behavior is improving “and several people have told me so.” He promised to continue to try to improve.”When I make a mistake I apologize for it,” he said.Kruger took the offensive and noted that Ireland lost his cool just the day before at a candidates’ forum. He “attacked” the moderator for “just doing her job,” Kruger said.Ireland was upset at being forced to answer a yes or no question rather than giving a detailed answer. He said he apologized to the moderator the same day and also sent her a note Thursday.Consciously or not, each of the candidates conveyed messages to the voters about their personal styles. Ireland had a bike helmet perched on the desk in front of him during the debate in council chambers. He was relaxed to the point he was gobbling M&M candies at one point during the debate being aired live and recorded for GrassRoots TV.Ireland made a point of noting he’s visited 1,800 households so far in the campaign because he believes personal contact is best.Kruger had an Aspen Tap water bottle on the desk before her. She stressed that she is a political outsider. “I’m new to this game. I’m not a politician. I haven’t run for anything since junior high,” she said.Kruger applied to fill a vacancy on the council when Dwayne Romero resigned last winter. During candidate interviews with the remaining council members two months ago, Kruger stated she wasn’t interested in running for a council in this election. Last night she explained she changed her mind after “learning new information.” She said she feels she can make a difference in the way Aspen government is run.”I don’t regret changing my mind and I don’t regret running,” she said.Kole, displaying an NPR coffee cup, promised to make council meetings “more fun” and he let fly with several quips and jokes during the debate. Early in the debate he noted he wore his own tie to hang himself with, suggesting he would get himself in trouble with comments.He might have avoided trouble with voters but stuck his foot in his mouth when referring to his “new girlfriend.”When asked if he supported a ban on plastic bags, Kole said no. He said the goal of educating the public about the evils of using the bags is righteous. He volunteered that his environmentalist girlfriend had changed his habit of buying bottled water for use at his home by warning she wouldn’t sleep with him if he continued.Apparently realizing he disclosed too much, Kole sheepishly said to the GrassRoots camera, “Hi, Sharon, if you’re watching. Sorry.”The debate provided few glimpses into specific issues, including:• Plastic bag tax or ban: As noted, Kole wants the city to go the educational route rather than banning plastic bags at grocery stores. Kruger said, “I can’t say I’m opposed to the idea” but she doesn’t think it is in the city’s powers to impose a tax on use of plastic bags. Ireland said a tax is a great way to educate residents and visitors on the problems of bag use, and a great way to raise revenues to provide alternative, canvas bags at a lower price. He said the city needs to step out “and take a little heat” on the issue while pursuing action with other towns in the valley.• Aspen Art Museum: Ireland calmly but forcefully denied an editor’s assertion that the decision to approve the new Aspen Art Museum on the old Weinerstube building site was a “closed-door settlement.” The council received advice about the pros and cons of continuing litigation with the former owners of the site in closed sessions, he said. The council later determined after listening to opinions in public meetings that the museum was the best alternative, he maintained.Even if the city prevailed in the lawsuit, the developer would have ended up with a building that featured high-end luxury stores and high-end residential units, Ireland claimed. And there was a risk the city might have lost the lawsuit then be forced to allow the development and potentially pay damages and attorney’s fees. Approving use of the site for a museum provides the greatest public use, he said.Kruger countered that she is aware of only one public meeting on the museum, which didn’t give interested residents time to digest the proposal. “The public process was totally overlooked,” she said, adding that the city Planning and Zoning Commission wasn’t involved.She didn’t condemn the decision, just the process of getting there. Kruger also noted that the developer’s initial proposal included parking and affordable housing, so it wasn’t all bad.Kole said the museum proposal should have gone through the “whole process” and the facility should mitigate parking and employee generation. He noted he likes museums but thought the process was wrong.The museum review process and the mayor’s character issues generated the most intense debate in the generally tame