ELECTION PREVIEW: Role of council will change with strong mayor

March 9, 2011

The mayor will be “strong” — that much is certain about the new city government structure in Colorado Springs after next month’s election.

But what about the City Council, the part-time board that has steered the direction of the city since voters approved a council-manager form of government in 1920?

Many questions remain about the role of City Council, which could have potentially seven of nine new faces after the April 5 election.

What kind of influence will the board exercise over day-to-day city affairs? How will the council get along with the new mayor? Will there be power struggles?

(See The Gazette's online voter guide here).

Councilman Scott Hente has been asked about the relevancy of council often since voters approved the new form of government in November. He and Bernie Herpin are the only current members guaranteed to be on the new board. Two others, Sean Paige and Jan Martin, are among 16 candidates seeking five at-large council seats.

“Everybody is so focused on the strong mayor that they think this mayor is going be the end-all, with regards to Colorado Springs city government,” said Hente. “We wouldn’t say that because we have a president, that Congress is not relevant.”

Clearly, the board will have less authority over the day-to-day functions of the city, as the mayor will take on the duties once held by the city manager, who has served at the direction of the council. The strong mayor will hire top city officials, including a chief of staff, and write the budget.

Observers say there still will be a system of checks and balances.

“To a large extent, they still have a lot of the same powers and responsibilities that they had before, with the change being they just don’t hire and fire the chief executive,” said Kevin Walker, director of the group that headed the strong mayor ballot initiative.

The council will confirm, with a majority vote, the mayor’s top appointees and department heads, as well as all ordinances and the annual budget. The mayor will have veto power, including a line-item veto of any budget change or spending measure, which the council will be able to override with at least six votes.

There will be other duties independent of the mayor. Council members will make appointments to the various boards and commissions in the city. They will have the sole authority to put a tax increase on the ballot. They will act as the final voice in land-use and eminent domain decisions. They will continue to appoint the board that oversees Memorial Health System.

The mayor will prepare agendas for formal council meetings, though he or she will no longer preside over the meetings. The council will elect a member as president, who will also serve as the mayor in the event of long-term absence.

Perhaps the council’s largest new job will be overseeing Colorado Springs Utilities. The mayor will be a non-voting member when council members meet as the Colorado Springs Utilities Board and would not have veto power over rate increases. Currently, the mayor is a voting member of the Utilities Board and runs the meetings.

That board currently meets once a month. Hente would like to see one of the council’s twice-a-month informal meetings also dedicated to Utilities.

“Overseeing a billion-dollar-plus-a-year operation takes more than a couple hours a month,” he said.

The one city appointee who will remain firmly under council’s umbrella is the city auditor.

Councilman Randy Purvis, who is leaving office, believes the auditor’s office will need to be expanded to better serve the system of checks and balances.

“The mayor otherwise controls the flow of all information out of the city. The council will need to have their own eyes and ears in the city, in order to verify the mayor’s numbers,” Purvis said.

Aside from the official duties, council members will continue to have a role shared by council members across the country: a neighborhood-level person whom residents can call with complaints or concerns about city issues, from potholes to police service. While council members won’t have direct authority over city administrators and staff, they will continue to act as a go-between on behalf of residents.

Said Hente, “My constituents will still feel they have a right, which they will, to contact their elected representative to ask questions.”

He said he supports an April ballot measure to reduce the number of at-large council members to three, so more on the board will represent specific parts of the city.

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