Mixed reviews as Colorado Springs City Council's rocky relationship with mayor looms over big decisions

By Monica Mendoza Updated: January 12, 2014 at 12:08 pm • Published: January 12, 2014 | 9:45 am 0

One month after taking office in April, Keith King declared that it was a new era for the Colorado Springs City Council. It would, he said, seize its power and become a strong council.

Eight months after six new council members were seated, the council has earned mixed reviews. It has been applauded by some for its bold attempt to define the city's charter and the executive and legislative roles. But there also have been whispers of recall by those who don't understand why the council felt it needed more control over the city's budget.

At every turn in the past eight months, council President King would say the council wanted to work collaboratively with Mayor Steve Bach. But the gauntlet had been thrown.

The tone became one of distrust. The council would say the city attorney had been heavy-handed in developing city policy. Bach would say the council crossed legal lines in the city's charter related to the city budget. And while the council and the mayor would occasionally meet in public for cordial discussions, behind the scenes they would exchange snide emails and then release public statements to counter the other's point.

They clashed on the Airport Advisory Commission, the city attorney, City for Champions, stormwater solutions and the budget process. And the year ended with Bach saying he would ignore the council's 2014 budget ordinance that attempted to limit his power to move money within the budget.

It's difficult to see how the relationship between the council and the mayor can improve in 2014 when big issues such as City for Champions, stormwater solutions and the possible decommissioning of Drake Power Plant await, Councilman Val Snider said. Already in 2014, the council and the mayor are at odds over Bach's firing of the council's legislative liaison, George Culpepper. The council will have a special meeting at 11 a.m. Monday to discuss the issue.

"There is more ill will now toward the executive branch than ever," Snider said.

"It seems like when we come back in January, it will be, 'We'll show that guy now.'?"

Strong council

When King was toying with the idea of running, he said his interest was to help the council transition to the strong-mayor form of government. The focus of the council, he said, should be on developing policy and strategic planning and less on the operations of the city.

"I think the citizens of the city spoke and said they want a strong mayor to run the city much like a CEO or much like the governor of the state of Colorado," he told The Gazette in January 2013.

Campaign promises of the freshman six centered on recreational pot sales, stormwater planning and Drake Power Plant's future. Pot is the only issue settled: The council voted 5-4 to prohibit retail recreational marijuana sales. The new council members voted as they had promised, and it was returning council member Snider who was the swing vote against retail pot sales.

Soon after the election, a new issue surfaced.

King unveiled a 120-day plan, which included taking a close look at the city's charter and the roles of the executive and legislative branches. King felt the previous council had not exercised its authority as written in the city's charter, and he said: "The people who get the power are the people who seize it."

That statement got the attention of the business community, which in recent months has backed Bach's City for Champions proposal and has commended Bach's past two budgets for socking away millions in the city's reserve fund.

Steve Bartolin, president and CEO of The Broadmoor, became critical of the council during the budget hearings. He said the council's power play came as a surprise and never was discussed during the campaign.

"We saw almost immediately this concept of strong council, which I don't recall the electorate voting on," Bartolin said. "We were scratching our heads."

Bartolin and The Broadmoor financially supported King's campaign, and he thought it was positive when King, who had served in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1999 to 2008, was elected council president. Bartolin had high hopes, he said, that the freshman six would spend less time bickering as the previous council had done and more time on city issues and planning. But the council's line of questioning of city staff during the more than 40 hours of budget hearings made them look like bullies on the playground, Bartolin said.

"They get an 'F' and with good reason," Bartolin said. "Look at their record of accomplishment. We know what they are against. We can't seem to figure out what they are for."

The council should not be accused of bickering, said William Murray, who ran against Joel Miller in District 2 and has been watching the council. He said the quarrels over the roles of the executive and legislative branches are natural growing pains of a new form of government. He added that he believes it is the mayor who has not extended the olive branch.

"There is a power curve," Murray said. "There is an adjustment period from their jobs to the council, then to the district, then to the regional view. Then you have a strong mayor who says to hell with you guys."

Council members have disagreed but have not turned on each other - at least not in public. They were united in wanting the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau and Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance to show more budget details on how they spend taxpayer money. The council only split on timing. Some members wanted to withhold half of the $2.66 million visitors bureau 2014 budget and half of the $70,000 business alliance budget until it saw more financial details and be assured that the business alliance would end its political endorsement program. Others wanted to proceed with the 2014 budget and set the new rules for the next budget cycle.

Both organizations support the City for Champions proposal, something the council has not done. And some business leaders felt the decision to withhold some funding was retaliation. Chuck Fowler, a member of the City Committee that offers financial advice to the city's elected officials, said the council acted like an awkward teenager testing its boundaries but appeared to be unsure of its endgame.

"You have a couple of people on council who have pretty much branded themselves - what they think their job is on City Council - to take the 180-degree position from the mayor regardless of the issue," Fowler said. "That is unfortunate, and I don't see that changing."

Bach vetoed the council's move to hold half of the visitors bureau and business alliance funds, and the council did not override the veto.

