Stone: A boring election, a fascinating aftermath
A Stone’s Throw
Last week’s election really wasn’t very interesting by Aspen standards.
It was a civilized affair: no shouting or screaming, no threats or dire warnings, no gouging or biting and mighty few personal insults. In short: Ho-hum.
Yes, I know it’s not quite over yet, but the upcoming “Mick and Bert Show” will almost certainly prove as civilized as everything that has come before.
But, in a curious twist, what happens next — post-election governing! — is going to be much more interesting than the election itself.
The results of this election are going to pose distinct challenges, first for the elected officials and then for the residents of Aspen.
Integrity, honesty and courage are all going to be severely tested.
How cool is that?
To be clear, the results were not particularly surprising.
Adam Frisch, the lone, perfectly respectable, somewhat-conservative candidate, was easily re-elected, getting all of Aspen’s conservative votes, which put him well ahead of the rest of the vote-spitting liberal field.
Steve Skadron enjoyed a similarly predictable victory over Torre, a good man who has served well on the council in the past but who seems — to a recurring solid majority of Aspen voters — to lack the presence required for the job of mayor.
Finally, and most importantly, Referendum 1 was approved, amending Aspen’s charter to require a vote from residents for almost all significant zoning variances.
That did raise some eyebrows, but only because of its somewhat narrow margin of victory, after many had predicted overwhelming support.
In fact, given the high-powered, anti-referendum campaign funded by the chamber of commerce and backed by Aspen Skiing Co., the referendum’s victory was impressive, and quibbles over narrow margins are inappropriate.
And that brings us to the first post-election challenge: a challenge for the City Council.
The referendum vote was, quite simply, a vote of no confidence in the council. And the council needs to face that unpleasant fact.
The residents slapped the council across the face and said, “Stand back! We the people will enforce the zoning code.”
Skadron, in the glow of his easy victory, seemed to want to skate past the referendum results, citing the supposedly narrow margin of victory, saying people weren’t entirely convinced and that he expects the charter amendment to be repealed sooner or later.
Sorry, Mayor Skadron. You’re a good guy, but I think you’re in danger of getting off to a really bad start.
When a majority of the town votes that they don’t trust you to enforce the rules, your reaction should not be: “Oh, they didn’t really mean it. They’ll get over it.”
It should be: “Got it. Message received.”
And this takes us to the heart of the challenge: How will the council handle the rush of applications that skidded under the wire before Election Day in a race to avoid the new rules?
We should remember that, in an effort to head off the referendum before it got onto the ballot, the council proposed its own set of strict new rules that would have limited the council to granting very small variances under very limited circumstances.
In effect, they were arguing, “You don’t need to amend the charter. We can handle this.”
Well, now they need to live up to those claims.
Those rushed, pre-election applications only preserved the right to be considered under the old rules — which allow the council to grant variances, but certainly do not require that those requests be approved.
The council should flat out reject those requests — and tell the applicants to either follow the zoning code or come back and try again under the new rules they tried to weasel out of.
Frankly, if I were on the council, I’d be insulted by those applications, which made it clear that the developers consider the council a bunch of pushovers who will grant them favors that would be rejected in a public vote.
One such request, as I understand it, is to throw up a two-story building across from the Wheeler Opera House right at the edge of Wagner Park.
One would expect that, under the new rules, the people of Aspen would swat that down with a snort of civic disgust.
And, in another case, we can already see the tired, old horse-trading strategy emerging in Mark Hunt’s pre-election application for his Base2 hotel, in which he claims that the already-approved Base1 cannot be built unless the city approves Base2.
Hey, City Council! This is exactly the kind of nonsense that led to the charter amendment. Don’t blow it again and go down in infamy as the Council of Easy Virtue.
But all of this is merely a prelude to the main event: the challenge to Aspen’s residents to live up to their own high standards.
Now, under the new rules, every developer who wants a variance will have to take his case directly to the public — and, with an awful lot of money at stake, those cases will be exquisitely wrapped in the best lies that money can buy.
And — as I’m sure you already know — money can buy some damn-good lies.
Of course, we all know that the good people of Aspen are not the kind of weak-minded fools who are persuaded by slick advertising that say they’ll become slim if they just eat enough “lite” ice cream. Or beautiful if they inject enough Botox. Or overcome their limp, little problem with a new Ferrari.
But still, in this world where everything comes with a glossy coating of high-fructose corn syrup, the intelligence and character of the residents of Aspen are going to be severely tested.
I was in favor of the charter amendment, and I still am.
But now brace yourselves for the Aspen Armageddon, when developers ooze out from under every rock in the Rockies, promising the world, threatening doom and screaming, “Emergency!”
And when they do, everyone needs to remember: Aspen is not a Town of Easy Virtue and the answer is simple:
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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