Lead up to Wheeler money question ‘a flawed process’
Sixty percent of voters this fall would have to approve repurposing real estate transfer tax revenue dedicated to the Wheeler Opera House; City Council divided on asking the public to do so
The angst, consternation and harmed relationships among Aspen’s elected officials in deciding to send a ballot question to voters asking to repurpose Wheeler Opera House money could be an indication of how the measure will do at the polls.
The process leading up to Aspen City Council’s Sept. 3 decision was so flawed that two board members who were in the minority took an unusual step by calling a special meeting to reconsider the previous vote taken three days prior.
“I do not want to send a ballot to the citizens that was railroaded through the council without the full participation of all five members of the council,” said Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who along with Councilwoman Rachel Richards, called the Sept. 3 special meeting.
They did that because after debating the issue Aug. 31, the council was deadlocked 2-2 on sending a ballot question to voters.
Absent from that meeting was Councilman Skippy Mesirow, who was on vacation but called into the meeting virtually after his colleagues, members of the arts community and the public had had an hour and a half of discussion without him.
Despite Hauenstein and Richards objecting to Mesirow casting a vote during the Aug. 31 meeting because he had not participated in the public hearing, he voted anyway.
Mayor Torre didn’t attempt to stop Mesirow from voting or suggest a continuance, which was to Torre’s benefit since Mesirow was on his side to send the question to voters asking them to repurpose real estate transfer tax revenue from the Wheeler to other arts endeavors in the community.
Councilman John Doyle, who was considered the swing vote, was in the hot seat for the 72 hours in between the meetings, and felt pressure as he was individually lobbied by his colleagues to vote on their side.
Sept. 3’s meeting didn’t change the outcome from the Aug. 31 vote, which was 3-2 to approve an ordinance and resolution sending the question to voters.
The reason for Aug. 31 meeting was to benefit Richards, who was on vacation during the Aug. 24 public hearing, which was scheduled to be the second reading of the ordinance and council’s final vote.
Having two council members unavailable leading up to the Sept. 3 deadline set by the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder’s Office to get a question on the ballot clearly was problematic not only for those who were available but also for members of the public interested in the issue.
“We are in the last week of being able to even consider this so running up against that timeline is very difficult,” Torre said during the Aug. 31 meeting. “We’ve had council members that are out of town and pushing us up against the wall, and I understand not being comfortable with moving forward for different reasons.”
Hauenstein, who favored having a ballot question in fall of 2022 after making sure the city had funding in place for mental health and child care, said process matters to him.
“If we had all five council members here on (Aug. 24), and we had a vote, I’d be disappointed by the outcome, but I could live with it,” he said. “If we had all five council members here for the whole discussion on (Aug. 31), I could’ve lived with it, and I wouldn’t have lost sleep over it, wouldn’t have been stressed, and I wouldn’t have felt it had done harm between me and other members of council and staff.”
Mesirow during the Aug. 24 meeting chastised leaders of Aspen’s arts and culture organizations for not being present to publicly give their support toward the ballot question this fall, even though they had previously done so.
Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, addressed his absence during the Aug. 31 meeting, the one that Mesirow missed.
“We are sorry that it appeared that we didn’t care enough. We were in the last week of an epic summer in which we actually created historically important content,” Fletcher said. “I think no one in the entire world of classical music accomplished what we accomplished this summer so the fact that we weren’t at the meeting last week, which was reported by council members and by the press, just makes my head shake.”
The situation had Hauenstein shaking his head as well.
“The process on Aug. 31 was deeply flawed and forwards a tainted approval for the voters and arts, and it divides council support and harms future council relations,” he said Sept. 3. “It has been a really stressful time for me, and if I’ve created any wedges or strains in relationships, I apologize, but it’s been a really difficult few days.”
Even though council has been discussing a potential ballot question repurposing the RETT since the beginning of the year, Richards and Hauenstein said they feel it would’ve been more appropriate in fall 2022 when it’s been more flushed out and thus, more sellable to Aspen voters, of which 60% must vote yes in order for the question to pass.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock that Richards sees in convincing voters in the next 45 days is that the city’s polling conducted in August suggested the measure won’t pass.
Council directed City Manager Sara Ott to hire a polling firm for $12,000 and the results should not be ignored, Richards argued at the Sept. 3 meeting.
