Updated: June 4, 2011 at 12:00 am
The legacy of Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera is a study in contrasts.
With the Southern Delivery System, which Rivera considers his crowning achievement, he worked tirelessly to repair relationships with Pueblo officials to get not only required permits but also the political support needed to build the 62-mile water pipeline. SDS, now under construction, is designed to quench the city’s thirst for decades to come.
“These kinds of projects happen only once every half century,” Rivera said last week as a small army of construction workers drained water from the section at the base of Pueblo Reservoir where the pipeline connection will be.
Rivera’s supporters say he was instrumental in building trust with Pueblo to get the monumental project off the ground.
In sharp contrast, Rivera damaged his trust with the Colorado Springs community in his efforts to keep the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters here, with revelations that the deal benefited a developer, Ray Marshall, who was one of his clients at UBS Financial Services.
Even now, Rivera said, he was right in pushing to keep the USOC in Colorado Springs, a move he said will pay “huge dividends” as the business community tries to market the city as a center of sports tourism.
“Do you think that conversation would be going on now if the (USOC) headquarters was in Chicago or they were getting ready to move someplace else?” he asked. “No, it wouldn’t, and what would be my legacy? ‘Rivera lost the U.S. Olympic Committee. He should have tried harder.’”
After 14 years in office, the last eight as mayor, Rivera, 54, said he’s leaving City Hall with a sense of pride, describing himself as dedicated, hard-working and always a man of integrity.
Rivera will pass the baton to Steve Bach, who will be sworn in as the city’s first strong mayor at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. The ceremony is open to the public.
As a full-time mayor serving as the city’s chief executive, Bach will have broader powers than Rivera ever had and is expected to shake up City Hall and focus on job creation by improving the city’s business climate. It was during Rivera’s waning tenure last year that the change to a strong-mayor form of government was placed on the ballot.
As Rivera prepares to leave office, he said he wants to be remembered as a mayor who was “always looking out for the best interest of the city” and willing to sacrifice his personal life to make the community better.
Rivera, who has ardent supporters and loyal critics, always had a “clear vision of where he wanted the community to go,” said former Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Margaret Radford, one of Rivera’s biggest fans.
“I can remember so many times when I would look at the mayor and see the wheels going around in his head,” she said. “He was always trying to figure out how to connect the dots in a way that nobody else had thought of yet.”
'Difficult period of time,' colleague notes
Contrasts are a recurring theme of Rivera’s political career.
When he became the city’s first Hispanic mayor, in 2003, he was the darling of the Latino community, even getting an invitation, which he accepted, to be grand marshal in the Colorado State Fair parade in Pueblo that year.
But Rivera angered another minority group — gays and lesbians — when he refused to sign a proclamation in 2005 in support of the annual PrideFest celebration. He said organizers were holding what he called “mock gay weddings in Acacia Park,” and his signature on a proclamation would give the impression that he supported same-sex marriage.
“It goes against my personal beliefs,” he said. “I believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman.”
Former Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, now executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado, said Rivera shouldn’t be defined by his unwillingness to issue the PrideFest proclamation. Still, she said, it didn’t help improve the city’s reputation. Rivera served as mayor after Makepeace.
“There is symbolism that goes with serving in public office,” she said. “I think it was a symbol to people that we are not a tolerant community. I don’t think he made it any worse. But he certainly didn’t make it any better.”
Makepeace said only time will tell what Rivera’s legacy will be.
“He was in a really difficult period of time in our city,” she said.
“Certainly, we all know that the budget situation that the city faced has been just horrendous, and we’re still operating, and we still have a wonderful community,” Makepeace said. “I think he did OK.”
Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College, agreed, saying Rivera did a good job of steering the city through the economic downturn, along with the financial restrictions of both local and state Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
“I think when you look at the challenges that those two factors presented to him, I thought he handled the situation as well as or better than you might expect given the size of those challenges,” he said.
Backed Stormwater Enterprise, lost congressional bid
A Republican who advocated for limited government, Rivera championed tax increases, including the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority sales tax for road projects, which voters approved.
He also pushed to create a Stormwater Enterprise that levied fees on property owners. The stormwater fees, labeled a “rain tax,” led to harsh criticism of city officials.
“I think we did the right thing,” Rivera said about the Stormwater Enterprise. “But what we did wrong was we created an enterprise. State law allows you to create a stormwater department in your city and assess fees, but then it would be part of the general fund.”
That meant that it would have been subject to revenue caps under TABOR.
“We thought, ‘What’s the point?’ You can’t plan long-range for stormwater infrastructure if you’re worried about refunding the money, so that’s why we created the enterprise,” he said.
When he ran for Congress in 2006, Rivera paid dearly for his stance on taxes and the enterprise, which the City Council later disbanded under political pressure. Rivera finished close to last in the Republican congressional race primary.
“I lost the race. Yeah, it hurt, but I realized what I did as the mayor was more important than getting elected to Congress, and that’s OK,” he said. “Life continued on.”
Radford, his former colleague on council, said part of Rivera’s legacy will be the region’s PPRTA-funded transportation projects, including the intersection at Union Boulevard and Austin Bluffs Parkway.
“People who get things done have a tendency occasionally to ruffle feathers,” she said. “If those who look back critically at the years Lionel was in office, make no mistake, he got things done and that interchange is one of them, and there are a number of other PPRTA-related projects that got done and are getting done because he played a key role there.”
Biggest regret: not funding trash cans, street lights
As mayor, Rivera touted the quality of life in Colorado Springs.
But he was among a council majority that pulled the trigger on budget cuts that left parks without trash cans, thousands of streetlights in the dark and no money to mow the medians — a decision that attracted a barrage of negative media attention last year.
Asked about his biggest regret, Rivera said it was not spending for those things.
“It was a small dollar amount in the total budget but had such a huge impact on the way people felt about the city,” he said.
Rivera said the council probably didn’t challenge city employees enough on their revenue projections, which he said were “way off.”
When asked whether former City Manager Penelope Culbreth-Graft was to blame, Rivera seemed reluctant to answer.
“Let’s just say that financial forecasting could have been a heck of a lot better, and a city manager is ultimately responsible for what staff provides us and a big part of what you fund and what you don’t fund,” he said.
At the same time, the city’s financial crunch led to unprecedented public-private partnerships with organizations that took over some of the city’s recreation centers and swimming pools.
Former Councilman Sean Paige, who pushed for the partnerships, said he got along “pretty well” with the mayor, which Paige said was surprising because he “savaged (Rivera) regularly” as editorial page editor at The Gazette.
“You could see that the lights were on when you talked with him, which isn’t always the case with most politicians, and I think he was willing to listen to new ideas when they were presented to him,” Paige said.
Voters wanted a strong mayor form of government
Rivera, who was used to calling the shots from his days as president of his fraternity at Texas Tech University, wanted to be a buck-stops-here kind of leader at City Hall.
But he was powerless to do so under the city’s longstanding council-manager form of government, which made Rivera a ceremonial figurehead and one of nine votes on council.
In November, following the controversy of the USOC deal and budget cuts that residents interpreted as payback for voting down a proposed property tax increase, voters approved a switch to a strong-mayor form of government.
“The timing of it and the fact that the Jenkins (local developers) put all that money behind it, if all that hadn’t come together, I don’t think we would have changed our form of government nor would it have even been proposed,” he said.
Rivera said he would consider running for elected office again but that he plans to focus on his job for at least the next six years.
“I need to get my earnings up so I can put money away and save for retirement,” he said. “I have about 10 years of catching up to do from being the vice mayor and mayor.”