It was 1 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, time for the new City Council to begin its first meeting as the Utility Board. Eight of nine board members were in their seats, but board chairman Keith King was standing over a table to the side, fussing with a stack of papers. The minutes ticked by; 1:05, 1:07, 1:10. Finally King took his seat, gavelled the meeting to order and announced that he had some “procedural” items to take care of before taking up the published agenda.
He began by passing a stack of envelopes to Board Member Jan Martin, one for each of his colleagues.
“They’re thank-you notes,” he said, “thanking each of you for selecting me as Council President. Take yours, and pass them along.”
He then read a prepared statement exhorting his colleagues to behave respectfully towards one another, not allow disputes about policy to spill over into personal attacks of any kind, and to work hard to accomplish the possible and the impossible would follow, or some such. The whole speech seemed familiar – had I heard it before?
Oh, now I remember! It was Miss Agnes Pace laying down the law to a new crop of sixth graders at Steele School on the first day of school in early September, 1952. Maybe that’s why I was twisting restlessly in my seat, hoping that King would get to the agenda.
But he still had some instructions for his “class” of eight silent elected officials. He announced that they would address each other formally as “Board Member Martin,” “Board Member Pico,” and so forth when sitting as the Utility Board, and “Councilmember Miller” and “Councilmember Gaebler” when sitting as City Council. No Jan, no Andy, no Joel, no Jill – and it’s “Chairman King” and “President King.”
King noted with obvious regret that no city ordinances specify a dress code for council, so he passed over that question. It may come up when and if the Board has a three-day retreat, which King suggested scheduling for the first three days in May at a location to be determined.
At last it was time for the agenda, and for the Board’s predictable refusal to fund a study examining the feasibility/desirability of selling CSU’s electric generating and distribution assets. The decision was preceded by King’s earlier statement that the people had spoken by electing six new board members who were all adamantly opposed to any such sale.
So what do we make of all this?
Forget King’s initial stumbling uncertainty as board chair – a few more meetings under his belt and he’ll be as smooth as any of his predecessors. Running a meeting isn’t rocket science; it’s a learned skill, like juggling three balls, and repetition makes you better.
The insistence upon formal address and a dress code seems quaint. King’s views may be colored by his years in the state legislature, where the vicious partisans who throng the floor are required to dress appropriately (coats and ties for men, business attire for women) and to address each other by title. Such cosmetic measures have the same effect as taking a badly behaved dog to Wag & Wash – you may improve his smell, but you won’t change his character. Thoughtful, decent and courteous elected officials will act accordingly, whether in blue jeans or blue suits.
King wants to lead Council. He also wants to work constructively with Mayor Steve Bach, yet appear to be an independent thinker. Given the Mayor’s sure instinct for brusquely seizing and exercising power, King will have some challenges there.
He spoke of wanting every councilmember to display leadership skills. Such opportunities may come if he can persuade his colleagues to support an extensive restructuring of council procedures.
If King has his way Council will resemble the state legislature, with committees and subcommittees doing the messy work of receiving public comment, listening to staff presentations and then making recommendations for the body as a whole to rubberstamp. It’ll be less transparent and less accessible than the tumultuous city democracy of past years, but less troublesome for elected officials (depending, of course, on what committees they get stuck with!).
Should King’s accomplishments amount only to dress codes, more bureaucracy and slavish deference to the grandees of Colorado Springs Utilities, his time in the center seat will be scarcely noted. But if he presides over an era of dynamic change, downtown renewal and economic revival that will be success indeed… for which Mayor Bach will get all the credit!
Life, after all, is often unfair.