Incumbent City Council members Jan Martin and Scott Hente have penned a letter in opposition to Issue 300, which would alter the city’s form of government and allow a “strong mayor.”
They make some good points, including that many problems of city government have been the result of antic voter decisions, including TABOR and restricted-use revenue streams such as TOPs and PPRTA, which make it impossible for elected officials to respond effectively to economic conditions.
It’s also true that proponents of the change have made statements that are highly dubious, even factually challenged. To claim that the massive layoffs and cutbacks approved by the present council are “just window dressing” trivializes the seriousness of the cuts.
Such statements are regrettable, but the deep-pocketed folks who are behind the so-called Mayor Project are running a political campaign. They’re in it to win, not to be fair and balanced.
The central issue in the campaign is, as Martin and Hente suggest, whether changing the form of government from the existing council/manager structure to a “strong mayor” will solve or even slightly ameliorate our city’s many problems.
As they imply, the city’s problems have little to do with its form of government. Those in charge of city government, however it may be structured, will have to deal with a fragmented, tax-averse electorate, TABOR and the TABOR ratchet, increasing demands for vital city services and shrinking revenues with which to meet those demands.
A new “strong mayor” will not bring a magic wand to his new office, and won’t have anything in his or her political toolkit that previous leaders lacked.
My guess is that the voters understand those facts perfectly well, and will approve the measure anyway.
They won’t vote on the merits of the new system, but upon what they see as the failures of the present system.
During the past few years, Mayor Rivera and the city council have negotiated and approved the USOC deal, the Stormwater Enterprise, and have sought approval for two separate property tax hikes.
It’s fair to say that these actions did not find favor with the electorate, to say the very least.
In addition, many voters believe, rightly or wrongly, that city employees are overpaid and underworked, and are blessed with pensions and other benefits that are far superior to those available to the private sector.
Those beliefs will decide this election. It may not be rational to change the city’s form of government, but these are angry times. Angry people make angry decisions – they throw out incumbents, they vote in unknowns, they approve strange initiatives, and they may just change the city’s form of government on a whim.
It doesn’t make sense, it’s not fair, it’s not logical – but it’s entirely understandable.
So come next April we may elect ourselves a brand-new city council and a brand-new strong mayor to boss ‘em around. We don’t know who’ll occupy the office but he or she will need the ruthless intelligence of Talleyrand, the cunning of Kissinger, the charm of Reagan, and the luck of every Powerball winner.
Here’s the letter from Martin and Hente in its entirety:
After closely examining Issue 300: “The Strong Mayor Proposal”, we have come to the conclusion that it is not in the best interests of the Community, at this time, to pass this measure. While we have many friends among the committee members that are advocating this initiative, and have tremendous respect for their desire to improve Colorado Springs, we feel that the impression being given to the voters that this change in government will solve our City’s problems is misleading and a disservice to our residents.
Proponents of the measure have stated that “Colorado Springs’ government is clearly broken” and that we have “no separation of powers or checks and balances”. In stating that that our local government is broken, the proponents also go on to say that the city of Colorado Springs has refused to suffer along with its citizens and that actions we have taken on Council are “just window dressing”. The more than 300 city employees who have been laid off or “forced” into retirement over the last couple of years, the hundreds of our citizens who have no or limited access to mass transit and have lost jobs because of that, or the victim of an assault who had to wait a little bit longer for a responding police officer because of public safety cutbacks, are all examples that many have suffered.
Like many city governments around the Nation, we maintain a small and cost effective form of government to help keep costs down. To have a “true” strong Mayor would require additional individuals such as a Chief of Staff, consultants, and aides – look at Denver. This would require more funds than the small professional City Manager staff that we have now. In addition, we have a City Manager, City Clerk, City Attorney, and City Auditor who all report directly, and are accountable, to the City Council, creating a very valid system of checks and balances on their activities.
Proponents of the Strong Mayor proposal state that an elected chief executive would be more efficient and would manage the City like a business. Both of us have had the benefit of having served both in the public sector as well as run a private business. We understand, very clearly, the differences between the two and what can and cannot be done in both arenas. For example, whether it is decisions regarding retirement benefits, easily changing suppliers, or continuing to perform certain operations, numerous National, State, and local laws tie our hands and greatly inhibit our ability to do things that we routinely and easily do in the private sector. This would not change with a strong mayor form of government.
Are there serious issues facing Colorado Springs? You bet there are. Almost 20 years of TABOR forced cutbacks and ratchet downs combined with a tax adverse population and a series of “stovepipe” revenue streams have left us with a City budget that is severely restricted and a disservice to our citizens. To state that “an elected chief executive…can lead our City to make the same type of bottom-line decisions that…business owners make…” is an over-simplification of our current problems and an over-idealistic approach to solving those problems.
Look at our respective backgrounds: one of us grew up in a locally owned family business, has owned a small business for 17 years and has seen the value of a strong leader who makes effective and timely decisions to run a business; the other one of us spent four years as a student at the Air Force Academy, followed by twenty one years as a career military officer, learning the value of a single, strong, and effective leader. Based on those respective sets of experiences, we initially embraced the concept of a single, strong, and effective chief executive for the City – but the approach being taken with this Strong Mayor proposal is, in our opinion, too far reaching and too ambitious in terms of its implementation.
The Council/Manager form of government provides representation for the whole community by electing representatives from districts and at-large who serve their constituents. Yes, we need strong and full time leadership from our elected officials, but putting the power into the hands of one individual will not solve the current issues.
The last two charter review commissions recommended keeping the Council/Manager form of government. Those commissions, both represented by a cross-section of our community, made those recommendations after thoroughly vetting the different alternatives. While we both think that the discussion about our form of government is a healthy one to have and forces us to look at differing methods of governing, we feel that Issue 300 moves us too far, at this time, and does not solve the under-lying problems our great City faces. We urge a NO vote on Issue 300.
Scott Hente & Jan Martin
Councilmembers, City of Colorado Springs