Our poor city — kicked in the teeth once again!
When Ultra Petroleum stepped up in 2011 and bought the Banning Lewis Ranch at a bankruptcy auction, visions of sugarplums danced in many an establishment head.
Our problems were solved! Oil and gas boom, here we come! No more pinched city budgets, no more 10 percent unemployment, no more gloomy talk of tax increases to fix our crumbling infrastructure. Who cares if Obama cuts the military budget — we’re in the money!
Remember those delicious employment myths, most recently repeated by the still-hopeful City Councilor Angela “I’m a Believer” Dougan? The industry would create 3,000 direct jobs, paying more $100,000 annually. We’d be Texas without the duststorms, North Dakota without the nasty winters, Iraq without the bloodshed.
And like a big quarrelsome family waiting for rich Uncle Joe to die and leave them money, we fought over our expected windfall. Fracking or no fracking? Environmentally benign or disaster in the making? Would the industry save us or ruin us?
And then — poof.
Ultra capped its first fracked well and slunk away in the night. No, Colorado Springs, there is no Santa Claus. Uncle Joe died broke.
Welcome back to the reality-based community.
There’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that we’re in the process of electing six members of City Council at a time in the city’s history when we need experience, wisdom and good judgment. The good news is that there are such candidates. The bad news is that most of those candidates are concentrated in two districts.
Imagine electing Jill Gaebler and Bernie Herpin from District 5, and Jim Bensberg, Brandy Williams, Keith King and Tom Gallagher from District 3. The six of them would mesh quickly and amicably with incumbents Jan Martin, Val Snider and Merv Bennett. Returning Herpin and Williams would guarantee continuity, while Bensberg, King and Gallagher would bring even more depth and experience.
Dream on. While voters in District 3 and District 5 can scarcely go wrong, voters in other districts are not so fortunate. Some candidates are rigid ideologues while others have little knowledge of local government. If controversial incumbents such as Tim Leigh and Angela Dougan are shown the door by voters, their replacements had better be ready for extensive on-the-job training.
Why are we in such a fix? It’s our own fault. We jiggered the city’s charter to add two more district seats. Had we left things alone, five councilors would be elected at large and four from districts. Williams and Leigh would have been elected to full four-year terms in 2011, instead of having to run for district seats after two years in office.
By shrinking at-large representation, we’re going to get a more parochial, less experienced and more conservative City Council. That’s because of the winner-take-all nature of district races, and because moderates tend to do well in at-large races.
When voters get to choose four or five candidates, they’re more likely to make diverse choices. Conservatives might throw in a sensible liberal, and vice versa.
Winning candidates have to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, not just run to the right and hope for a conservative plurality. It’s much better to be the third or fourth choice of many voters than to be the first choice of a few.
Council districts, as currently created, are artificial constructs. When candidate Ed Bircham misspoke at one forum, saying that he had “lived for 30 years right here in District 11,” it was understandable. The new districts are just random chunks of the city, splitting neighborhoods and communities of interest to comply with laws governing such electoral subdivisions.
Denver’s 13-member City Council has only two at-large members, but there are some important differences between our two cities. Denver council members are well paid ($78,173 plus about $30,000 in annual benefits) and district representatives maintain staffed offices in their neighborhoods.
All administration is concentrated in the mayor’s office, leaving councilors to concentrate on legislative responsibilities.
Since our City Council is also the governing board of Colorado Springs Utilities, we effectively have two city administrations. Such responsibility requires that councilors be more than neighborhood advocates. Upping the number of districts may mean better district representation, but the interests of the city at large may not be so well served.
In a time of multiple interlocking crises, that’s no way to run a city — especially since we just drilled a dry hole.