Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Amid all the recent hoo-ha over the proposed hydroelectric plant for Aspen, it was fun to notice a return to one of our classic squabbles: when to hold local elections.
When I first moved to Aspen (yes, I know, everyone hates sentences that begin that way – sorry), it was common knowledge that city elections were in May “to screw the workers.”
As explained to me by a friend who had been in and out of Aspen for decades, the local “establishment” (read: “old farts”) knew that the “workers” (the “kids” or “ski bums”) all left town for warmer climes as soon as the lifts shut down.
The idea was that the thrill-seeking kids saved up their pennies during the season and then exploded out of town to get drunk on a beach as soon as the lifts shut down.
So May was the perfect time to hold an election that would only include the “old fogies” (who didn’t comprehend the need for drinking heavily in the presence of warm water and sandy beaches) and the “idle rich” (who could come and go as they pleased).
This was back in 1972, and my friends and I took deep umbrage at this anti-democratic approach to local elections.
So we immediately recruited a local bartender with a graduate degree in some damned thing (“systems analysis”?) and ran him for mayor against that year’s establishment candidate – whoever that was. (Heck if I can remember. That was a long time ago.)
Despite knowing that the calendar was stacked against us, we ran a campaign filled with all sorts of groovy, youthful images (our guy on top of some mountain, looking very visionary and staring off into the distance) and fluffy rhetoric about “our community” and “preservation.”
And somehow we won. So the May-election theory was wrong. Or we’d beaten the system. Or we were lucky idiots. Or something.
The next time I thought about the scheduling of local elections, years had passed, and I was suddenly hearing that city elections were in May “to screw the responsible people.”
The new theory was that “the kids” didn’t have enough money to leave town in the spring – so they were stuck here, and they voted. (Damned irresponsible kids!)
Meanwhile, the more mature, more responsible, business-owning people had enough money to get out of the valley when the mud season came.
As a result, city government was in the hands of the workers and the ski bums – and suddenly, by golly, there was nothing more important than affordable housing.
That, as the story goes, was how Mick Ireland became an unstoppable political force: The May elections favored his ski-bum voting block.
I admit, I haven’t heard much or thought much about the whole situation for quite a while.
Until this latest dust-up over the hydroelectric plant, when those opposing the project declared that the original vote in favor of the plan was worthless because it was conducted in November 2007, a nonpresidential election with a small turnout.
And so they petitioned for a new, special election – but the new election was going to be held in May, when you also can count on a small turnout.
Reading between the lines, the point seemed to be that a small voter turnout was only good if the forces on your side were well-enough prepared and well-enough funded. And then a small turnout was a grand thing, because it’s easier (the theory goes) to sway the result of a small election.
It reminds me of the Middle East peace talks, when there is endless, vicious debate over the shape of the table they will sit at when the real talks begin.
And now the City Council has gone for an apparent end-run by agreeing to a special election, but scheduling it in November during the presidential election, when there should be a massive turnout.
Who could object?
Well, of course, a lot of people who just don’t trust the city.
“They gave us what we wanted? It must be a trick!”
But some of those who sponsored the petition demanding a May election have shown good faith by agreeing to a November election – if the city comes up with a reasonable ballot question.
So perhaps we’ve settled the shape of the table.
Now we can proceed to the next fight: whether the anti-hydropower group – Saving Our Streams – should be required to disclose the names of its financial supporters.
The suspicion is that the real opponents of the project are not the stream-flow lovers they pretend to be but are just wealthy landowners with houses along the creeks who are worried about the impact on their personal fiefdoms. And who have enough money to have a serious impact on the election.
That seems like a nifty next fight to have – something to pass the time before we get around to the real debate.
Somewhere in here there is some real substance – a good debate could be had over the apparently competing values of streamflow preservation and clean, sustainable electric production.
And, who knows, we actually might get around to having that debate.
But, meanwhile, we still have to figure out the free-speech-versus-financial-disclosure squabble.
Given the donors’ deep desire to keep their names secret, I think everyone should simply assume that all the money coming into the anti-hydropower campaign is coming from wealthy landowners selfishly looking out for their personal interests.
We could call their organization Saving My Stream, not Saving Our Streams.
Yes, I understand that might not be true. It might be a vicious slander.
In which case, in order to clear things up, perhaps those names suddenly will be revealed, so we can all see that the hydropower opposition is made up of honorable, public-spirited, stream-loving residents.
And that, I think, would be grand.
Depending, of course, on when we schedule the election.
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“Many of these stoic commuters endure brain-numbing traffic jams so they can service vacant mega homes, making sure all the lights are on and that the snowmelt patios, driveways, sidewalks and dog runs are thoroughly heated so as to evaporate that bothersome white stuff that defines Aspen’s picturesque winter landscape and ski economy,“ writes Paul Andersen.