The “strong mayor” voter initiative heading for the November ballot would bestow sweeping new powers to the mayor of Colorado Springs, giving rise to an obvious question: who benefits?
The mayor would have the power to hire and fire most city employees, to prepare the city budget and to veto most council actions.
The proposal originated with David Jenkins, arguably the city’s most powerful real estate developer.
Jenkins’ Norwood group of companies own the First and Main center, the downtown Plaza of the Rockies and many other properties. Former Norwood employee Kevin Walker is the spokesman for the group behind the initiative, Citizens for Accountable Leadership.
The city’s land-use review division implements and enforces zoning codes and subdivision regulations and ensures that new development is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan. In practice, this means that all development within the city must pass through multiple reviews, and conform to a bewildering maze of regulations.
Industry supporters of the strong-mayor initiative are reluctant to discuss it publicly, but the local real estate community has long believed that the approval process should be streamlined.
A strong mayor could do just that.
Angelou Economics, a Texas consultancy hired to help develop an economic development plan for the region, made note of the problem in its report last year.
“Among focus group participants and interviewees, it was noted that city permitting and development review processes are cumbersome, slow and hard to navigate,” Angelou said. “The creation of the city’s Rapid Response team has provided some projects with quick approvals and turnaround. However, due to a combination of factors, confidence in the permitting and development review process among the real estate and development sector has eroded.”
Of 112 supporters listed on the website of Citizens for Accountable Leadership, 31 are involved in real estate sales, construction, or development. The Business Journal contacted many of them, all of whom rejected any suggestion that their support of the initiative was driven by self-interest.
“In my estimation, no,” said Walker, who is a former city planner. “The overriding concern is that our community needs to change its governance.”
Clarissa Arellano, the government affairs director for the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors, said that PPAR will not take an official stance on the proposal. That doesn’t mean, however, that members of the group don’t support the initiative.
“I can tell you that so many are frustrated with the existing system that they’re supporting this issue. Will this be the solution? They think it’s worth trying,” she said.
The current council-manager form of government, which has served the city since the 1920s, may be part of the city’s “culture of indecision,” she added.
“That is pervasive in this community,” she said. Rather than take action, “people like to talk a lot. They like to plan, formulate and conceptualize.”
Gary Bradley, a retired commercial real estate broker who served as chairman of the planning commission during the early 1990s, has long believed that a strong mayor system would better serve the city.
“We all remember (former Mayor) Bob Isaac,” Bradley said, “but he began the process of (overcompensating) city employees, which has brought us to where we are today.”
Other prominent developers and builders, who declined to be identified, made similar points but also discounted notions that they might hold special sway with a strong mayor.
“We’ve agreed to let Kevin do the talking,” said one, “but I don’t think that any of us are naïve enough to think that a new strong mayor could cut special deals.”
Anti-growth gadfly Dave Gardner said he sees some benefits to the proposal, but is concerned about its sponsors.
“I definitely have mixed emotions about the strong mayor proposal,” he said, “but I won’t be supporting that kind of idea as long as the growth profiteers who introduced the idea can buy the position with their campaign war chests.”
Citizens for Accountable Leadership planned to post the names of its contributors on its website Thursday.
Sam Mamet, the executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, thinks the proposal is misguided, and not because it’s being pushed by any particular interest group.
“I have no dog in this fight,” said Mamet, “but if the issue is accountability, you have the perfect opportunity next April (at the municipal elections). I remember when Colorado Springs had a strong mayor, and his name was Bob Isaac. The structure doesn’t matter as much as who’s in the role.”
In the last 10 years, five American cities have changed their form of government. Three have gone from city manager to strong mayor, while two have done the opposite.
“Changing the form of government is always driven by widespread dissatisfaction with government regardless of the existing system,” said Adrian Kwiatkowski, a San Diego resident who spearheaded that city’s 2004 changeover to a strong mayor system. “San Diego had numerous problems with the budget and its pension funds, and just three days before the outbreak of a major wild fire the city manager had cancelled the city’s firefighting helicopter contract. People were fed up.”