After vote of no confidence, city leaders face daunting task

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In a parliamentary system of government, a vote of no confidence has a simple outcome. The government falls, elections are held and a new government takes office.

The voters spoke on Tuesday, and they gave the mayor, the City Council and the city administration a resounding vote of no confidence.

We don’t share the belief of some that the voters want to shrink a bloated and inefficient city bureaucracy, and prune city services down to the bare minimum.

Rather, it seems clear to us that voters believe their elected leaders are incompetent, detached and utterly unaware of the concerns of their constituents. Voters neither believe nor trust their leaders.

During the last two or three years, the city’s elected leaders have made decisions and taken actions that have seemed misguided and incomprehensible to many Colorado Springs residents. These include:

The decision to create a stand-alone stormwater enterprise paid for by a de facto property tax without asking for voter consent. The reasons for instituting such an enterprise were, and are, powerful and compelling.

Council’s actions might have been legal, but they contradicted the spirit and intent of voter-initiated amendments to both the City Charter and the Colorado Constitution.

In this case, the voters ought to have made the decision.

Last year’s hastily conceived attempt to extend an expiring mill levy by asking voters to approve a measure dedicating the levy’s $3 million annual revenue stream to economic development.

The measure was overwhelmingly defeated, as angry voters rejected what they saw as an unwarranted tax increase that would benefit a single special interest group.

The two-year municipal soap opera that came to be known as “the USOC deal.”

At its conception, the plan might have seemed reasonable and unobjectionable. City officials believed that they were spearheading a community effort to retain a treasured nonprofit — but they shrouded the process in a mantle of secrecy and denial.

An initial shaky agreement with a local developer fell apart in a welter of lawsuits, mutual recriminations and allegations of unethical conduct.

Finally, the city issued $32.5 million in long-term debt without voter consent, securing the debt by mortgaging the Police Operations Center and Fire Station 8.

Increasingly angry residents were quick to note the cognitive dissonance between the supposed fiscal crisis and council’s eagerness to give tens of millions in public money to a private corporation.

Had city voters believed that the city’s budget dilemma was as dire as city officials claimed, they might well have approved 2C, and rejected 300. They did just the opposite.

The mayor and City Council now face many difficult dilemmas. They must, by law, balance the city budget. The time for smoke and mirrors, for evasion and denial, and for kicking the can down the road has long passed.

We believe that the city’s crisis is real, and that the decision of the voters, particularly in approving 300, has worsened the situation. Council needs to decree not just service cuts, but a broad, even-handed program of pay cuts and furloughs.

Many businesses have done the same thing, knowing that most of their employees would rather take a pay cut than lose their jobs permanently.

The budget process must be as open, transparent and honest as possible. It might be impossible for the mayor and City Council to rebuild and regain the public’s confidence before the 2011 city election (when many current officeholders will depart), but they need to try.

The hard rain has fallen, and council’s choices are limited.

To once again lead this city, all nine members of council must respect the letter and spirit of the City Charter. For starters, here’s a modest suggestion: announce that there will be no more secret deals, no more unapproved giveaways of taxpayer dollars and no more attempts to increase taxes during the recession.

We think the voters would approve all three.