"It takes a while to understand the process and what the culture is and how the game is played," Fowler said. "Obviously, it hasn't been enough time."

Councilwoman Jill Gaebler said she felt the council was micromanaging.

"We are not being as collaborative as I had hoped with the executive branch and other organizations."

Gaebler said the council needs to discuss its role as council members and its role as board members for Colorado Springs Utilities. There has been confusion, she said, about the two roles.

King never backed off his seize-the-power statement. He has maintained that this council must help define the vague city charter to help set the rules for future councils. The Denver City Council has had decades to figure out how to run under a council-mayor form of government, he said. If it seems like the Colorado Springs council is in the weeds, he said, it is.

"Council is not trying to be an obstructionist," King said. "We are trying to have an opportunity to be meaningful and have a checks and balance system."

One attorney, two branches

Councilman Don Knight pored over the city's charter and budget as a member of the council's budget committee. Knight led the council through the budget, including the proposed changes that would attempt to limit the mayor's ability to move funds. He said the mayor created five appropriations departments, even though there are 12 departments and 12 department heads, to make it easier to move money without seeking council approval. Knight was particularly miffed that the mayor gave $25,000 bonuses to the city attorney and the chief of staff, although those bonuses were not in the 2013 approved budget.

"There has not been good stewardship," Knight said during the budget hearings. "Case in point was the bonuses . if we don't as council stand up and put in place this contract between the citizens on how the money is spent, then shame on us."

The council's budget ordinance created 12 appropriations departments. It was the one budget issue on which a supermajority of the council agreed, which allowed it to override the mayor's veto. But the deep dive into budget line items took time - more than 40 hours of public hearings. Council members Gaebler, Jan Martin and Snider said the council must consider its committee review process and the length of the meetings - one budget meeting went 14 hours. The committee review process, set up under King's 120-day plan, is expected to be discussed at the council's retreat Jan. 29.

Steve Durham, a member of the Drake Task Force, called changing the budget format a necessary move and said the council should not take a $245 million general operating budget lightly. He expects city budgets to be scrutinized and presented with extraordinary detail, he said.

"The limited number of appropriations departments is an open invitation to waste and fraud regardless of who is the mayor," he said. "I think you need a system of checks and balances and accountability, and this council is trying hard to get that."

Bach directed his staff to ignore the council's budget ordinance and carry on as usual with five appropriations departments.

If the council wants to challenge Bach over the budget ordinance and city charter interpretation, it must go to court. But the council won't get help from the city attorney, who has said the council is in the wrong and intruded on the core functions of the executive branch. City Attorney Chris Melcher said there is Colorado case law to back up the mayor's position.

King said it was no surprise that Melcher provided legal advice that favors the mayor. The city attorney's opinions have been a source of ill will between the council and the mayor.

King delivered a harsh review of Melcher's performance during an open council meeting in September. He told Melcher the council would fire him if it could. Instead, the council docked Melcher's pay by $4,000. It was the one time Bach publicly raised his voice at the council and called it shameful.

"You are sending a message that you hope he leaves," Bach told the council. "To bring this forward, to cram down his salary, I think it's inappropriate. It's disappointing that we have to have it come down this way."

One month later, Melcher announced his resignation, effective Jan. 31.

"I hope the new city attorney will see when there is a conflict of interest between the mayor and council and we will have an opportunity to have outside counsel - it's very difficult for us to feel confident in having legal advice the way it is structured," King said.

Big decisions in 2014

Bach has called a meeting Thursday with the council to discuss City for Champions and stormwater solutions. On both issues, there are hard feelings.

Bach advanced his proposal to pay for stormwater projects before the Pikes Peak Regional Stormwater Task Force, which has worked on the issue for two years and expects to present its funding solution in February.

Bach's plan, which he called "the most sensible," would ask voters to extend an existing bond debt, slated to retire in 2016, for 20 more years to pay for $175 million in stormwater projects in the city. His stormwater funding plan would not raise taxes or fees and would spend more than $20 million a year for five years on needed flood control projects, he said. The debt would be paid for by the city's general operating fund. In his plan, Colorado Springs would work with its regional partners, he said, but each city or county would be expected to bring its money to the table.

The council has committed, along with the El Paso County commissioners, to a regional approach similar to the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, which operates on a voter-approved tax dedicated to transportation projects in the region. The task force also has studied a model in Arapahoe County that collects fees from all homeowners and businesses on impervious surfaces.

The task force and the council maintain that the region needs a permanent funding source rather than the one-time shot Bach is proposing.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on Thursday's discussion of the City for Champions proposal. It will be the first time Bach publicly addresses the project with the council.

The council was left out of the planning on the City for Champions proposal last summer but now will be asked to discuss the public funding portion of the $250 million projects, which include an Olympic museum, a sports and events center, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs sports medicine complex and an Air Force Academy visitors center.

"It will be a big year," King said. "And, hopefully less contentious."

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MORE

- A look at key issues dividing the City Council and Mayor Steve Bach.

- How did freshman City Council members vote in the past year? Here's a look

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