Elizabeth Milias: Aspen’s NextGeneration Gap
The Red Ant
When Aspen’s NextGen Advisory Commission was created in 2012, it was considered “a grand experiment” to provide a voice for the 18- to 40-year-old demographic who live and/or work in Aspen. Initially focused on three areas: subsidized housing, professional mentorship and increasing civic participation. Eight years hence, NextGen now officially serves to advance the public policy interests of its constituency.
The group has not been without controversy. When the Old Power House was being considered for use as a brewery and biergarten, NextGen was a vocal advocate, despite one of its board members being an owner of said brewery. They later landed in hot water with a misguided and self-serving plan to change the land-use code to require retirees in subsidized housing to downsize. The group also formally requested voting rights on city development proposals, but was shot down and told to focus on housing issues and voter participation. A notable victory was the 2018 change in Aspen’s municipal election date from May to March so as to capture the city’s working population during the winter season.
Former NextGen board member Skippy Mesirow was elected to Aspen’s city council in 2019 and regularly provides a voice for this demographic, a big win for the nascent body despite his relative political inexperience. Most recently, Mesirow brought forth a radical plan for Aspen to adopt “mobile voting” via phone or computer in future elections, ostensibly to fulfill his stated goal of 100% local voter participation but also because this method would be “easier.” Advocating on his social media platforms, he even promised mysterious “private funding” for enacting the controversial method that was seen by many as a solution in search of a problem. It was not to be. The seasoned representatives at the table were less concerned with leading the nation by adopting the innovative yet unproven voting system, favoring the trusty mail-in paper ballots that have long served our community and voter integrity over innovation for innovation’s sake.
Mesirow took it as a personal rebuke. Festering for days after the meeting, he took to social media to calmly but harshly excoriate his fellow councilors, lambasting them for their reticence. Quoting each dramatically and out of context, Mesirow disapprovingly portrayed his colleagues as old, out-of-touch luddites. He apologized to his followers for his fellow councilmembers’ “lack of vision” and for “failing the community.”
In this latest immature episode, Mesirow neglected to acknowledge the security risks at stake with this controversial voting platform. The nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research warns, “Making voting more accessible is a laudable goal, but accessibility must be balanced with security.” Cyber experts agree, with the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project acknowledging internet voting, while perhaps inevitable, is not yet ready for prime time. The F.B.I. and Department of Homeland Security agree. And notably revealed at the same virtual council meeting where Mesirow’s mobile voting proposal was discussed, neither the city, county nor state of Colorado support mobile voting, and furthermore, Colorado’s secretary of state would not certify an election conducted in this manner.
In his desire to innovate for innovation’s sake, Mesirow, in the end, only managed to ignite a generational controversy. Blinded by his naïve ambitions and without doing the slightest cursory research, Mesirow illustrates his disconnect between unproven “big ideas” and changes for the better, a critical distinction for any application.
And it begs a larger question related to self-serving ideas that favor one group over another, especially when politically parlayed into generational divides. Is the spoken but unwritten value of “Aspenites staying Aspenites,” the cradle-to-grave aspiration to house and employ locals for a lifetime, really a community goal? It’s often discussed how we, as a community, need to inspire young Aspen adults (our local high school and college-aged kids) to give up better opportunities elsewhere and come back to make Aspen their forever home; the idea being that without them, we will cease to be a community. Really? It would seem that our 18- to 40-year-old demographic might think so, but they’re also the ones who have administratively been given a voice, unlike each of the earlier “NextGens” who came before them.
In very short order, NextGen got one of its own elected to office, and one year in, it has been nothing but a bumpy road for young Mr. Mesirow. He has had to learn the hard way on numerous occasions that the perceived plight of his generation and its desires are truly no worse or more difficult than those of generations past. Housing and professional careers in our mountain Eden have always been hard to come by. In fact, it is what prior generations have managed to build and achieve, notably without special accommodation, that attracted his generation here in the first place.
Giving voice to wide-ranging constituencies is a noble goal in a representative democracy. For balance, isn’t it now time for a commission-level voice for second homeowners?
Let’s hear from the grown-ups in the room. I for one am interested in what our tax-paying, economy-boosting, non-permanent residents have to add to the local conversation. Contact at TheRedAntEM@comcast.net.