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Council may repeat precedent for battling Utilities

Fri, Sep 21, 2012

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City Councilors, a timid and irresolute lot in the best of times, always have found it difficult to override the recommendations of the managers who report to them.

Such avoidant behavior is understandable. Utilities managers understand utility issues; Memorial managers understand health care issues; city staff understands city issues. They’re well-paid, highly qualified experts who can produce hundreds of pages of professional-grade gobbledygook to explain/justify/obfuscate their policy preferences.

Individual councilors who oppose staff are at a substantial disadvantage. They’re not in a fair fight — what they believe to be intelligent, incisive questioning may seem to be meandering, ill-informed blather (see Gallagher, Tom, 2003-2011).

But sometimes those ill-informed amateurs are right, and the professionals are wrong. Usually it doesn’t matter, since Council outliers rarely convince a majority of their colleagues to subscribe to their latest revolutionary fantasy.

Occasionally, the stars align.

Twenty years ago, I was a rookie councilor with a year’s experience in office. Confident, cocksure and (of course!) brilliant, I was ready to make some serious policy. My fellow rookies (Cheryl Gillaspie, Lisa Are and Larry Small) were just as confident, smart and impatient with the lumbering pace of city government.

But there was at least one formidable obstacle to overcome — Mayor Robert M. Isaac.

Mayor Bob understood city government and its operations better than anyone before or since. The charter said that he was a weak mayor, but Bob ran the city. The most popular politician in Colorado Springs, he had long controlled a voting majority of Council. He’d easily turned back a 1991 attempt to unseat him — an attempt supported by a majority of the business community — and it was futile to oppose him in matters he thought important.

The mayor regarded Colorado Springs Utilities as his own private fiefdom. CSU boss Jim Phillips was a close associate, and Isaac permitted no Council meddling with Utilities.

“The people don’t care if you and Doug Bruce get in a fistfight,” Isaac told me. “They’d probably enjoy it. But if they turn on the faucet and nothing comes out, they’ll get rid of all of us.”

So when CSU announced plans to build a water treatment plant at the mouth of Cheyenne Canon, it seemed like a fait accompli. Never mind that the neighbors were furious at the proposed intrusion of an industrial facility into a historic residential area; never mind that a few councilors had misgivings. This project was essential, and the location couldn’t be changed.

At the decisive Council meeting, Lisa Are made an unexpected proposal.

“There’s a professor at CSU who is a recognized national expert on municipal water systems,” she said. “I spoke to him, and he’d be willing to put together an independent team to assess the project, see if there are any alternatives.”

After debate, a majority of Council agreed to support Are’s initiative. Mayor Bob was furious (“A bunch of goddamn professors??!!” he told me later), and CSU’s managers were speechless.

The “goddamn professors” delivered their report a couple of months later. Their preferred option didn’t include a Cheyenne Canon water treatment plant. The report called for bolstering system connectivity with new pipelines, which would obviate the need for any new plant and provide more system redundancy and flexibility.

Despite CSU’s continuing opposition, we agreed to the professors’ preferred option.

As far as I know, that was the last time that any Council overrode the recommendations of Utilities managers regarding a major project. We might have thought ourselves bold and courageous, but lots of voters thought we’d just caved in to pressure from a few selfish NIMBYs. And maybe they were right — 15 years later, a senior Utilities executive gently explained to me that our decision had been illogical, costly and inefficient.

So here we are, and it’s déjà vu all over again. Four rookie councilors are feeling their oats, and they’re ready to defy the Lords of Utilities, this time over the downtown Drake power plant.

Will they get that fifth vote? Will they start a process that may spiral out of anyone’s control? Will Drake be closed? Will electric generation be sold? And if Council reverses itself, and orders an immediate independent study of the issues surrounding Drake, how long will it take? What about lawsuits?

And maybe it won’t make any difference, since six Council seats will be up for grabs next April. We may a have a new crop of eager rookies replacing today’s eager rookies — and it’ll be déjà vu once again.

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