Aspen issues dominate Squirm Night council forum
February 7, 2019
With two open seats on Aspen City Council in the March 5 election, the four candidates vying for those vacancies exhibited their political differences Thursday at Squirm Night, a forum hosted by the local media.
Held at City Hall, the forum drew a standing-room-only crowd as the council hopefuls weighed in on some of Aspen's most pressing quality-of-life issues — housing, traffic congestion and the Lift One corridor plan, which also advances to voters next month.
Running for council are City Clerk Linda Manning, Planning and Zoning member Skippy Mesirow, incumbent Bert Myrin and Rachel Richards, a former Aspen mayor and Pitkin County commissioner. There will be two open council seats because the second and final four-year term of incumbent and mayoral candidate Adam Frisch expires in June.
The candidates have been espousing and campaigning their political positions and philosophies since the beginning of the year, and those were addressed at the forum, which also gave voters a chance to better understand their approaches and personalities.
Questions surrounding their candidacies include Richards' longtime run in Aspen politics, Mesirow's level of political conviction, Myrin's seemingly stubborn nature as a council member and Manning's role as city clerk.
"I am very proud of the community support I've had in the past and the ability to represent the community values moving forward," Richards said, when asked about the "career politician" brand she has been deemed by her critics. Richards said she views her role as "civil service" and it has paid off by her helping stave off fracking at Thompson Divide, and her regional work that has included fruitful efforts in health care, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and affordable housing.
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Other than Myrin, three of the four candidates have gone on the record saying they support the Lift One corridor plan and committing $4.3 million to the proposal on the western base of Aspen Mountain that includes an 81-room hotel known as the Gorsuch Haus and a 104-key Lift One Lodge timeshare project, a new chairlift that would go about 500 feet farther down the hill than where the current Lift 1A is located, a ski museum, skier services and ski patrol operations.
Mesirow said Aspen is at a "tipping point" that has rested on its laurels in the wake of progressive initiatives in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, and he also defended his support of the Lift One corridor plan, even though it is at odds with his vision for Aspen housing at least 60 percent of its employees. Mesirow said the project, while he believes it has flaws, beats the alternative scenario of building four single-family homes, and a Lift One Lodge proposal with no chairlift to Dean Street like the current proposal.
"All decisions are a choice," he said, "and choice one outweighs choice two."
As city clerk for the past five years, Manning said she has a sound understanding of what frustrates Aspen businesses — chiefly the bureaucratic hurdles they face when it comes to getting building permits or simply understanding the building-permit process. She suggested an express lane of sorts for those willing to pay to fast-track their permit applications.
"I'm sure there are people who would take that option," she said, adding that she believes the sign codes can be too burdensome on business that need a "little bit of an edge."
Manning will have to step down from her clerk's position if she is elected. She will keep the job if she is not, she said.
"If not, I plan to continue to do my job, but I hope I have a bigger voice in City Hall that people will listen to me and take my opinion to heart," she said.
Myrin maintained his position of Aspen focusing on its carrying capacity while trying to "figure out how to not dig the hole deeper for housing and jobs."
As a council member, Myrin said he has accomplished more than his critics contend, including the March 2016 moratorium that froze the filing of land-use applications in various commercial zone districts so that the council could revise its land-use code, which it did.
"People have a pretty good idea where I stand because they know my principles," said Myrin, who suggested more development will exacerbate Aspen's existing issues — from traffic congestion to where to house the employees who the projects generate.
"What's our carrying capacity?" he asked. "How much can we handle? How much can we handle before we destroy the golden goose instead of a golden egg?"
Richards later countered, "I don't want to kill the golden goose, but you've got to care for it and feed it."
The candidates all agreed Aspen has traffic congestion problems but had different takes on how to address them.
Manning said the city could aid by encouraging motorists to use the West End to Power Plant Road as a way of getting out of town, as opposed to just Main Street and its S-curves.
"Until we try these things, we don't know if they're going to work," she said.
Myrin and Mesirow want to keep the S-curves, while Richards said she supports the concept of a dedicated light rail from the Brush Creek Road/Highway 82 Intercept Lot through the Marolt property into Aspen.
The event was sponsored by The Aspen Times, Aspen Daily News, Aspen Public Radio and GrassRoots Community Network. The moderators were Aspen Daily News editor Curtis Wackerle and Aspen Public Radio news director Alycin Bektesh.
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