On Tuesday afternoon, our quarrelsome and divided City Council took the stage once more. It’s been a short and strange trip, one which will end in April when as many as six current members may be replaced in the biennial city elections.
That there will be changes is a certainty — and that the changes may permanently alter Council’s political makeup is probable.
Jan Martin, Val Snider and Merv Bennett will not be up for re-election for another two years, while Scott Hente is term-limited and Lisa Czelatdko will not run for another term, although she is eligible to do so. Brandy Williams, Tim Leigh, Angela Dougan and Bernie Herpin are running for re-election in various districts, and all have opposition. Leigh and Dougan appear to have the safest seats, while Williams and Herpin have strong, experienced opponents.
Here’s a possible lineup: District 1, Leigh. District 2, Dougan. District 3, Keith King. District 4, Deborah Hendrix. District 5, Al Loma. District 6, David Moore.
It’s a conservative group, which would likely look to Keith King for leadership. The canny King may have no experience in municipal government, but his years in the Legislature and the District 12 school board have given him the tools he needs to run the show.
The new majority would likely seek cooperation, not confrontation. There would be few of the angry turf battles that have characterized the past 20 months, as Hente’s Council and Bach’s administration sought to mark their respective territories.
In a bizarre coda to a tumultuous, uncertain time in city government, Council considered referring three significant City Charter changes to the voters. As stand-alone issues, each could be considered progressive measures intended to improve city government. As a package, they amounted to a concerted attempt to transform the “strong mayor” government to a “weak mayor/strong council” structure.
The proposed changes: End the mayor’s authority to sign Utilities contracts. Make the city attorney an elected office. Create a separate elected Utilities Board, severed from the city administration.
Council’s power play went disastrously wrong, thanks in part to clever maneuvering by the administration. Local politics can be murky, but here’s the apparent timeline:
Wednesday, Jan. 16, 5 p.m.: Hente announces that he and Martin will formally propose a charter amendment for the ballot at Tuesday’s Council meeting, the last possible date to do so. The measure would replace Council with a seven-person elected Utilities Board.
Wednesday, 6 p.m.: Hente and Martin email City Attorney Chris Melcher and direct him to create appropriate ballot language for the measure, based on a draft that they have prepared.
Thursday: Melcher asks Hente and Martin for the name(s) of the attorneys who prepared their draft, so that he can consult with them. They don’t respond.
Thursday morning to Tuesday, 5 p.m.: City attorney, after approximately 70 hours of his office researching the proposed issue, determines there are serious deficiencies.
Tuesday, 5 p.m., Council Chambers: City clerk calls up agenda item 10. Aimee Cox comes to podium and announces that “we have no documents for this item.” Stunned silence. Hente, Martin exchange amazed glances. As if on cue, Melcher strides through the door, bearing documents.
5:01 p.m.: Dougan and Leigh erupt, accusing Hente and Martin of trying to railroad the issue. Hente declares “a short break.” Most of Council retreats to adjoining private offices to study the document. The “short break” lasts 40 minutes.
5:30 p.m.: A cheerful Mayor Bach examines a copy of the proposal. “Did you ever make paper airplanes when you were a kid?” he asks a reporter. “This is about the right size.”
5:40 p.m.: A grim-faced Council returns to the dais. The documents include a pessimistic analysis of the measure’s likely consequences, including loss of enterprise status, loss of tax-free status, loss of home-rule exemption from state jurisdiction, and possible TABOR implications. A furious Martin accuses Melcher of playing politics, saying, “I would never submit something like this to the voters!” Game over.
“You can blame Hente all night long for this,” says the council president, “(but I was trying) to do something that was best for this Utility and best for this community.”
“Every time Council comes forward with an idea the executive disagrees with,” says Martin, “we get stonewalled — and tonight is the best example of it.”
Czelatdko directs a furious tirade at Bach, who listens without expression. At the end, he says simply: “We’ve given you everything you want.”
6:05 p.m.: Hente joins the majority in voting to table the issue.
10 a.m., Wednesday: “It was a spirited discussion, to say the least,” says Mayor Bach at his monthly news conference, “but at least we can disagree. In some countries, there might have been arrests!”