Colorado Springs voters sent a surprise message during a big snowstorm Tuesday, electing a potential majority bloc of City Council members that could push a more liberal agenda, results showed.
A major shift is in the making with the apparent victories of Richard Skorman, Yolanda L. Avila, sole District 2 candidate David Geislinger and re-elected Councilwoman Jill Gaebler, observers agreed.
"Boulder has moved to Colorado Springs," one wag quipped at the Skorman-Avila victory party.
Along with Bill Murray, who won an at-large council seat in 2015, the election represents "a sea change in how progressive Colorado Springs will be perceived," said Perry Sanders, a leading downtown businessman.
Also re-elected were conservative Councilmen Don Knight and Andy Pico. And Issues 1, 2 and 3 passed handily, requiring a supermajority vote before significant Utilities resources can be sold, giving $6 million this year and next year to stormwater from excess tax revenues, and freeing the city to have competitive telecommunications and cable TV, respectively.
Another way to look at the results was in the strength of incumbents, said Doug Price, head of the Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"It doesn't look like a lot of change. Don Knight, Jill (Gaebler) and Andy (Pico) are all coming back. I really do, in 2019, want to work with council on getting something on the ballot for LART (Lodging and Automobile Rental Tax) that will help us invite people to the new Olympic Museum," Price said.
In making their choices, voters appear to have turned away from candidates endorsed and heavily funded by business and economic development groups, including Colorado Springs Forward and the Housing & Building Association.
"Colorado Springs Forward wishes to thank each and every candidate for their thoughtful, passionate efforts. We look forward to working with everyone in all that comes our way as a community, and we hope that all of you do as well," said Executive Director Amy Lathen.
Said Keith King, an outgoing councilman and longtime legislator: "The voters elected people who will represent what their constituents want, not what special interests wanted."
The Citizens Project, which doesn't endorse candidates, sees more work to be done on voter turnout, said Executive Director Deb Walker.
City Clerk Sarah Johnson reported turnout of 31.67 percent. Slightly more than 39 percent voted in the 2015 election for mayor and two at-large council members. About 41 percent voted in the 2013 council election, and more than 55 percent voted in the 2011 mayoral and council election.
The new council's decisions on major issues that loom could affect the city for years.
They'll scrutinize an upcoming amended annexation agreement and new master plan for the roughly 18,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch, which makes up the eastern third of the city.
The city's first new comprehensive plan in 15 years will wind up in council hands within a year or so, too.
The new members might push to eliminate the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant sooner than its scheduled 2035 closure. Downtown business leaders support an end to Drake, especially as the planned U.S. Olympic Museum is expected to lure hundreds of thousands of visitors to southwest downtown near the plant.
The new majority likely will be more amenable to increasing renewable energy resources to Colorado Springs Utilities' portfolio. And it could revisit Utilities governance. Although the council runs the Utilities board now, some members would like more expertise on the panel.
At their first regular meeting April 25, the new council is expected to vote on a proposed swap of contaminated city land for private land in the Urban Renewal Area of southwest downtown, where huge changes are afoot because of the Olympic Museum.
Issues that could emerge:
- Skorman, Gaebler and Murray believe voters should decide the issue of legal recreational marijuana in the city, but a ballot measure would almost certainly be opposed by Mayor John Suthers.
- More integration of parks and open space into new developments, and far fewer - if any - trades of city open space. Skorman, who founded the Trails, Open Space and Parks sales-tax initiative, launched the continuing court battle over the city's trade of Strawberry Hill to The Broadmoor. Gaebler and Murray voted against that swap.
- A stronger push to grow and improve the city's police and fire departments. Murray, a former firefighter, opposed the Issue 2 quest for stormwater money, saying better public safety is a more critical need. Gaebler, Skorman and Avila's campaigns pounded on the importance of public safety. Knight has cited that issue, too.
The other four council members are re-elected conservative Pico; Council President Merv Bennett, who often aligns with the administration; Councilman Tom Strand, whose decisions vary issue by issue; and Knight, known for his financial acumen, who pushed through the new landslides ordinance but also clamped down on cannabis consumption clubs and medical marijuana dispensaries.