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Rick Carroll: Above the Fold

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

We have four Aspen city councilmen running for mayor and one Aspen mayor possibly running for City Council. My sympathy goes out to the City Hall reporters of Aspen and the camera operators at GrassRoots Television, along with the folks in attendance or viewing at home.

May the press be compensated for overtime when the City Council meetings and work sessions run well past their bedtimes. And may the GrassRoots viewers get their heads checked.

The Aspen Daily News, in its Monday paper, addressed the potential for grandstanding and infighting at future council meetings, given the stakes involved and the fast-approaching election. Mayoral candidate Adam Frisch played down that possibility.

But don’t be surprised if council members up their games in the months to come, whether it’s through more heated debates or being more adequately prepared for the decisions before them. That’s not to say they weren’t before, but this is their version of the playoffs – and if you’re a sports fan, you notice a big boost in intensity from the regular season to the postseason.

The four city councilmen – Frisch, Derek Johnson, Steve Skadron and Torre – all have a right to campaign for mayor, as does Planning and Zoning Chairman L.J. Erspamer, who has indicated he will run, too.

Now I know I’m in the minority, a possible minority of one, when I bring this up, but does Aspen really need an elected mayor?

Yes, the mayor has the power of the gavel, which is to say he or she can silence those rambling or ranting mouths before the council at their weekly meetings. The mayor also sets the tone of City Council meetings and crafts the agendas. And the mayor earns about $3,000 more annually than his or her City Council counterparts.

Perhaps the most important role of Aspen’s mayor is being the face of the city. Showing up at chamber meetings, participating in ribbon cuttings, attending festivals, waxing Aspen on “Good Morning America” – those are public-relations duties that go with being mayor. And for an image-conscious town like Aspen, that’s a function that cannot be discounted.

But the mayor has no executive privilege or veto power; the mayor’s vote is equal to a council member’s. A liberal mayor next to three or four conservative council members wields limited influence and vice versa.

Aspen’s mayor, boiled down, is more figurehead than authority.

For the next two months, we can look forward to the mayoral rhetoric heating up. This newspaper and the Daily News will co-sponsor the candidate debate known as Squirm Night, the Aspen Chamber Resort Association likely will stage its own forum, there will be the usual proliferation of letters and advertisements in both newspapers, candidates will host campaign fundraisers and hand out campaign swag.

By the time May rolls around, we’ll be plagued with campaign fatigue. It is a grind, for sure, but will be over when the voting’s done.

If I were king, or mayor, in this instance, there wouldn’t be a mayoral race in the first place. Instead, let them have a battle royale for a seat on City Council. Then rotate the mayor’s seat once a year, similar to what the city does with its mayor pro-tem seat, which changes annually. That way, Aspen still would have its leader to run meetings and attend those beloved ribbon-cuttings.

But there would be less ego and no mayoral campaigns, which smack of a popularity contest anyway. (For further proof, just look at the political ads with the rosters of supporters. The more, the better.) Currently, the position is a two-year stint with a three-term limit. In other words, the mayor’s job is disproportionately devoted to campaigning when its primary focus should be governance.

When I vote for Aspen mayor, I ask myself the following questions: Which candidate is most in line with my values? Which candidate would be the toughest negotiator for the things I want? Which candidate would represent Aspen the best? I also ask the same questions when I vote for City Council.

Given the limited power of Aspen’s mayor, there really is no difference from being a council member other than bragging rights and having the pulpit of false authority. By rotating the seat among council members, everyone would share in the glory.

Rick Carroll is managing editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at rcarroll@aspentimes.com.


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