John Colson: City Hall project should go to the voters
March 12, 2018
I should declare at the outset, I do not often agree with Glenn Beaton, another columnist for this newspaper, whose general and political world views manage to conflict with mine in many ways.
But, that noted, I have to add that in a July 2017 column castigating the Aspen city government for standing in the way democracy, old Glenn made a few good points.
I've been watching with great interest the unfolding drama about whether Aspen voters should have a chance to express their support — or lack thereof — for their city government's plan to build a $22 million (at least), 37,000-square-foot municipal office complex along North Mill Street next to the Pitkin County Library.
It started nearly a year ago, when the City Council approved the project at a height of 46 feet, much taller than is typically permitted for most commercial buildings in the downtown area out of concern for public views of Aspen Mountain.
Some residents, including local government critics Toni Kronberg, Steve Goldenberg and Marcia Goshorn (at least two of whom have tried unsuccessfully to get themselves elected onto the very City Council they often oppose), immediately objected.
Complaining that the city's project runs counter to city codes and to the intended uses for the land at the site, they demanded that the city put the matter to a vote of the electorate at large.
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The City Council, perhaps predictably, declined, and the debate moved into a new arena as Kronberg and her crew started gathering petition signatures to force the vote and ultimately submitted a high enough number of signatures to get the matter onto a ballot.
The city has resisted strongly, arguing at different points that the petitioners did not get their signatures in on time, that there were not enough valid signatures anyway, and that the whole petition process was moot to begin with because the council's decision to approve the project was administrative rather than legislative and thus was not subject to a citizen referendum.
A local judge later told the city it was full of … well, it was wrong, and ruled that the project approval was, in fact, legislative and subject to a referendum, that the petitioners were wrongly denied a chance to "cure" their petition by gathering more signatures, and the whole matter seemed headed for the ballot.
But the city has appealed, asking the judge to overturn his ruling and come over to the City Council's side of things, out of an apparent fear that the voters don't know enough to make these kinds of decisions and should leave it to the professionals.
Now, I should make another confession here: over the years of my work as a reporter and a columnist on Aspen issues, I generally have supported the city government in its sometimes tempestuous efforts to figure out what the electorate wants and get it done.
But when the city decides it knows better than the electorate how to take care of the city's business, that's where we part ways.
It's not like it hasn't happened before.
There have been several other moments in Aspen's political life when the electorate reared up and slammed the brakes on a city-approved development or policy decision, as noted by Beaton in his column last summer.
Perhaps the most easily recalled for many voters was Chicago developer Mark Hunt's proposal to build an oversized, supposedly affordable hotel at the longtime site of the Conoco gas station at the corner of Monarch and Main, which the City Council had approved in June 2015.
Voters objected, mounted a petition drive, and Hunt withdrew his proposal momentarily before asking to have its application reinstated and be subjected to an election.
The voters turned the project down, and Hunt, who at one time reportedly owned more than $100 million worth of Aspen real estate, presumably has moved on to other things. The Conoco, long known among locals for selling the most expensive gas in the region, remains in business.
Given the history of voter displeasure with City Council decisions, the council and the city administration have good reason to fear a vote on this new City Hall project — it's huge, it's monstrously expensive and there already is a drumbeat of resistance to the project among the public. The same kind of resistance, it should be noted, as arose against Hunt's hotel project.
This is a tough issue.
It cannot be denied that the old City Hall at the corner of Galena and Hopkins, is in bad shape. It has been remodeled so many times that its original builders (who put up the old Armory Hall building back in the 1890s) probably would not recognize the structure.
It's sagging in spots, its foundation is shaky, and it is overcrowded with a warren of offices housing an ever-growing army of city bureaucrats.
But if the planned replacement project is at odds with the will of the voters, it might be that the city government needs to step back and take another look.
And we won't know if the voters don't like it unless we have a vote, and the city should step aside and let that happen.
It has been reported that city officials are worried that some sort of false premise or disinformation campaign will poison the election outcome against the project.
All that means is that it will be up to the city to lay out its development program in clear, unmistakable terms, to overwhelm any such disinformation campaign (if it happens) on the part of the project's opponents.
It's politics, folks, and whether you like it or not, it's the way this country works.
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