Accumulated wisdom versus willful ignorance |

Accumulated wisdom versus willful ignorance

“Where are my car keys?”

“Right there in the ignition, where you left them.”

“What did I have for lunch?”

“Judging by the stains on your shirt, something with ketchup. Lots of ketchup.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m your wife.”

So it goes. We’re all losing our memories as we grow older. Some of us faster than others.

And just as it’s true for mere mortals, it’s true for Aspen, too.

The difference is that we mortals lose our memory, fade away and (sorry if this is a spoiler for you) die. Aspen, on the other hand, will not die (not anytime soon, anyway), but if it loses its memory, it will stagger on into the future grotesquely disfigured.

But if we act soon enough, Aspen’s municipal memory loss is not irreversible.

Give me a moment to explain.

The city already has plenty of official records. Plus, we have the Historical Society and a historical preservation officer, too. But vital memory still slips through the cracks.

What we’re missing is what’s known as “institutional memory” — the collective memory, the community’s accumulated wisdom, if you will.

“Accumulated wisdom” is definitely in short supply around here. More specifically: around City Hall.

What we have instead is a kind of willful forgetting, motivated by politics or money or, most sinister of all, human nature.

Instead of institutional memory, Aspen has institutional Alzheimer’s, with all the nasty symptoms of that terrible condition: not understanding your surroundings, getting lost in familiar places, losing the ability to handle everyday problems and, ultimately, confusion that drifts into fits of rage.

I’m not making Alzheimer’s jokes — but, really, doesn’t that sound just like Aspen city government?

Still, again, this can be cured.

Aspen’s loss of memory — the memory of mistakes made last week, last month, last year, last decade — isn’t surprising. Council positions turn over regularly. And, too often, the staffers who should be providing continuity of memory have their sights firmly set on the opportunities that lie on the other side of that government/private-sector revolving door. What we consider mistakes they see as future gold mines.

And the ones who aren’t planning on leaving are too busy building their own little empires to worry about setting the council straight on what happened in the semi-dusty past.

Years ago, my old boss Bil Dunaway — owner, publisher and editor of The Aspen Times — provided that institutional memory.

Bil was devoted to the principle that the newspaper should pay fierce attention to city government, and he personally sat through and reported on almost every City Council meeting for decades.

Often enough (too often for those who wanted their sins consigned to the trash heap of forgotten history), Bil would rise — asked or unasked — to remind the council of what had been done in the past. And he would explain the results of those past actions. Bil was fearless, more than willing to call a mistake a mistake.

After Bil’s retirement, that independent memory was lost. And now that financial demands and changing approaches to news coverage have done away with gavel-to-gavel coverage of local government, we’re not going to get that memory back through the newspaper.

But we can get it back.

We need an Aspen community memory officer.

This is a new position. Someone who can tell the council, “You tried that 10 years ago and it didn’t work.” Or “You considered that five years ago and decided it was a rotten idea.” Or “No. That’s not what you did. This is what you decided.”

A few details:

This has to be an elected position, someone who answers to the voters, not to the council. After all, the job involves standing up and saying, as required, “You’re wrong.”

Few of us are willing to say that to our boss, even if it is technically part of our job description. And even fewer bosses are willing to hear it time and time again from someone who works for them.

So: an elected position, not subject to the personal or political whims of politicians.

And also this: elected for a 10-year term.

That long term of office is necessary both to provide a proper historical perspective and, frankly, to insulate that memory officer from the public, the same way he or she needs to be insulated from the council.

We need someone who can settle in, settle down, study up, pay attention — and know that the position is not dependent on the passing whims of the electorate, whose whims can be every bit as toxic as those of the politicians.

Fashions change, but history doesn’t.

The City Council will reliably provide all the short-term sogginess and fuzzy-headed trendiness that may be required or may be, more appropriately, abhorred. We don’t want will-o’-the-wisp memories. (“Will-o’-the-wisp”? Well, because you asked: Will-o’-the-wisp, also known as ignis fatuus, Latin for “foolish fire,” is a ball of light seen hovering over swamps at night, once thought to be wandering lost souls but now known to be the result of bubbling swamp gas. Thus, on both counts — lost souls and bubbling swamp gas — a perfect term to use in discussing local government.)

So we need an intelligent, well-read, long-term local resident who loves history, loves Aspen and takes great pleasure in research — and in standing up in public and dressing down city government.

One final qualification: severe insomnia.

On occasion, as a young reporter, I had to fill in for Bil at council meetings. And, later on in my career, I covered the county commissioners, gavel-to-gavel, the same way Bil covered the council.

As I said, you don’t get coverage like that anymore. And I suspect that is partly because of the many workers’ compensation claims for injuries suffered by reporters falling asleep and toppling out of chairs mid-meeting.

Government meeting coverage is not an exciting beat.

So while we’re at it, let’s make the job well-paid.

Anyone interested?

You are? Great!

Now … I’m sorry. Remind me again. Who are you?

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is

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