Charlie Leonard: City Council has good intentions but lacks priorities
December 14, 2011
The Aspen City Council this week took another step toward the construction of a third, taxpayer-owned, hydropowered electric plant that would draw water for its turbine from Castle Creek.
The people in the neighborhood say they don’t want it. Leading environmental groups in Colorado say it could seriously damage the ecosystem of Castle Creek and the Roaring Fork River. City officials tried to subvert the federal application process with a grossly misleading application for a federal permit to operate the plant before several resident blew the whistle on them. And there are serious questions about the economic assumptions the city officials have been using to promote the project – not the least of which is that the estimated cost of the project is approaching double what the taxpayers were promised.
Why then, is the council so adamant about continuing to support the project in the face of such considerable opposition?
We have repeatedly been told the new hydro plant will reduce the city’s carbon footprint by reducing the amount of coal-fired power we currently purchase.
Never mind that we do not now have – nor will we ever have – any assurance from the utility company that it actually will produce and sell less of its coal-fired power because Aspen becomes a fractionally smaller consumer of its electric.
The reality is that even if this plant works as city officials say it will (a very big if, indeed), there is no evidence that it will have any impact on carbon emissions in Aspen or anywhere else. And with reasonable questions being raised about the project’s cost on one side and the city officials who missed the first price target by about 75 percent on the other side, I’m also guessing we really don’t know what this project could cost in the long run.
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Much like the recent debate and ban on plastic bags (or is it a fee for plastic bags? I know the distinction is really, really important but for some reason I just can’t keep it straight) this entire exercise is at best symbolic and at worst a pretty expensive exercise in political vanities.
My issue is not so much with the flawed economics or the false promise of reduced carbon emissions that city officials have used to build a case for this project. And, while my love of our natural fisheries causes me some concern about the environmental impacts of siphoning water from Castle Creek, I am not totally opposed to hydropower. Fundamentally, what these two issues have done is crystallize the fact that there are two things missing of late in our city government – any real sense of priorities and a sense of limits, any limits, on the scope and powers of government.
Effective organizations (and I don’t just mean businesses) establish clear priorities, allocate their time and resources accordingly, and resist the urge to go off on time- and money- sucking tangents. Effective organizations also know what they are capable of achieving and, more importantly, what they are not capable of achieving. In terms of our government, there is clear historical evidence that our founders were more concerned with limiting the scope of government than empowering it.
I don’t doubt that a majority of the community favors reducing the waste stream in our landfill and being smarter about our energy consumption. But I seriously doubt that a majority of people, if asked back in January what the two most important issues facing the city were, would choose banning plastic bags at two of our stores and fighting over a symbolic energy project that is likely to produce more hot air than electricity.
I suspect that most people in the community, like most people in the country, are still primarily concerned about the economy – including the cost of government.
Based on my observations, I sincerely believe that each and every member of Aspen City Council has nothing but the best of intentions. But maybe next year, rather than channeling their good intentions for months at a time on issues more than a bit afield from the everyday needs of people in the community, they could hold a work session or two to establish a short list of priorities for the coming year – and actually stick to it.
And, if there is anytime left over, it might not hurt to also have a brief discussion about exactly what, if any, limits there are to the powers of City Council.
Look at it this way: There would still be 11 months left to debate whether to rid our city of bottled water – or something equally important to all our daily lives.
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