Editorial: Transparency should govern entire council selection process
The Aspen City Council has 18 days to appoint a local resident to the council seat that came open because of Steve Skadron’s recent victory in the mayor’s race.
The council, which now consists of Skadron, new members Ann Mullins and Art Daily, along with two-year “veteran” Adam Frisch, has a tricky situation on its hands for a few different reasons. First, a large number of residents — 11 of them, in fact — applied to serve on the vacant seat. On paper at least, a majority of the 11 appear to have many of the necessary qualifications to hold the nearly two-year part-time job.
Second, the length of time that the appointed member will serve makes the selection especially important. When the seat is abandoned with only a few months remaining in the term — as it was when Dwayne Romero stepped down in early 2011 to take a job with the governor’s office — the choice is not as crucial, simply because of the time element. (Although, in that case, the council bungled the selection by choosing someone who attempted to use the short-term position as a stepping stone to the mayor’s office, but that’s another story.)
Third, the process itself is less than democratic because the decision rests in the hands of four people instead of the community at large. The rules regarding vacated seats ought to have been changed long ago, in favor of a special election whenever there is more than one year remaining in a council term, to put the power in the hands of voters instead of the council. But that hasn’t happened, and so Skadron and the three council members unfortunately must play with the hand they’ve been dealt.
The situation will provide the new council makeup with its first true test of transparency. After he won the mayoral runoff June 4, Skadron correctly recognized that one factor in his arguably close victory over fellow Councilman Torre was that a large portion of the electorate doesn’t really like the council-appointment process and saw a benefit to electing Torre as mayor simply to avoid it. A Torre victory would have kept Skadron in his seat to finish the two years left in his second council term, and there would have been no debate about the appointment process, which in the past has relied on a “secret ballot” during public meetings with little or no discussion about the qualifications of candidates who make the council’s short list.
City Attorney Jim True reminded the council during a Monday work session that any discussion of the vacancy or the winnowing of candidates has to be conducted in public. That’s the law, and it should be followed to the letter. In post-election remarks, Skadron has said that he wants the process to be as open and transparent as possible, and we’re going to hold him to that. There should be no emails or phone calls traded among them — even from one council member to one other council member, which is allowable — to try to come up with a short list to make the decision less contentious (thereby avoiding open talks about the pros and cons of each applicant).
The law does allow for “secret ballots” during an open meeting in which each member indicates preferences without attaching his or her name to the choice as a way of narrowing down the field. In the interest of transparency, we suggest that the council ditch the secret-ballot method in favor of a full and honest discourse on the merits of the candidates. Yes, it’s awkward, and earnest applicants are bound to feel hurt or slighted during public evaluations that could paint them in a less-than-positive light. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles, so to speak, and everybody involved should approach the situation in an adult, above-board manner.
On July 1, all 11 candidates will be interviewed during a public work session. The council plans to make a decision at a special meeting July 2. We would like to suggest that after the interviews, Skadron, as the new mayor and city government’s top elected leader, should comment openly on his first choice for the job, with a set of reasons, setting the stage for a full vetting of the applicants. Again, we stress that no secret-ballot process be used; a transparent discussion on the merits of the candidates to which the council members are leaning is the only proper route, as far as we can see. If Councilman A wants to eliminate applicant B, he should state his reason openly.
Anything less would be a slap in the face of Aspen voters and a backtrack from the promise of transparency from the city’s new leadership.
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