Carolyn Sackariason: The good, bad and ugly in City Council chambers
While it has been quite pleasurable covering government meetings from the comfort of my living room in the virtual space for the past year, I have to say it is refreshing and reassuring to be back in person.
It’s refreshing because having members of the public gather in the same room with elected officials and developers highlights the Aspen spirit of levying criticism, calling for accountability, and displaying wicked wit and humor.
There was all of that in Aspen City Hall last week during a City Council meeting. It was the first time in a year and a half I’ve seen council chambers that full with citizens chomping at the bit to make public comment.
And the first comment was as good as it gets in the realm of asking elected officials and city staff to right a wrong.
Ziska Childs came to council chambers to share her frustrations in watching council meetings virtually.
“Hopefully you noticed which chair I got up out of and walked to you,” she told council. “My request is that you either move that chair permanently or change the camera angle. Now, if you want specifics, I’ll be happy to go into it but let’s put it this way: I’ve been watching on Facebook a lot and some of our more relaxed viewers, or attendees, are showing more than I want to know or that anybody should see except somebody in a different place at a different time, so I would heartily suggest that you change that camera angle or remove that chair.”
She was followed by a litany of people complaining about traffic coming down their street in the West End neighborhood. While this problem is not new, many of the residents are and therefore unfamiliar with the decades-old community debate about how to deal with the entrance to Aspen.
Regardless, it’s reassuring that we are back in a space where citizens can look into the eyes of their elected officials and tell them what they think.
That goes the other way as well, as demonstrated by Councilman Ward Hauenstein in that same meeting when he told a West End resident that he didn’t want to get in an argument with him but there’s nothing that can be done in the short term so leave it alone.
“They are public streets that everybody pays taxes on and they have a right to drive on those streets and the fact is that there are just too many cars in Aspen and I’m sorry that you don’t want to hear this,” Hauenstein said.
The following day during a land use hearing on Aspen Skiing Co.’s ask to rezone 167 acres on Aspen Mountain to expand the ski area, Pitkin County Commissioner Francie Jacober seized her opportunity to call out the company’s head honcho, Mike Kaplan.
She called his suggestion that residential development at the top of Aspen Mountain would be imminent if Skico can’t add 153 acres of skiing terrain.
“I think I heard a threat,” she said from the dais in front of Kaplan.
There were some in the overflow room who were also were thinking the same thing, as one whispered to the other that they hadn’t seen Kaplan lose his composure before.
That was followed up with a phone conversation the next day between the two longtime citizens who reflected on the meeting, offering their opinions on the press coverage and reiterating how out of character Kaplan’s response was to elected officials.
That banter among community members is precisely how it’s supposed to work after being in the room, reading the faces of people and forming opinions.
The proposal to expand terrain in the Pandora’s area on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain would never get the same scrutiny if we were still living in a virtual world.
There is a different type of pressure put on both elected officials and the applicant when they have to look one another in the eye and say their truths and also listen citizen comment in the same manner.
I’m also a strong advocate for the press to be physically in the room, to serve as a reminder that what’s being said, and unsaid through facial expressions and body language, is being documented.
Hopefully, for Ziska and everybody’s sake, the body language of individuals sitting in the chair in the back row closest to the aisle of council chambers gets addressed so there is nothing to document there anymore.
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