The exit interview: Aspen’s mayor reflects on 12 years in office
After 12 years of serving on Aspen City Council, six of which were as mayor, Steve Skadron steps down on Monday with minimal regrets and plenty of proud moments.
The 56-year-old will now take his political expertise to Colorado Mountain College to be the dean of the Aspen and Carbondale campuses.
As Aspen politics go, Skadron’s tenure has seen lots of successes, but it also has been riddled with failed initiatives, controversy, lawsuits, name calling and frustration.
But the Minnesota native took it all in stride and applied his “Minnesota nice” skills when necessary. He approached public meetings with levity and injected humor when he could.
Skadron, who was first elected in 2007, reflected last week on his time in office in a question-and-answer session with The Aspen Times. An extended version appears below.
AT: Why did you get into Aspen politics?
SS: I didn’t bring an expectation that I was here to change the world. I did it to take my turn in community service and I wanted to put my two cents in on the direction my community was going.
I built my entire political success running against the infill code and saving small town character and reducing building sizes, which is one of my significant accomplishments, rolling back infill.
AT: What other notable things have you done in your 12 years on council?
SS: I started pushing uphill economy in 2014. Uphill economy is now a region-wide conversation now. It has become an opportunity for Western Slope economic development around the outdoor rec industry.
I’m the longest serving elected official working on (bringing the city’s electric grid to) 100 percent renewable.
Creating the Next Gen Commission. The transportation impact study we started. Bike yield signs. Rubey Park, the police station building, city offices. Can you imagine? Not just one project, but three that are legacy projects that are going to be here for generations to come.
The moratorium that led to a rewrite of the land use code was a huge deal.
I’m proud about the double basement code. That’s that whackamole land use. As fast as we can write legislation to prevent whatever development atrocity is imposing itself, the development community comes back with something like double basements.
I think we delivered a huge amount of affordable housing in my time here. Electric infrastructure in town for electric cars. The Valley Health Alliance; BRT; getting the Dolinesk property; Sky Mountain Park; the Pro Cycling Challenge; We-Cycle; Rio Grande Park. There are a million things.
AT: You got a lot of push back on the now defunct mobility lab. In December, you didn’t have the votes of your fellow council members to pass an $800,000 contract with Lyft.
SS: Mobility lab is one of the things I am most proud of. One of the difficulties of a two-year election cycle is the ability to initiate transformative policy. I was trying to get the mobility lab done in a ridiculously short amount of time to avoid the election cycle and then on top of it, the election got moved up.
I had three council members who were “yes” votes for 18 months until December before the election.
AT: But they voted “no” because of pushback from local business owners who thought the city was competing with them.
SS: The ground transportation industry was not not talked to.
I ran two elections on it and it was covered in your news stories; it doesn’t get more public.
What’s sad to me is that the community loses. Because Monday would be the kick off to mobility lab. We would have had all of these transportation modes. We would have a transportation hub at the intercept lot. Lyft would have given us their technology. RTFA, We-Cycle and all of these other transportation modes all within this one branded app that could have brought the transportation future. E-bikes would have been available, which would have been the single best marketing effort for bike shops. Semi-autonomous shuttles would have been running,
No amount of public outreach would have satisfied critics of the program. I say that with a great amount of sensitivity to business owners. But the future is coming whether we like it or not and we can manage the future or we can have it dumped upon us because it’s coming anyway.
It was addressing the entrance Aspen without building.
Maybe it’s not the right plan but at least I tried. I tried to make the community better and that’s what you do as an elected leader.
AT: What’s your philosophy on being a legislator?
SS: Nothing I did should come as a surprise to anyone because I ran on a platform and my principles are taken directly from the Aspen Area Community Plan, and I’ve wrote or initiated policy that delivered the principles we say we want to prioritize in the Aspen Area Community Plan.
We talk about a bike and pedestrian oriented downtown. We talk about a diverse local economy, so there is the uphill economy and the mobility lab that I worked on.
We talk about prioritizing environmental stewardship and I’ve pushed really heavily on that because fundamentally it’s an economic decision for me. Because the strength of the local economy is directly tied to our natural environment and a community like this one with all of our privilege should lead on issues like this, so I did.
AT: You took some heat on the city’s new logo as well. How do you feel about that?
SS: I pushed the environmental thing and it’s one thing to go from 50 percent to 75 percent renewable; it’s a whole other thing to go from 92 percent to 100 percent. We got recognized for that and I started speaking and I was invited to Paris and I did all of this around the world stuff. I am on a world stage and Aspen claims to be a world-class community and the logo we are posting is the dead leaf from 1972. I’m representing Aspen and our logo is next to Paris and Seoul, South Korea and Rio De Janeiro and Jakarta and Denver and Philapehja and Los Angeles.
It’s easy to see cost and criticize. I saw the responsibility was mine to recognize Aspen’s place among world leadership and I thought we should put a couple of bucks into our logo. (Former Governor John) Hickenlooper redid Denver’s logo and it cost $2.4 million. Ours was $50,000. It’s not that big of a deal.
AT: What else have you been criticized for?
SS: You are not here to make people happy, as odd as they might sound. You are here to increase quality of life, make people’s lives better, and the route to making people’s lives better … sometimes you ruffle feathers.
The Castle Creek Bridge is like that. The day after it’s done it’s the best ever. Not one complaint and I smile every time I bike or jog across that bridge and someone passes me coming the other way.
I got criticized for parking rates. It was not for the sake of raising parking rates. We laid out a program and the goal was to relieve traffic and congestion downtown. If anyone remembers 2013 and 2014, it was honking and backup and New York City rush hour in our downtown core.
