Mayoral candidates Torre, Tracy Sutton face off at Squirm Night
Incumbent Mayor Torre and challenger Tracy Sutton clashed — but found some common ground — at Squirm Night on Wednesday night.
The two candidates clashed over a few issues, like the city’s handling of the 2020 residential development and STR permit moratorium, but agreed on others, like approving of safety upgrades at Aspen Airport without allowing for an expansion of incoming air traffic.
Torre is seeking his third term as mayor, and this campaign is Sutton’s first run at local government.
Moderators were Andre Salvail, editor of the Aspen Daily News; Don Rogers, editor of the Aspen Times; and Kaya Williams, with Aspen Public Radio.
The debate opened with a question about the Entrance to Aspen and the preferred alternative from the Record of Decision.
The Castle Creek Bridge is nearing the end of its viability. CDOT and the Federal Highway Administration collaborated with the city decades ago across many years to decide on a “preferred alternative” that met community objectives to address traffic into Aspen and repair the Castle Creek Bridge.
The city is running out of time to decide whether to implement the preferred alternative or not, as CDOT will step in to ensure the safety of Castle Creek Bridge.
“It’s been quite some time that we’ve been talking about it since I first moved here 37 years ago, and I was a commuter then,” Sutton said. “And it’s one of those things that we can throw a building moratorium or a short-term-rental moratorium in 24 hours, but we’ve been talking about this bridge for many years, and something needs to be done now.”
She did not offer a concrete alternative plan but said that she would invite experts to discuss other options with the city. She also voiced concern over the preferred alternative’s options for emergency exits from downtown Aspen.
Torre pointed out that local voters selected the preferred alternative in the ’90s, and the preferred alternative is not solely the decision of the city. He also emphasized the need to get more community support for the preferred alternative, as the latest votes on its implementation showed a close split.
“My job as mayor is to lead a process that gets our community to the best solution,” he said. “The last vote on the (Entrance to Aspen) was about a 51 to 49 vote. Very close in our community. What we need going forward is to get our community to rally by whatever solution our community prefers, but we need more support for it than a 50/50 split.”
The city last visited the record of decision in 2007, and according to a CDOT compilation of vote outcomes, the last city election related to the preferred alternative was in 2002. Voters signaled they preferred the S-curve configuration to the Modified Direct configuration of the Preferred Alternative by 56% to 44%. Pitkin County voters preferred the S-Curve to the Modified Direct by 51% to 49%.
The upcoming Feb. 13 City Council work session will discuss other options for the Entrance to Aspen.
Tensions flared at the table, though, as the candidates discussed the moratorium on residential development and short-term-rental permits.
“None of us like using tools like that, but when it comes to the progress of our community and the safeguards of our community, I think it’s very much warranted,” Torre said in defense of the city’s actions.
Sutton criticized the moratorium, calling it short-sighted and said it missed the mark for effectively managing STRs in Aspen.
She is a broker and owns a luxury STR business — Aspen Signature Vacation Rentals — though she insists she recognizes the need to regulate STRs.
“I just don’t like the way it was handled. I thought it was not properly thought out,” she said.
And in her view, the City Council and Torre did not appropriately include stakeholder voices during the moratorium process.
“I was most disappointed, and one of the reasons I started paying attention to the City Council and everything else was because of the fact that there were several of us on the stakeholders’ meeting that met every two weeks with the city …. Nobody listened to people from the lodging community hotels or anything about how these things operated and our recommendations,” Sutton said. “The fact that we weren’t listened to makes me think that the rest of the community wasn’t listened to.”
Torre fired back, “We have got to have a balance of community and resort … This comes down to a question of profit over people.”
Sutton took issue with the insulation that she cares more about money from tourists than the community.
“I don’t want this to be about STRs,” she said. “And I certainly do not put profit over people. We’re supporting an entire valley of people with some of these short-term rentals.”
She also touted her organization’s affiliation with Rent Responsibly, a community-building and education platform for STR management.
Both candidates agreed that affordable housing for the local workforce needs to remain a top priority for the city.
“I think it’s very sad that a lot of people who have businesses in town have to commute to operate them, and it’s a big part of our economy,” Sutton said.
And when moderators asked about potential growth at the Aspen Airport, the candidates were able to find more common ground.
Torre name-dropped Pitkin County legend Hunter S. Thompson and advice he gave Torre on considering airport expansion.
“The idea of larger jets is troubling to me,” Torre said. “One of the first times I was with Hunter Thompson, this was the topic that he cared to talk about. He was very clear about the difference between safety improvements and moving us towards a cruise ship type of tourism.”
The council has caught a lot of flack lately for their tendency for motions to pass unanimously.
Sutton said she would push for more diverse opinions to be included in council discussions and encourage council members to express their concerns.
“I think the basis for any healthy council should be diversions there,” she said. “I just don’t believe that everybody can agree on everything all the time, and it’s healthy to have a diverse opinion.”
Torre disagreed, saying that beneath most unanimous council votes are a lot of compromises and discussions among the council and city staff.
“For me, (this issue) is national politics bleeding into a local level,” he said. “What we’ve done on our council … is we’ve all compromised. We all come to the table with our desires and our opinions and our viewpoints. And the reason we vote 5-0 is because we all give a little bit to meet in the middle where our community sits.”
One of the successes he touted from his four years as mayor is the hiring of City Manager Sara Ott. And when the conversation turned to her performance and responsibilities at the city, things got heated between the candidates.
“Is Sarah the one who’s making all the decisions,” Sutton asked Torre after he graded her work a “solid B” and praised her job leading city staff through the pandemic and moving buildings.
“Welcome to running for mayor, and I hope you will learn more about the process works,” he said with an edge.
Currently, he city is in the process of recruiting and hiring a new chief of police after longtime Chief Pryor’s retirement in December.
Both candidates agreed that a potential chief of police should focus on community policing and on Aspen’s issues, like traffic management.
Sutton also called out the former chief’s administration for not addressing her calls for greater attention to pedestrian safety on Main Street.
The debate closed with an admission from her that she had not paid much attention to Torre as a mayor — and even voted for him — in the past. But after the moratorium, she took a much keener interest in what was going on, she said.
“It’s time for someone who can come in and move things along farther and more quickly,” she said. “I’m a business woman, and that’s what I bring to the table.”
“We’re making headway,” Torre said. “I’m so proud … of what we’ve done in the last four years. Hopefully, two more years and we can get the rest of those things done.”
The City Clerk’s Office will mail ballots to registered voters the week of Feb. 13. Voters can return the ballot via mail or at the drop box outside of City Hall, across from Rio Grande Park.
Voters can check their registration and address through the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.
In-person early voting runs Feb. 21-March 6 at the city clerk’s office in City Hall. The polls will be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Election Day is Tuesday, March 7. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The mayor and council debates can be seen at grassrootstv.org, and Aspen Public Radio has a link to audio on their website.
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