Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Colorado Springs City Council aiming to take back power

By Monica Mendoza Updated: May 13, 2013 at 12:31 pm

As new and returning Colorado Springs council members get familiar with the city charter and code playbook, they expect to come off the sideline and get in the game.

The nine-member council, at its weekend retreat, said it's time for the council to take back its power, which slipped in the past two years under the strong mayor form of government.

They want more input on the city budget; they want their own attorney; they want more staff; and they want the mayor to go through the city council president before he appoints council members to any committees or task forces.

'The people who get the power are the people who seize it, ' said Keith King, new council president. 'I think we as council need to exercise the power that is in the (city) charter and code. '

The six freshman and three retuning council members met for 12 hours over the weekend to discuss their game plan.

It's been two years since voters approved a change in the city government structure, which essentially made the mayor the CEO of the city - a post previously held by a council-hired city manager.

As the mayor flexed his budget and hiring power under the new form of government, the council, in some ways, retreated, said Merv Bennett, returning council member and the panel's president pro-tem.

There was great energy spent creating the office of the mayor, but no effort on how the change affected the council.

But six newly elected council members have no intention of being bench warmers. They've already studied the city charter and code and found, they said, that the council has more power than it has shown.

True the city charter is vague, said new council member Don Knight. But the details of city policy lie within the ordinances, he said.

'The mayor can move money within departments, ' Knight said. 'But guess what, we write the ordinances. We can change that - we have a lot of power to do what we want to do. '

This summer, Mayor Steve Bach will continue a series of town hall meetings, where he is asking for citizen input into the 2014 budget. The 2013 general fund budget is $223 million.

King said the council would form a budget committee and write its own strategic plan this summer to present to the mayor, whose staff begins assembling the budget in September.

'I hope they will be stronger, ' said Gary Fornander, Springs resident who has participated on city ad hoc committees. 'As a council they have to be stronger to provide the checks and balances between the legislative and executive responsibilities. '

The council will ask the mayor to work with the King for council representation on committees. For example, the mayor recently asked two council members to be on an interview committee for an interim fire chief. That request, council said, should go through the council president and be open to council members who want to participate.

'If we are a strong council, if (the mayor) wants council to participate, you need to request that through the president, ' said council member Joel Miller. 'If he's not willing to accept that, than he ought not ask. '

The most crucial issue for the council is legal representation, said returning council member Jan Martin. It's also the only topic during the retreat that provoked terse reaction from City Attorney Chris Melcher.

When the government structure changed, the council was left on an island, Martin said. Under the former government, the council hired the city attorney.

Now, the mayor hires the city attorney and there have been times when the mayor advanced a project or budget item and council wanted a legal opinion but felt like the city attorney was working only for the mayor, she said.

This week, the city attorney will present the city council the options of retail marijuana sales. The mayor has said the city should opt out of retail sales. But, what if the council wants legal opinion about the law, asked new council member Jill Gaebler. Wouldn't the city attorney opinion advocate the mayor's side, she wondered?

If the city council had its own outside attorney the city would end up with dueling lawyers, Melcher said. Of the 50 cities he studied that operate under the strong mayor form of government all have only one city attorney staff for both the council and the mayor.

The city is the client; therefore, the city attorney acts as a neutral source of information, even when the council and mayor disagree, he said.

'In theory you are right, ' Martin told Melcher.

However that is not how it has played out, she said.

'It comes down to trust, ' she said. 'I want to have a sense that our attorney, that they are my advocate and I know they will be looking through our lens. I can honestly say that to this point, I have not experienced that. '

The council will investigate whether it can hire an outside attorney and review the issue in January. Meanwhile, the council will work with a designated city council attorney, Wynetta Massey - a veteran city attorney.

A designated city council attorney follows a Denver City Council model.

Bennett said he already is pleased with the direction of the new city council.

'We've addressed issues today and yesterday that in the last two years council was not willing to talk about, ' Bennett said.

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