“It tells you whether it’s a go or a no go, and I don’t think it was given the weight that it deserves in terms of translating it to what happens, not just the science or the theory of a polling, or how many people you reach, but it told us who we needed to have vote, over-vote in mass to succeed in this election,” she said. “I have come to the conclusion I cannot put my name on the campaign and ask people to volunteer their time, their money, their reputation on an issue that I believe is going to fail.”
Torre said at the Aug. 31 meeting that he thinks the time is now to ask voters, regardless of what the poll results are.
“I think this is an issue that you put out what you put in, I think positivity would make this go the way we want it to go but again, if it doesn’t, I’m OK with that because I want people to have a choice,” he said. “These are items that people are interested in and so the poll and politicizing is not where I come from. … I would love to send it to the electorate and have them make their decision.”
Mesirow acknowledged Richards’ almost 30 years of elections experience in Aspen, but the poll also suggests that less frequent voters and young residents are supportive of the measure.
He said he wasn’t planning on doing a heavy lift on campaigning for the ballot question, but it could be an opportunity for the council to work together and in that instance, he would work harder.
Richards was not persuaded.
“That’s a great offer to come now after we heard you weren’t planning on putting a heavy lift in before,” she said at the Sept. 3 meeting.
She pointed to two prior city initiated ballot questions that were passed along to voters by a divided council.
The first was in 2003 when voters denied a question asking to buy the Mother Lode restaurant building for $3.25 million as a future expansion of the Wheeler Opera House.
The second was the controversial Lift One proposal that passed in 2019 with a margin of 26 votes, leaving the community divided on allowing 320,000 square feet of commercial space at the base of Aspen Mountain’s west side.
“I think that has left some sores that have not gone away, and I have to stop and think what if those two minority members had been listened to and it wasn’t sent to the ballot and it was delayed and there had been more time in order to get the right-sized project and to get the right amount of affordable housing,” Richards said. “It hurt our community, and I think that lingers and the question now is do we model that behavior going forward?”
A decade of analysis paralysis
Repurposing a portion of the RETT, which stands at $40 million in the Wheeler’s coffers, has been a conversation previous councils have agonized over for more than a decade.
The current council agrees that there are pressing needs in the community that the RETT could pay for, as well as more funding for the arts, since the revenue source originally passed by voters in 1979 has a cap of $100,000 annually to local cultural organizations.
But how much to divert, how much to leave for the historic opera house and where the future revenue goes has not been decided.
The majority of council earlier this year had favored waiting until fall 2022 to ask a RETT diversion question but then a group of citizens in July tried to put a citizen referendum on this fall’s ballot that would’ve removed the $100,000 cap and approved a $10 million grant to the Aspen School District to upgrade and renovate the 550-seat Aspen District Theater and 150-seat black box space.
The group was unsuccessful in getting the required amount of signatures from Aspen voters, but the effort made some elected officials nervous and it forced their hand to make a move now.
“This is heartbreaking for me,” Richards said during the Aug. 31 meeting. “I thought we would be able to do this, but I don’t just dismiss a poll and go on fantasy thinking.”
The council also hasn’t had a formal conversation or meeting with the Wheeler board of directors about the ballot question.
The citizen board has several concerns about the ballot language, including that it isn’t restrictive enough in defining what exactly are “cultural, visual and performing arts” and that council would have too much power to spend down the Wheeler fund, according to Chip Fuller, chair of the Wheeler board in an Aug. 31 email to council.
This fall’s ballot question asks that a portion of the RETT be repurposed to the Red Brick Center for the Arts, which currently is supported by the city’s general fund and asset management plan fund.
Eliminating the general fund as a source of support for the Red Brick would allow the city to use it to pay its remaining $2.1 million in outstanding certificates of participation for the Isis Theater, which is in financial peril.
The ballot question also asks that it removes the cap on the annual $100,000 set aside for arts and culture grants to local nonprofits, and opens it up more broadly to the cultural, visual and performing arts.
“To me this question is not perfect, I don’t know that I’ve ever looked at a ballot question that was perfect, but to me this identifies and works for a solution on three items,” Torre said in the Sept. 3 meeting. “This gives us greater access to programming and supplies even to kids and adults, this is the community support in the Red Brick. This is not just about arts, this is about our community.”
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