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Voters: Status quo or change?

Allyn Harvey

They didn’t do much squirming, but the candidates for City Council spent plenty of time answering dozens of questions from the press and the public at last night’s Squirm Night candidates forum.

The two most-talked-about issues of the night were transportation and housing – both came up several times.

And the different answers revealed what most voters probably already know: The face of the Aspen City Council could change radically with this election. Or not.

Council candidate Bruce Meyer perhaps best summed up the choice the voters are facing when he said, “Between the mayor’s race and the council race, voters have the choices they need to make real changes to this City Council, if they want.”

On the issue of whether or not a light-rail system should be built from the airport into Aspen, opinions ranged widely. On one side, rail critic Tony Hershey reiterated his unwavering opposition to rail; on the other, Roger Haneman said valleywide rail should be built as soon as possible.

In between the extremes, incumbent Jake Vickery said he was in favor of the light rail, but Aspen should be careful not to be straddled with more than its fair share of the cost of a valleywide system. Tom McCabe said that if one is built, it needs to be a single system from Glenwood to Aspen. Meyer said he thought the costs of building and operating a train were too much. And Tim Semrau said he didn’t see the ridership numbers ever justifying rail.

“Just because all this research has been done, it doesn’t mean we should build a train,” Semrau said.

All of the candidates, including Vickery, were critical of the city’s policy of sending out brochures that advocate one side of an issue – most recently rail.

The question came from a member of the audience who said he had recently received from the city a very one-sided brochure on rail that purported to be informational.

“There was a sense that so much money was being spent by the Common Sense Alliance against the rail that we needed to answer,” Vickery said in reference to last November’s rail question. “But I agree, there needs to be a level playing field.”

Semrau was more direct with his answer: “It’s an insult to get a propaganda brochure that’s paid for with your tax dollars.”

Hershey, who said the practice leads to voter distrust, was even more direct: “Mr. Vickery and his council are currently writing a Cecil B. DeMille epic on why we should have rail.”

When one member of the audience asked the candidates if they supported increasing the fine from $75 to $250 for failure to scoop doggie poop, most of the candidates waffled.

“It’s the same old shitty question,” said Semrau.

“I think the police would rather write a $75 ticket instead of a $200 ticket,” said Haneman. After struggling some more with the issue, he concluded, “We’ve tried higher prices in this town and the wrong people are still here.”

“I think it is incredibly selfish,” said Meyer, “when people let their dogs run free after work.” He didn’t, however, come out strongly in favor of increasing the fine.

Only McCabe, who said, “You can’t go outside without having to jump over things,” came out in favor of “upping the ante” for failing to clean up after a pet.

None of the candidates embraced the audience member’s suggestion that the meter maids be reassigned to picking up poop in the parks and citing errant dog owners.

The housing issue came up more than once, and Semrau came across as the strongest advocate of affordable housing. “Housing is the only issue,” he said at one point during the evening.

On the question of whether the proposed affordable housing project at Burlingame should be built immediately, however, Semrau pointed out that millions of dollars would have to be spent just to lay the infrastructure. He also said it makes more sense to locate housing as close to town as possible.

“I would support leaving it on the reserve list for now,” he said, “and continue to build out the available land in town.”

Haneman, on the other hand, said the project should proceed as planned. “A goal of 500 to 700 units means we need Burlingame,” he said. “It will not come anywhere near being met by fill-out in town.”

McCabe agreed that the project should be built as soon as possible, noting that many of the hurdles had already been cleared. “We have a problem with each and every property – no matter the size or location,” he pointed out.

Hershey lit into the present council for not being more aggressive in buying up property in town. “This City Council has missed the opportunity to buy in-town apartments and lots.”

Vickery said his No. 1 priority is “rebuilding Aspen’s middle class.” He lauded the housing office for the work it has done and said the project needs to be built. He also advocates building affordable housing units on Main Street, Bleeker Street and Hopkins Avenue.

Meyer joined the crowd in supporting construction of Burlingame, although he was critical of the delays that have plagued the project. He was all alone, however, when he said, “I don’t have trouble relocating a few of the holes at the golf course to build some affordable housing.”


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