What’s happening to City Council? Have they gone nuts?
Council’s actions, particularly when acting at the Utilities Board, suggest something more than ordinary daffiness, if something less than demonic possession.
Few of us are naïve enough to hold local elected officials to particularly high standards. We don’t expect the friendly efficiency of Starbucks, or even the sluggish competence of the TSA. We hope for the best — and, like Rockies fans, we’re often disappointed.
But just as the Rockies have been catastrophically, unreasonably and maddeningly awful this baseball season, Council hasn’t exactly lived up to our expectations.
Many who voted to change the form of government two years ago expected a fresh start. No more Olympic Committee debacles, no more ill-fated attempts to raise property taxes during a recession, no more sly new taxes disguised as stormwater fees. A strong mayor would put an end to such shenanigans.
The newly amended charter contained a fatal flaw. The change was incomplete. Because the city’s single-subject ordinance forbids multiple-subject charter amendments, Memorial Health System and Colorado Springs Utilities remained under Council control.
Proponents of the amendment were aware of the anomaly, and spoke optimistically of remedying it with subsequent charter amendments. They knew that splitting executive authority between mayor and council wasn’t a good idea, but they didn’t have much choice in the matter.
They assumed that the sensible men and women, who would be chosen by voters in the April 2011 nonpartisan election, would play well together.
The next spring saw Mayor Steve Bach and six new councilors sworn into office. We expected that they’d gotten the message: cooperate, work together and remember why the voters junked the council-manager form of government.
In life and in government, crises often come when you’re least prepared for them. The ongoing crisis with Memorial was bad enough, but at least we had some warning. The Utilities crisis — and make no mistake, CSU is in the midst of a full-blown crisis — seemed to come out of nowhere.
In retrospect, both crises were wholly predictable. Both organizations operate in rapidly changing business environments where big players have the advantage. Memorial was hopelessly outgunned as a stand-alone, municipally owned, health care system, just as small-market teams in baseball are hopelessly outgunned by the Yankees. And CSU, despite strong management and sterling finances, may also hold a losing hand.
Managing these transitions would be difficult enough in any case, but Council has displayed a truly Romney-esque penchant for pulling defeat from victory. The years-long Memorial saga would have ended very differently had Bach not intervened in the process, and had his ally Tim Leigh not successfully gamed the decision process. Absent Bach’s political muscle and Leigh’s cunning, Memorial might today be in the tender care of Dr. Larry McEvoy.
Council’s new dilemma: Can CSU afford to decommission the downtown Drake power plant? Put differently, can a municipal electricity provider simultaneously maintain low rates and invest in new facilities? Private businesses deal with similar issues every day, as the competitive landscape shifts, as new entrants bring different expertise to their markets, as economic conditions suddenly change. Business owners and managers don’t dither endlessly over what to do — they gather information and act.
There are three specific questions before the Utilities Board. The Board must decide whether to:
- Delay, terminate, or continue with the Neumann contract.
- Close or keep Drake.
- Explore the possibility of selling electrical generation and transmission.
We could have had authoritative, timely answers to all of them six months ago, had the board acted differently. Organizations like Bain and McKinsey could have quickly produced an unbiased report outlining preferred courses of action.
Instead, the board has quarreled, temporized, issued contradictory directives, and unnecessarily politicized the debate. Coal good, gas bad! Investor-owned utilities bad, municipal utilities good! Low rates good, pollution control bad! And let’s not even mention the EPA, Obama or the Sierra Club!
Those of us foolish enough to sit through meetings of the Utilities Board in recent weeks have seen an elected body that has abandoned any pretense of decorum at meetings, one whose members snipe continually at each other and at citizens brave enough to go to the podium and express their opinion.
Vacuums in leadership do not go unfilled. That’s why Bach has repeatedly thrust himself into the debate, and that’s why Steve Schuck bluntly accused Council of “sitting on their asses and doing nothing.”
Hente’s angry rejoinder, reported by the Independent’s Pam Zubeck, “I’ve been gathering information for nine years!”
Maybe that’s the problem.