Local politics might lead to a different future

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Every analysis related to Colorado Springs in 2012 has been affected in some way by the Waldo Canyon fire.

It was an eventful year in politics and government — nationally, regionally, and locally. In fact, 2012 may have been a watershed year, one in which the comfortable assumptions of the past were overturned and the future became cloudy and uncertain.

Elections

First came the party primary elections on June 26, notable locally on two fronts: Amy Stephens easily defeated Marsha Looper in a GOP state House battle between two incumbents, thanks to reapportionment; and in a contested state Senate race, Owen Hill surprised term-limited Rep. Larry Liston.

In the next vote, a mail ballot that culminated on Aug. 28, Colorado Springs voters overwhelmingly approved the long-term lease (actually a de facto sale) of city-owned Memorial Health System to University of Colorado Health. The struggling, scandal-plagued, stand-alone hospital system had been in play for nearly three years as city politicians wrangled over the organization’s future.

The UCH link was sold to voters not only as a way to save Memorial from going over its own fiscal cliff and strengthening local health care, but also as a source of substantial future economic benefit. Those benefits will include stepped-up investment in the system, and a planned branch of the CU medical school at UCCS.

Last January, the political commentariat gave President Obama little chance of re-election. No president ever had managed victory for a second term in the face of deep and persistent unemployment, widespread skepticism about the nation’s future, and an apparently meandering and directionless foreign policy. Resurgent Republicans expected to increase their House majority, retake the Senate, and cruise into the presidency. Dispirited Democrats had all but given up on the House, hoping to cling to a slim majority in the Senate and somehow retain the presidency.

No one, least of all the Colorado Republican establishment, believed that Obama would easily win Colorado, while narrowing Republican margins in El Paso County. And few believed that vulnerable Democratic incumbents such as Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri could withstand an all-out media assault fueled by right-leaning superpacs.

Reality makes believers of us all. Obama’s relentless, sophisticated, data-driven campaign destroyed Mitt Romney, and brought Democrats and Democrat-friendly independents to the polls in overwhelming numbers. Those voters not only propelled Obama to victory, but also helped down-ticket Dems throughout the country — and particularly in Colorado.

Democrats now control both houses of the state Legislature by wide margins. In Colorado Springs, Pete Lee handily retained his seat in HD 18, while Tony Exum knocked off Republican incumbent Mark Barker in HD 17, giving local Dems an unheard-of three positions in the El Paso County legislative delegation.

Post-election analyses seem to show that the Colorado Springs electorate is slowly changing. We’re still a red city, but our tint has changed — we may be closer to dusky rose than scarlet. Optimistic Dems, pointing to medium-term demographic trends that may disadvantage GOP candidates, predict that Texas will turn blue by 2020.

Texas??!! Will Colorado Springs be next?

The fire this time

The Waldo Canyon fire turned the recurrent warnings of fire managers, forest supervisors and environmental Cassandras into incomprehensible reality. What at first seemed an unpleasant but wholly manageable forest fire near the city’s boundaries turned into a deadly conflagration that obliterated an entire neighborhood.

In Mountain Shadows, 345 houses burned to the ground, and many more were damaged. Tens of thousands of residents were evacuated from Mountain Shadows and other areas along the urban-wildlands interface, as the fire threatened most of northwestern Colorado Springs.

It was a predictable emergency, one that had been game-planned by the Colorado Springs Fire Department since former fire chief Manny Navarro took over the department in the 1990s. Navarro had experienced the devastating Oakland fire of 1991 that burned 2,843 single-family homes and 437 apartments and condos, and he knew well the perils of the urban/wildland interface.

But when the fire next time became the fire today, chaotic turf battles and confused lines of command may have inhibited official response. To give one example, county commissioners Amy Lathen and Sallie Clark demanded that Mayor Steve Bach cede control of the Colorado Springs Fire Department to the county. Bach refused, fearing that county control would put the city at risk.

Despite such bickering, city and county leaders maintained public solidarity, thanks in part to Forest Supervisor Jerri Marr.

Once an anonymous Forest Service employee, Marr became the city’s heroine, a symbol of endurance, resistance, practicality and coolness under pressure. She coached elected officials, answered reporters’ questions and reassured worried residents.

Despite chaos and disorganization as the fire erupted out of Queens Canyon on June 26, the heroism and initiative of unit commanders, individual firefighters and residents of Mountain Shadows mitigated losses and prevented an unimaginably worse conflagration.

In the fire’s aftermath, the city came together to help victims, restore devastated neighborhoods and rebuild. The first rebuilt house rose from the ashes a month ago, with more to come.

Yet questions remain. At-risk neighborhoods, particularly in the southwest, are still vulnerable to fire. The city and residents of threatened neighborhoods have yet to agree on effective measures to mitigate risk — and the next fire season will be here in a few months.

Local government

It was a time of conflict and achievement, and it was sometimes a little difficult to figure out which was which.

Mayor Bach started and ended the year on the same note — exercising power, and testing the limits of that power. Volunteer teams of prominent residents, most from the private sector, were created to analyze various aspects of city government and make specific recommendations to the administration. A transit solutions group recommended that the city abandon its support of the popular FrontRange Express commuter service to Denver, a suggestion strongly resisted by a majority of City Council. Other teams, including a pension solutions group, worked on equally thorny city budget problems.

Bach also continued the process of replacing long-tenured senior city managers with his own appointees. By year’s end, every significant city department was headed by a Bach appointee. Thanks to ambiguities and contradictions in the city charter, many appointees found themselves walking political tightropes.

City Attorney Chris Melcher, as the representative of both the city administration and the City Council, was the frequent object of Council dissatisfaction. Some councilors suggested that a new position of “council attorney” be created, which would serve the legislative branch of city government. Bach was dismissive.

“Why?” he asked. “So they can sue each other?”

City Clerk Sarah Johnson also came under fire during the redistricting process, which required her to create six districts from four. Neighborhood groups complained that Johnson limited their input, hosting only one public meeting to receive comments about the process. Serenely ignoring the complaints, and noting that she was complying (if minimally) with the charter-mandated process, Johnson took both Bach and Council completely out of the picture.

It may be that both were glad to be out of the spotlight for a change.

New taxes? We love ’em!

Not satisfied with electing two Democrats to the state Legislature, as well as giving Obama nearly 40 percent of the presidential vote, county voters approved two substantial sales-tax measures. By extending the .55 percent sales tax that supports countywide capital improvement projects, voters ensured that the fundamental work of government will be funded through 2024. The successful pro-tax campaign followed a familiar script, featuring unanimous support from elected officials and a well-financed private advocacy group. The extension passed with almost 80 percent of the vote, surely a record for any tax proposal in El Paso County.

The PPRTA extension campaign was in the works for more than a year, a carefully choreographed effort that involved every affected jurisdiction and elected official, the media, and hundreds of residents.

If the PPRTA campaign resembled the Normandy invasion — long-planned, carefully executed, devastatingly successful — Sheriff Terry Maketa’s battle for Issue 1A was more like Doolittle’s Raid.

Maketa’s proposal to raise county sales taxes by $17 million annually to fund the cash-strapped Sheriff’s Office was given little chance of passage. The ballot was crowded, there was no campaign, no group of earnest citizens to promote the issue at Rotary clubs and business events — no one but Maketa and mostly silent county commissioners. Despite the long odds, 64 percent of the voters agreed with the sheriff.