Forums provide insight on Council races

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Candidates face an attentive audience during the Business Journal-KOAA forum Tuesday night.

Candidates face an attentive audience during the Business Journal-KOAA forum Tuesday night.

Was there anything to learn by sitting through two City Council candidate forums? On Monday, more than 100 civic-minded voters braved icy streets to watch candidates strut their stuff in an environmental forum at Stargazers. Twenty-four hours later, a slightly different crowd gathered at the Mining Exchange Hotel for the Business Journal-KOAA forum.

The formats were essentially identical. Candidates were arrayed along tables facing the audience, and asked questions by a moderator. Some required only yes or no, while candidates had up to a minute to answer others. Given the number of candidates in attendance (18), it would have made little sense to let them ramble on.

Craig Eliot and Rob Quirk, both familiar Channel 5 faces to TV viewers, moderated the forums. They were quick, incisive and prepared, much to the relief of those who suffered through both events.

What was there to learn? Did any candidates gain support and stature, and did any lose?

That’s a matter of opinion. The format did not allow for reasoned exposition, and most candidates refused to depart from the right-wing playbook. Asked whether they supported allowing city employees to bring concealed weapons to work, only two hopefuls answered no. With a disbelieving snort, District 2 candidate Bill Murray said, “You gotta be crazy!”

Alone among candidates, Murray often took contrarian positions. Joined only by Bob Kinsey and Brandy Williams, he supported increased council pay. When the discussion turned to fracking and local regulation of oil and gas extraction, he indirectly skewered opponent Angela Dougan, who had asserted that the industry, if welcomed, would bring 3,000 jobs.

“We have a terrible history of chasing after the shining object,” Murray said. “[When creating such regulations] we should always err on the side of protecting our citizens.”

District 3’s heavyweights — Jim Bensberg, Tom Gallagher, Keith King and Brandy Williams — acquitted themselves well, adroitly emphasizing their strengths while refraining from directly attacking opponents. King treated the audience to a rapid-fire mini-biography, managing to pack 25+ years into 30 seconds. Founded Waterbed Palace in 1977, opened 17 more stores, sold it in 2002, elected six times to positions on D-12’s school board and Legislature, started three charter schools, wife, kids, grandkids … and then he took a breath.

Bensberg, responding to a question about the sometimes-testy mayor-Council relationship, didn’t see any problems working with Mayor Steve Bach.

“After serving three years with Doug Bruce (as county commissioners),” Bensberg said with a smile, “I think I can work with almost anyone.”

Tom Gallagher noted correctly that “history has proven that my ‘no’ votes [while on Council, 2003-2011] were right.”

But given the chance, Councilor Brandy Williams surpassed them all. Quirk addressed a Twitter-generated query to Williams and the other D-3 hopefuls.

“How can we attract and retain young professionals 21-35 to Colorado Springs?” he asked, giving Williams first shot.

Scarcely believing her good fortune, Williams swung, made contact and hit it out of the park.

“You could start by re-electing a 34-year-old woman to City Council,” she said, with a meaningful glance toward her aging competitors.

Responding to the same question, they were visibly uncomfortable. Attempting to dance around the issue, Keith King said that we need to “focus on the next generation.” Maybe so, but it’s clear that none of the 13 aging male candidates on the ballot have any intention of ceding power and influence to that generation.

While most candidates performed adequately, others may have damaged their chances. David Moore, endorsed by the Housing and Building Association in District 6, gave a notably incoherent performance. For the most part, he uttered harmless platitudes, but when he ventured more deeply into the reality-based community, he stumbled badly.

Asked whether he’d support a regional stormwater tax to deal with the area’s billion-dollar infrastructure deficit, he pulled out a tired Brucian trope.

“Does anyone really believe that the government needs more money?” Moore asked, suggesting that unnamed “efficiencies” could somehow be found in city budgets.

His equally conservative opponent, Andres Pico, gave a more measured answer. Noting that the city had been wrestling with apparently insoluble problems for years, he supported moving forward with the process of engineering, costing and prioritizing projects, while considering funding options.

Almost all candidates supported such a process, and many backed the eventual creation of a regional stormwater authority similar to Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority with a defined project list and a sunsetting funding source.

D-5 candidate Jill Gaebler spoke an obvious truth that no one else addressed as directly.

“I believe that the stormwater backlog is two to three times the annual city budget,” she said, “It can’t be funded through efficiencies.”

For the most part, candidates were grim and serious. Dennis Moore, the sole D-4 candidate at either forum, lightened things up by refusing to express an opinion about an unfamiliar issue.

“We all have an opinion,” he said, “and we sit on it!”

But D-6 candidate Ed Bircham had the last word.

“I’m not asking for your vote,” the longtime businessman said, scanning the crowd at the environmental forum. “I don’t see anybody from my district, and I know that none of you would vote for me anyhow.”