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Mayor, council must play nicely on this one

Fri, Jun 15, 2012

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Last week’s media brouhaha over a nonexistent Steve Bach meltdown concerning Memorial Health System was mercifully short-lived. It endures only in the embarrassment of the perpetrators (a certain daily newspaper, unnamed to protect the guilty) and the greater embarrassment of those who were gulled by the scam (that would be yours truly).

Thinking that Bach had actually threatened to campaign against the Memorial deal unless Council toed the line and gave him control of the foundation that would receive most of the proceeds of said deal, as the Gazette (sorry, can’t do this without mentioning it) reported after a meeting last Friday with Bach, I penned a mildly incendiary blog.

An understandably peeved Bach called. I admitted error, and we chatted.

It’s interesting to watch Mayor Bach try to keep four or five balls in the air. He wants to test the limits of his power but maintain cordial relations with Council, inspire city residents but introduce them to hard choices, reach out to the skeptics but retain key supporters — and that’s just the beginning.

He’s no longer a political novice. He’s found that even the most cost-inefficient, wasteful programs have dedicated, politically savvy fans (see FREX). Frustrated by the limits of power and the sluggishness of bureaucracies, the mayor is beginning to realize that one simple equation describes city government:

Isaac Newton’s first law of motion.

That’s Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, which states that a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion.

A corollary principle might state that existing governmental systems tend to stay as they are, however they may appear to change.

That’s why we’re having a debate about the proposed Memorial Foundation.

Although the Colorado Hospital Transfer Act may not require that Memorial lease funds be placed in a foundation dedicated to health care, the city will create a foundation anyway. What hasn’t been determined is how that foundation should be governed.

At present, the mayor has no authority over the city’s enterprise system. City Council controls both Memorial and Colorado Springs Utilities, which singly and together dwarf the city.

The mayor believes that, as the “strong mayor” that Colorado Springs voters elected, he should have a role in selecting and overseeing the board that will run the foundation, which may have an initial capitalization in excess of $250 million. He’s concerned about a possible runaway board and another “McMillion” situation (the embarrassing $1.15 million severance approved by Memorial’s former board to departing CEO Dr. Larry McEvoy). Meanwhile, Council, in accordance with Newton’s first law, wants to retain power over the city’s health care system.

So now we have a genteel political scrap on our hands. And although it’s fun to watch Mayor Bach and City Council warily circling each other, it’s time to move away from Newtonian politics.

Why should city elected officials have any power at all over the new entity?

Suppose you had $250 million, and wanted to give it to a foundation. You’d figure out what worthy causes you wanted to support, embody those goals in the charter, and select the founding trustees.

What you wouldn’t do is hand over power to a group of local elected officials, and let them control the board’s composition and policies.

If you’re as smart as Andrew Carnegie, who gave $135 million to the Carnegie Corporation in 1911, you’ll make your goals as general as possible. Carnegie did it in one sentence: “To promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.”

One hundred and one years later, the Carnegie Corporation continues to do just that. Its endowment has grown, despite hundreds of millions in grants, to more than $3 billion.

We could do the same thing. Mayor and Council could simply agree on a mission statement, appoint a half-dozen of our leading citizens to be founding board members, and let them be. It’s not as if we lack for competent, unimpeachably ethical folks to select. How about Kyle Hybl, Becky Medved, Richard Skorman, Susan Edmondson, Sol Chavez and Les Gruen? Or six others just as distinguished?

They would focus on the long future, not the parochial needs of today’s politics. Like El Pomar Foundation’s founding trustees, they would balance the visionary with the practical, assuring that the foundation would be both relevant and solvent for many decades to come.

Can Council and Mayor Bach come together and do the unthinkable — give up power? Bach says that he’s “open to the idea of an El Pomar model.” What about Council? Will its members move forward?

Or is Newton still right?

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