The Aspen Times Editorial: Parking-Gate questions linger; council should toughen up |

The Aspen Times Editorial: Parking-Gate questions linger; council should toughen up

At first, the parking-scam controversy appeared to be one of those city of Aspen issues that are destined to be swept under the rug. The wagons were circled when some local elected leaders actually suggested that the lion’s share of blame rested with the scofflaws who were parking for free by taking advantage of a technological flaw with the downtown parking meters instead of looking inside their own house (pick your own cliche, because we’ve already used our limit) for the individuals responsible for the debacle.

On the surface, an about-face has occurred in the past week and longtime Parking Director Tim Ware has been reassigned. He literally was placed on ice — demoted to a job supervising the city’s two ice-rink operations with a substantial cut in pay. This was because of the perception, if not the reality, that he could have taken steps to stop the scammers in 2011 but chose to ignore it. The problem festered over the years to the tune of losses of more than $600,000 due to fraudulent transactions. While this is not a figure that is going to break the city’s bank at any level or inspire multiple layoffs of workers in crucial positions, it does reek of poor fiscal management. As City Manager Steve Barwick noted in an email to the City Council, “ultimately the responsibility for overseeing the parking budget is the director’s responsibility.”

We applaud the fact that the city has taken direct action in the matter and also seemingly has taken heed of outside suggestions that auditors take a look at the way parking operations, and other city departments, handle their money. “The objective of the examination is to determine if the city’s internal financial controls as designed are effective,” Barwick wrote.

But the “Parking-Gate” issue continues to raise more questions than answers, chiefly:

• Why is Ware the scapegoat? When the problem of a flaw in the meters was discussed in 2011, who was present? We are told that the meeting involved representatives of the Parking and Finance departments. If two departments were involved, then multiple players obviously were present. Did anyone call for a follow-up meeting in 2012? Was the city too focused on the Castle Creek hydroelectric-plant controversy and resulting referendum to address other important matters? Was anyone from the City Manager’s Office present?

• As Councilwoman Ann Mullins noted this week, why wasn’t the previous City Council apprised of the situation in 2011? One or two work sessions — to discuss the cost of fixing the problem and to direct city staff toward a solution — might have stopped the scam in its tracks, when the losses were still valued in the five-figure range.

• Why has Barwick settled on Avon-based McMahan & Associates, an accounting firm that conducts annual audits for the city, to look at city-department financial practices? We agree with critics who say this is an illogical move. Had it been thorough, the company already engaged in conducting regular audits for the city would have recognized the problem and pointed it out. Perhaps a different firm, unfamiliar with the city’s leadership, would be a wiser choice if officials truly want a third-party review.

Now that the parking scam has come to light, the lack of available parking spaces in downtown Aspen over the past few years, even during quiet offseason days, suddenly makes sense. Local workers and residents who were privy to the scam were using prepaid, maxed-out credit cards in an attempt to beat the system.

It looks as though they’ve succeeded, despite an Aspen police investigation that will attempt to hold some of the perpetrators accountable. Until that investigation succeeds or is proved a failure, we would like to take some comfort in knowing that the Aspen City Council will attempt to find answers to some of these lingering questions.

The council is, after all, supposed to keep tabs on city leaders, staffers and their practices. The honeymoon of the new mayor and council members elected in the spring of 2013 is over; now, more than ever, it’s time to roll up some shirtsleeves and get to the bottom of things.

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