Stone: Worst case scenario turns into business as usual
November 5, 2015
Every Election Day, I find myself in a peculiar "Wednesday columnist" limbo, suspended between hither and thither: My column runs the day after the election, but I have to file it early on Tuesday, before any votes are counted.
So I consider what the election means — completely aside from what the election results might be.
And today I find myself wondering if this election shows that I was wrong — and that a majority of Aspen was wrong — to support the passage of the optimistic Referendum 1.
For those whose memories are short, Referendum 1 was (and should have been named) the "Smack the City Council Law."
Proposed by petition and approved in a citywide election, it took away the council's ability to hand out variances for commercial projects that don't meet the city's strict zoning requirements. Those variances can now be approved only by a vote of the people.
That came in reaction to the feeling that the Aspen City Council was letting things get out of control — or maybe even encouraging things to get out of control by handing out variances with a very free hand.
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I supported the referendum, even though I (along with many others) was well aware of one serious problem.
The problem was that, having taken the power away from the council, we were handing it over to the rough beast of the general voting public — and who knows what the hell they (which is to say, you) would do?
When critical technical issues are subject to a popular vote, wise governance turns into a popularity contest.
I recognized this, and I still felt it was better to trust the wisdom of the mob and force a developer to convince a rabble of thousands rather than persuading just three of five council members (who, after all, had themselves been elected by that same rabble).
And what we have seen in the battle over the proposed Base2 hotel is the result. (Yes, I know it wasn't the referendum itself that triggered this election. But this is certainly in the spirit of the referendum and very much a harbinger of variance elections to come.)
The worst-case scenario turned out to be just business as usual.
To say that the Base2 developer has run a wildly dishonest campaign is, as the vocabulary snob would have it, a pleonasm. Or, to put it in more ordinary terms: A developer was dishonest? Well, duh!
That pleonasm/duh! response applies equally well to the charge that the developer did his level best to buy the election — not through bribery but by spending an impressive wad of cash on his election campaign.
In this case, $50,000, which is petty change for a developer with millions at stake — but big money for those who consider the soul of Aspen to be the stakes.
And so we have seen some of the smoothest dishonesty that money can buy. We have seen outright misrepresentation and cleverly convincing half-truths. We have heard fervent endorsements from people with undisclosed interests in the project.
And as things trickled down (either through the economy, as the politicians say, or down your leg, as the realists say), we got equally fervent endorsements of the hotel by honest people who were convinced by dishonest campaigning.
And since I'm touting honesty as a virtue (for today, anyway), I will say that some of these charges are equally true of the campaign against the developer's dream/abomination.
Except that any half-truths in the campaign against the project were strictly cut-price and homemade — which is at least more heartwarming, old-time Aspen style.
In any case, what we got was a campaign that divided the community.
Yes, the town was already divided along its more or less natural fault lines: more development vs. less development. Or, if you prefer, money vs. community.
But what this campaign added was a cynical effort to create new fault lines, to split the community in ways and places it wasn't already split.
I'm thinking most specifically of the bizarre claim that this new hotel was somehow a project that Aspen's "youth movement" should support. And that stopping destructive development was strictly for cranky old fogies.
The idea that this new hotel would somehow enable recent college graduate 20-somethings to move to Aspen and live here is … well, come on. It is absurd.
There is virtually no connection whatsoever between a 37-room, theoretically affordable hotel and Aspen suddenly turning into an easy place for ambitious kids in their 20s (and 30s) to find a place to live and a job (much less a career).
Not to dig back into dusty history, but there was a time when the "youth movement" in Aspen was a bunch of kids in their 20s who loved the town and wanted to preserve what made it special — by fighting against heedless developers.
Now it would seem the new "youth movement" has been invented (or, at best, co-opted) by a developer looking for votes in favor of his project. Quite a switch: from fighting against developers to campaigning for them.
And the most vile and laughable part of that effort was an attempt to say this hotel development would preserve the spirit of Hunter Thompson — a man who generally loathed developers of any sort.
In the end, the result of this election may well be worse than just a big hotel in the wrong place. It may be that it becomes clear to one and all that Aspen is indeed for sale to the highest — and most shameless — bidder.
Or, as one of my regular correspondents wrote, "We are on the last legs of what this town was. … All (the referendum) did was wake the beast. Those who control this place were roused from a seeming slumber to beat back the suggestion that they should be accountable."
If you can't trust the council and you can't trust the people, who can you trust?
Worst-case scenario? Just business as usual.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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