Two groups of Colorado Springs businessmen are sponsoring parallel, loosely linked projects aimed at re-shaping city government.
Born of skepticism about city finances and leadership, the projects include independent audits of city operations and a push to change the structure of city government.
The Broadmoor hotel CEO Steve Bartolin and businessman Chuck Fowler formed a committee several weeks ago to conduct an independent analysis of city revenue, expenditures and labor costs.
The committee was formed following the circulation of a letter from Bartolin to Mayor Lionel Rivera late last year that suggested changes in city policies and practices could significantly improve the city’s financial position.
“We’re planning to add a number of people,” Fowler said. “We’ve been contacted by quite a few who are interested in participating, and we’ve talked to others. So we expect to get it done very soon. We plan to have a dozen on the committee and to have our own staff as well.”
While Bartolin and Fowler have just begun their work, Nor’wood Development Group owner David Jenkins began a similar effort after last November’s election.
Voters killed off a proposed property tax increase and the council-established stormwater enterprise, and phased out the $25 million annual payment in lieu of taxes to the city from Colorado Springs Utilities.
The results were interpreted by some as a vote of no confidence in city government.
Jenkins hired accounting firm BiggsKofford to audit the city and its enterprises, in order to better understand the city’s fiscal situation.
Former Colorado Springs Housing and Building Association president Kevin Walker, who is a principal in Nor’wood, has been involved in the project.
“We started the BiggsKofford audit last year,” he said, “but it’s on hold for right now, pending final budget revisions.”
Still, the group might help spearhead an effort with other community leaders to change the city’s form of government to a strong mayor system, said Norwood President Chris Jenkins.
A strong mayor system would give the mayor total executive authority and the power to hire or dismiss senior city officials without council approval.
“This is nothing new,” Chris Jenkins said. “People have been batting around the idea of an improved government structure, such as moving to a strong mayor, for years. No one group can move this forward. There’s a conversation that’s going on now, and the broad-based community needs to weigh in.”
Chris Jenkins said Bartolin’s group has also considered changing government.
“It’s an idea that we’re working on,” Walker said. “We’ve talked to many people in the community, and many of them support changing the form of government.”
However, such a change would require an amendment to the city charter, and that would require a vote of the people and enough signatures to place such an initiative on a ballot.
“But anything that goes on the ballot will be tailored to meet the needs of this community,” Walker said. “There are lots of hybrids of the form, so it’s not one size fits all. This is not going to be a Nor’wood initiative, or a Jenkins initiative — it has to be one with wide community support.”
He pointed out that San Diego voters approved a change to a strong mayor system several years ago.
“The change was provisional,” said Walker, “so that if it didn’t work out, it could be changed back to city manager.”
“We’re aware of these efforts,” said Fowler, “but that’s not the focus of what we’re doing.”
The city is cooperating with both projects, and has devoted staff time responding to requests from the groups.
“The mayor sent a letter to Bartolin promising staff support,” said Vice Mayor Larry Small, “and Jenkins talked to the mayor and select individual council members and got their support for the audit. It never came up for public discussion. I thought that it should have been brought to us.”
Small also said that Rivera has spoken to council members about changing to a strong mayor system.
“The way he proposed it, it seemed a little incoherent,” Small said. “He wanted to have eight council members elected from districts and a mayor, as well as a council president, elected at large.”
Council member Bernie Herpin said Rivera had proposed the same structure to him.
“The mayor is pushing this idea,” Herpin said.
Small said the two groups were formed in response to an ineffective and directionless city council.
“We’re suffering from a council that doesn’t want to govern the city,” Small said. “What they’re doing is what we should be doing.”