We came up with a creative program to address that. We learned from the ‘90s that when they instituted paid parking it worked. We adopted that principle and increased the parking rates. Everything was a carrot and a stick program. It wasn’t just the punitive component. Along with the increased parking rates we used increased revenues to pay for the Downtowner, which is one of the most popular things in town and the program worked.
There is always at least one space available and that was our goal. Rather than a car sitting idling or circling, they could pull into a space.
You get criticized for raising the parking rates and not necessarily complimented for the Downtowner that people fell in love with.
AT: You led a council in which people no longer felt confident in what you were doing and the voters in 2015 passed Referendum 1, which changed the home rule charter so that projects that received variances from the land use code are decided by voters, not elected officials. How do you feel about that?
SS: It’s one of the most anti-democratic pieces of legislation that this community has ever passed. It’s the kind of legislation that will come back to haunt the community for generations to come because it chips away at representative democracy and moves it to a direct model.
It takes the issue out of the council chamber, where elected community representatives familiar with details debate facts, are accountable and transparent, and act in the community’s interest, and puts the debate into the market place where those with the loudest voices and/or the most money or the best ad campaign control the conversation accountable to no one.
AT: Wasn’t it that your constituents didn’t want council to give anymore more concessions to the developers?
SS: That is not what was happening. The council in 2001 loosened up the land use code. The buildings that were causing all of the angst were all legal under the land use code. Infill allowed for the 50’ buildings you now see, like the art museum. The 50-foot buildings didn’t arrive because of variances, they arrived because they were legal under the code. The art museum was built with no variances.
Variances granted, if any were, attempted to reduce mass and scale in exchange for something.
The argument was, “rewrite the land use code” and that is what we did. Not put into the charter land use regulation.
AT: What regrets do you have?
SS: When I was first elected to council in 2007 land values were sky rocketing and the real estate market was huge and it was really, really intense. BMC West came up and I was a rookie council member. We went into executive session and we were posed with the question whether or not to buy it for $18.5 million. I supported it and I’m glad I supported it. But what I regret was I felt rushed and I made a rushed decision. It was a lesson I learned early on to make sure I was invested in the decision.
I don’t know if I would have changed my support but I am glad we own it now.
I also remember a church in the West End and we went through this long review and there was a tree in the middle of the property and I was on this anti-development thing and the pastor was there.
They were trying to get a remodel done and I remember J.E. DeVilbiss and I were going hard core on the work around with this tree and the next day I felt so bad for voting against it so I rode over to the church and apologized for putting the pastor through that. It had to do with being so rooted in your principles that you can’t see the reality.
AT: Do you think Aspen is in a better place than when you took office? Rents are higher. It’s harder to find hospitality and service workers. Building heights are lower but how does that help the average Aspenite?
SS: The degree to which I delivered the support for the votes for the principles that made Aspen better, yes. I didn’t waiver on principles. I can’t stop people from moving here. I can’t take us back to 1983.
AT: You are by far the most traveled mayor of Aspen, going to places like Paris, Taiwan, Seoul, South Korea, Dubai and Dusseldorf, Germany. Why?
SS: First, let me say most of these trips were paid for by whoever invited me.
A lot of it was environmental stewardship. One, we achieved 100 percent renewable under my administration and at the same time, COP 21 was happening in Paris.
Had we not achieved 100 percent renewable as a community, had we not prioritized environmental stewardship and had the international community not organized COP 21 in Paris, most of this travel would not have happened.
Because of our leadership role, we were part of these international groups who were meeting at conferences.
What we do here is highly symbolic like banning plastic bags, but I could tell the story of us going 100 percent renewable and that it was practical, profitable, our rates are still competitive and it’s good for our quality of life, both health wise and economically.
With the Sister Cities stuff, I went to Abetone, Italy, twice.
I went to Garmisch because it was their 50th anniversary. They are our first sister city and they were dedicating a park.
Recently I went to Queenstown. That was a chamber of commerce thing. They asked me to come speak about our economic model and I spoke about affordable housing and made a business case.
I also went to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The entire nation of Canada was legalizing marijuana and Halifax was having a conference.
I was flattered and it was one of those opportunities that presented itself in a unique time in Aspen’s evolution. I thought it was prudent and brought value to the city.
I went to Mammoth, California. And that was because of the Alterra connection to the Skico.
AT: Some have criticized you for traveling and not being here representing us.
SS: I am always contentious about it. I have a 100 percent attendance record at Monday public meetings. I have been to every meeting. I think I missed three work sessions in all of my time as mayor.
AT: In your last year, you seem to get more agitated at the council table and how you treat people who come before you to speak. What’s with that?
SS: That’s fair. Part of that is you are trying to get stuff done. I don’t have the patience and tolerance at this point that I had back then.
There’s a capacity to what we can take. Generally I try to make it entertaining up there for my own piece of mind to make it fun but there are times when I don’t have the patience.
AT: Do you think if you ran again would be elected?
SS: If I wasn’t term limited and I could run, I would not have run. I never did this to be the mayor but as a matter of community service. The general principle in our representative democracy is that we all take a turn.
AT: If you had run, what would be the issues you would campaign on?
SS: I think needs to be really honest with itself. This is not Aspen of 1970 something and there are new realities. One of those realities, the community should challenge itself with is the Aspen Area Community Plan. Is this the plan that speaks to our current values? I would challenge the community and say that they are not.
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Natalie Tsevdos, who is in charge of inspecting roughly 116 food establishments located in the city of Aspen, said violations typically are corrected on-site.