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City 'growing up' with move to strong-mayor government

November 3, 2010

In what will likely be remembered as a defining moment in the history of this 139-year-old city, voters in Colorado Springs decisively approved a charter change Tuesday that dramatically alters the way city government will operate.

With the passage of Initiative 300, Colorado Springs – a sprawling metropolis that observers say still feels like a small town – joins the ranks of a majority of other big cities that have a strong-mayor system of government.

Of the 50 largest U.S. cities, 32 operate under a strong-mayor form of government. With Tuesday’s vote, Colorado Springs, the 46th largest city in the U.S., makes it 33.

“It’s evolution,” said Adrian Kwiatkowski, president of the San Diego-based Strong Mayor-Council Institute, and a consultant for the backers of Initiative 300.

“I think growing up is a better term,” he said. “It’s people coming to grips with the reality that Colorado Springs is the second largest city in the state. It’s home to the Air Force Academy. It has a lot of wonderful attributes and things going for it. But its city government just has not kept up with the times.”

A strong-mayor form of government makes the mayor the full-time CEO of the city, not a ceremonial figurehead who, in Colorado Springs, is one of nine votes on City Council.

The initiative approved by voters calls for the next mayor to be paid nearly $100,000 a year, significantly more than the roughly $120 a week Mayor Lionel Rivera received.

In addition to serving as mayor and chairman of the Colorado Springs Utilities Board, Rivera worked at least 40 hours a week at UBS Financial Services.

“By and large, the city needs a mayor who is paid a full-time salary to do the job 100 percent and not have to worry about other employment,” Rivera, who put in 40 hours a week as mayor, said in a telephone interview at about 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Rivera, who is term-limited, supported the concept of a strong-mayor form of government but not Initiative 300. He said the charter change lacked important components.

For 90 years, Colorado Springs has operated under a council-manager form of government in which the council appointed a manager to oversee day-to-day operations.

The city has had well-regarded city managers, including George Fellows and Lorne Kramer, who also served as police chief.

But the last city manager, Penelope Culbreth-Graft, who was recruited from California, lasted only two years and left under a cloud of loathing when she resigned and then demanded a severance package when she claimed she had been wrongfully terminated.

Kwiatkowski said the situation involving Culbreth-Graft was part of the mix of “ingredients” that led voters to believe that Colorado Springs needed a change in governance to bring accountability to City Hall.

“The issue with the city manager. The backroom deals with the Olympic Committee. The storm water question. You had the city selling the police helicopters on eBay. You had the city telling people to pick up their own trash and removing the trash cans (from the parks). You had the city saying we’re not going to water the parks,” he said.

At the same time, he said, city employees resisted pay cuts, a position that Culbreth-Graft supported.

“Someone who is a mayor (under a strong-mayor form of government) can make those hard choices,” Kwiatkowski said.

While a handful of mayoral hopefuls have announced their candidacies, political observers say the new system of government will generate more interest in the race.

“Hopefully, we will see people who know how to act in an executive manner to lead an organization to an objective, and I think some of those people have sat on the sidelines in the past simply because they didn’t feel like they could lead an organization and achieve a vision and an objective,” said Kevin Walker, director of Citizens for Accountable Leadership, which launched Initiative 300.

The group spent more than $800,000 on the campaign, which is believed to be a record amount for a citywide ballot question.

“I’m hoping, we’re all hoping, that we see those kinds of candidates come forward,” he said.

Call the writer at 476-1623

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