State Rep. Bob Gardner, himself a veteran of many political wars, doesn’t mind sharing his view of the battle going on now inside the Colorado Springs city government.
“The mayor has fought with two successive Councils,” Gardner said of Steve Bach, “so the responsibility for fighting is the mayor’s.”
The four-term state legislator was an interested spectator at Monday’s special, hastily called City Council meeting, which was scheduled to consider Bach’s sudden dismissal of the newly hired Council legislative liaison, George Culpepper.
“I’m just here to observe the legislative process,” said Gardner, perhaps disingenuously. After the meeting was postponed, Gardner spent some time chatting with his onetime legislative colleague, Council President Keith King.
Gardner appears to sympathize with King’s efforts to level the playing field vis-à-vis Mayor Bach’s administration.
“Once you give up power,” Gardner said, “it’s very difficult to reclaim it.”
Gardner’s astute analysis might be applied to both sides of the long-running city conflict. Like 19th-century prospectors, the two sides believe they must stake out their claim — or forever lose it. Bob Womack first discovered gold in Cripple Creek, but died broke. Winfield Scott Stratton staked out the Independence claim on July 4, 1891, fought savage legal battles with other claimants, and emerged as the owner of the richest gold mine in American history.
No one wants to be Womack — but everyone wants to be Stratton. And lest we forget, Stratton used his money and power to build and strengthen Colorado Springs.
Are the present quarrels simply marginal disputes that will eventually fade, to be replaced by a cordial entente between Bach and Council? Will there be a peace treaty leading to a firm alliance, like that between the U.S. and Germany at the end of World War II? Or will there be an uneasy armistice, like that between the two Koreas?
There are reasons to support both views.
“I think that [former City Attorney] Chris Melcher caused a lot of it,” said Jan Martin, who has served on Council since 2007. “We never felt that we had good representation from him on the former Council, and that feeling continued with the new members. Also, remember that we’ve had 12 new councilmembers since 2011. We’ve sort of been flailing around. That lack of political experience is a factor — local politics is all about relationships.”
Rookie councilors can be callow, as a basement find reminded me the other day. Going through a forgotten box of junk, I found a 20-year-old copy of the Independent. Why had I saved it? Because the lead story concerned the lonely efforts of Councilman Hazlehurst to stop the city from selling surplus land to local businesses at less than market value. Never mind that Council, by an 8-1 vote, had ignored my efforts to protect truth, justice and the American way!
Yep, that was me — the Joel Miller of the early 1990s!
Optimists would suggest that we’re headed for a peace treaty, thanks to more experienced councilors, Melcher’s departure and a less combative atmosphere. Maybe, but there’s reason to believe otherwise.
“It’s amazing how quickly we moved to a completely politicized City Council with the strong-mayor system,” said Martin. “Before then, the mayor and Council were just nine people trying to do the best for the city without any partisan agenda.”
“It’s amazing how quickly we moved to a completely politicized City Council with the strong-mayor system.” – Jan Martin
Under the city manager system, the mayor was a member of Council with virtually no statutory powers. He/she ran the meetings and had a vote and a voice — that was it. Governing meant continuous negotiation between the mayor and individual councilors. There were no governing majorities, but rather a fluid, constantly changing consensus.
The city’s COO, the city manager, often had to guess what the policymakers wanted, and act accordingly. That might seem awkward, but it allowed incremental policy changes to be put in place without disagreeable confrontations. The system also rewarded cooperation, since mayor and Council could only move forward when united.
Imagine city government if Steve Bach and Keith King both served on Council, with Laura Neumann as city manager. They’d be partners, not the adversarial chiefs of two different branches of government.
The strong-mayor system functions well when the mayor must respond quickly to a major challenge, such as the Waldo Canyon fire, or when an initiative such as City for Champions has to be created. It doesn’t seem to work as well with routine matters of governance.
Can Bach and King compromise their differences on stormwater funding? Can Council put aside hurt feelings and work constructively on City for Champions?
We’ll know this year, and let’s hope the smart, strong-minded men and women elected to lead our city are ready to put down their arms and sign that peace treaty.