Emmer: New rules for the monkey cage | AspenTimes.com

Emmer: New rules for the monkey cage

Maurice Emmer
Think Again

Anthropologists put five monkeys in a cage. Bananas hung at the top. Any monkey grasping for a banana was iced down. After awhile, when any monkey grasped a banana, all the monkeys were doused. Eventually, if any monkey grasped a banana, the others beat him. Gradually, new monkeys replaced the originals. After all original monkeys were gone, dousings stopped. But if a monkey grasped a banana the others beat him. No monkey knew why.

Aspen’s City Council members come and go. Developers dangle proposals for them to grasp; dousing and beatings ensue. Hours drag, repeating staff’s work and Planning and Zoning’s work. The council indulges its inner architect (“the roofline doesn’t send me”), improving nothing. The council duplicates its own work. The process is expensive. Worse, it devours scarce council time. Variances are granted, legal obligations are waived. Nobody knows why; the original monkeys are gone.

Welcome to the monkeys’ cage, where City Council can’t grasp a banana amid all the dousings. Under Aspen’s City Charter, councils are supposed to: 1. Supervise city manager and city attorney. 2. Enact laws. 3. Consider initiatives. 4. Appoint civic boards. 5. Hear land-use appeals. But they mostly only do No. 5, acting like a “Super P&Z.”

Developers plead: “I’m drowning in overpriced Aspen real estate. Toss me some variances.” Because councils eventually succumb, developers’ demands multiply. Meanwhile, other important duties are neglected.

What if the council lost power No. 5, the power to indulge developers? What if the charter were amended to repeal the council’s Super P&Z role? That could be the first step toward effective city councils.

Here’s why:

Planning and Zoning and the Historic Preservation Commission already review development applications. What if they had to approve applications that conformed to land use and zoning laws? What if the council couldn’t interfere in individual cases? (Have the council’s interferences improved Aspen?) Are the land use and zoning rules appropriate? If so, Planning and Zoning can approve conforming proposals and reject non-conforming ones.

If there are problems, the council should amend the law for everyone. If the laws aren’t good enough, why does the council grant exceptions rather than amend the law?

Planning and Zoning already hears variance requests. What if Planning and Zoning (not council) could recommend variances for vote by residents, but only if there was compelling need? If the variances were compelling, Aspen voters would approve. If they weren’t, Planning and Zoning wouldn’t even propose to put them on a ballot.

What if the council couldn’t move the goal posts on affordable housing, parking and application fees ad hoc? Again, are these important requirements? If they aren’t, why shouldn’t the council change them for everyone?

The city charter can be amended to make these improvements work. Just think of what the council could do when freed from endless and repetitive land use hearings? How about doing the work, now neglected, that only the council is empowered to do under the city charter?

Start with power No. 1. Only the council can supervise the city manager and attorney. Do they now? Why does the charter grant the city manager lifetime employment? Even “weak” City Council members (the mayor’s language) have term limits. Why not the city manager? Wouldn’t there be more accountability (“any” would be an improvement) if his employment were for, say, a five-year term, renewable if the council liked his performance? Terminable if they didn’t. Why not change the charter to permit this?

Could the City Council use some of that time to create performance guidelines for the city manager and attorney? (Are there any now?) How about annual performance evaluations of these two direct reports to the council? When was the last one? Does the council even know?

How about adopting a guideline requiring the city manager and attorney to do what the council instructs them to do? And to replace them if they sneak around trying to do the opposite?

How about finishing the promised investigations into the missing Parking Department money? Stop misdirecting public attention at cheating parkers. Did the city receive all the money the Canadian parking company collected for us? Did anyone take city money? How much? Does the council know? Is it investigating? What’s taking so long?

Then there’s the $750,000 “drain pipe to nowhere” that, once questioned, suddenly wasn’t needed. And that obese proposal to overbuild city office space. Build 70,000 square feet of new space when the city management can’t even rework the gondola intersection without creating new hazards (“‘Rain gardens’ are a liability for city,” Letters, Aspen Daily News, Dec. 16)? Just three examples of a city management in desperate need of oversight. Shouldn’t the council spend time taming city management, not coddling whiny developers?

Let’s have the council do the work only it can do. Free City Council from redundant and wasteful coddling of developers. Make them manage the renegade government. For this, the cage doesn’t need different monkeys, it needs different rules.

Maurice Emmer is a retired tax attorney who finished third in the 2013 Aspen mayoral election. He’s filling in for Think Again this week while Melanie Sturm is on vacation.