Aspen’s mayor focuses on 2020 vision for city

With six months under his belt as Aspen’s mayor, Torre is ready to jump into 2020 with a new vision for the city and its dwellers.

He and his fellow council members, two of who were sworn in with him this past June, will reconvene early in the year to begin a visionary process with a facilitator from Novak Consulting Group.

The multi-day gathering will build off Aspen City Council’s retreat this past summer, in which strategic focus areas were established.

“It’s more about clarifying our priorities, goals and expectations, and getting clarity on our shared values and how that can direct informed decision-making,” Torre said earlier this month. “Then our values are aligned and we make decisions and put money toward them.”

City Manager Sara Ott said there is no contract yet with Novak, or even an agenda set. But the idea is that it’s a check-in for council members to make sure they are on the same page in terms of prioritizing goals.

“This is ‘best practices’ work,” she said. “The most effective councils in the country take time to do this kind of thinking.”

Only when the city as an organization has its house in order can elected officials do effective work, Torre said.

And coming off major changes in the city administration at the beginning of 2019 and a shift in culture with the forced resignation of former City Manager Steve Barwick and other vacancies in the organization, it’s time to turn the ship around, Torre noted.

“I’m an advocate for values-based budgeting; priority-based budgeting, as it’s called,” he said. “And that’s something that just hasn’t existed in the in the role that we needed to play.”

When asked how he plans to make Aspenites’ lives better in the next year, Torre said he wants to focus on quality of life and prosperity.

“I’m hoping that within the next 12 months, this time next year we are all going to say, ‘You know what? Aspen is this much better as a resident, as a visitor and we’re doing business better,’” he said.

That could mean that traffic congestion has eased coming into town with modifications to the roundabout or third slip lane created near the Cemetery Lane stoplight.

“I’m also an advocate of changing some of the lane uses,” Torre said. “For example, the bus-only lanes, I would include other occupied shuttles so instead of a bus lane sitting empty, a van with 10 people coming back from Buttermilk should use it.”

He acknowledges that the Entrance to Aspen fix is decades away but tweaks may improve the current situation.

“Are there things that could come from the city that make the entrance as it sits now work better? Yeah, it’s possible,” Torre said. “I’m just looking for those small, quality-of-life improvements.

“I want you smiling more and I want you to feel like you are under less stress from both your job and your personal demands.”

There are, of course, the core services such as clean rivers, parks, streets and alleys that Torre said will remain high priorities.

Enabling locally serving businesses to survive here is an effort that Torre expects council will take up in 2020.

“We’re working on housing to the best of our ability but the second part of that is people who live here actually earn a living here, and that part we’re still working on,” he said. “The third tier of that is having businesses where people who live here can actually support and afford and utilize those that are serving local needs. And yes, a local needs affordable restaurants.”

He acknowledged that previous councils have attempted this before with little success but it’s worth trying again.

“We need to do it through our land-use code, we need to be creating more of those (affordable) spaces,” he said. “There are people who advocate for allowing for more commercial development in some of our fringe neighborhoods.”

Torre said his role as mayor is to balance the needs of the community and support the tourism resort economy.

“When it comes to my role for an advocate for business and visitorship, there is that linkage to what’s good for my community,” he said. “It’s economic sustainability that I’m looking at, not just economic growth, … tourism sustainability, not just tourism growth.”

Environmental initiatives will be introduced next year, including requiring commercial buildings to be energy-efficient, growing composting programs and coming up with a funding plan for cleaning storm water runoff before it hits the Roaring Fork River.

As a first-time mayor, Torre said he has settled into the seat. He said he works between 30 and 40 hours a week and believes it is a full-time job.

Council tentatively will discuss in February giving raises to future council members. Council members make $20,700 a year; the mayor receives $27,900. They also receive health benefits and other modest stipends.

“I want to do it as early as possible to at least have the conversation so it’s not directly being related to a pending election,” he said.

Already in motion are plans for hundreds of new affordable housing units and the local government is looking at opportunities to offer early learning childhood services that are affordable for local families.

2019 accomplishments

Torre said since they were elected in March, council members have been focused on learning how to work with each other while improving some of the conditions left by a previous administration.

Specifically, community outreach was lacking until the city hired a communications director this past summer, and Torre opened more lines of communication with open office hours with the mayor, having a social media presence and allowing public comment during work sessions.

“So you look at where we are one year from where we were a year ago and I’d say we already have a little bit better community rest, even though some of these issues are not going our way,” he said. “I do feel that most people would say that they feel more comfortable and confident with the council that is seated and the direction of the city overall.”

Council also hired Ott, who just hired a new community development director, a position that was vacated in August.

Torre said he and his colleagues inherited the actions of a previous council that was light on affordable housing and heavy on private development.

“We’re getting our foundational base back under us and I think it’s important to recognize that it took us literally the first six months to get on what I’d say is more solid footing,” he said. “So here we are going into 2020 and we’re looking forward, we’re working on all those issues that we inherited, as well as the challenges that we see as our priorities moving forward.

“But truly the greatest charge for us is to get our organization to be operating efficiently and effectively. That’s our No. 1 job right now.”