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Relationship between Colorado Springs City Council, mayor takes a rocky road

By: Monica Mendoza
July 15, 2013

Mayor Steve Bach was not happy when City Council president Keith King said publicly that the council had been left out of the city's plan to apply for millions of state dollars on four big tourism projects.

In an email, Bach asked King to make a public comment and correct his statement, saying King had been briefed twice about the city's plan to seek $82 million in state sales tax rebates to help jump-start the construction of a downtown multi-use stadium, a downtown U.S. Olympic museum, an Air Force Academy visitors center and a university medicine and performance center on North Nevada Avenue.

King refused. Individual council members may have been told about the city's plan, King said, but no City Council member was involved in designing the plan. Other council members agreed.

"The issue is not whether we were briefed; it is that we were not involved in the process," said council member Joel Miller.

It's been four months since six new city council members took office, and almost from the beginning, there have been signs of strain in the relationship between the council and the mayor, including testy email exchanges and verbal sparing in the media.

Local political science professors say it's a natural power struggle that's playing out. Other onlookers say they had hoped for a more cooperative spirit between the branches when the new council members came aboard in April.

"This is a city council (the mayor) should be able to work with," said Sean Paige, a former city council member who said he is a supporter of the mayor. "None of them ran as adversaries, and some I know are supportive of much of what he wants to do, so the continuing tensions are frustrating to those of us who see plenty of opportunities for cooperation."

However, turf battles and power struggles likely will be a permanent characteristic of the city's new strong-mayor form of government, said Bob Loevy, retired Colorado College political science professor. The "palsywalsy" days of council-city manager form of government are gone, he said.

"I think (the public) cares about this," Loevy said. "It's particularly intense because City Council is having trouble giving up the quasi power it had."

In fact, King has been pushing to reclaim some of the council's power that was weakened under the new strong-mayor system, which took effect with Bach's election in 2011.

The latest quarrel between the mayor and council went public when the mayor announced a city-backed proposal to apply to the state's Regional Tourism Act program, which allows cities or counties to receive state sales tax rebates for projects that attract out-of-state tourists.

The city's proposal, which was in development for six months, had input from a range of business leaders and organizations, including the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Downtown Development Authority, former Colorado College president Dick Celeste, El Paso County, The Broadmoor, the Sky Sox, the El Pomar Foundation, the Anschutz Family Foundation and the Regional Business Alliance.

But King said the City Council learned about the proposal by reading it in the Gazette on June 29, two days before the project was announced at a press conference.

Bach said that was untrue, and he felt King needed to correct the record.

"Your statements in the media last week have left the inappropriate impression in the community that none of the councilors had any knowledge of the proposal prior to media release," Bach wrote in a July 6 email to King and copied to the rest of the council. "Please correct that misunderstanding tomorrow."

King said he stood by his comments. And despite the rough start with the mayor, he is optimistic that communication between the council and mayor will improve.

"But, I'm not backing down," King said. "I want a strong council and I want us involved."

Bach said it is his job to develop new ideas like the proposal to build four major tourist attractions in the city. The council was briefed of the effort, but the details weren't revealed until the application was complete because the city didn't want to tip its hand to possible competitors for the state money.

"I don't know if it's an underlying communication issue," Bach said. "Certain City Council members, including Keith King, are airing concerns in public instead of trying to work it out."

The council has felt left out of other major decisions in recent months, said Councilwoman Jan Martin.

In May, Bach sent an email informing the Airport Advisory Commission that airport staffers no longer would attend their meetings. Miller objected, saying the council was not consulted about the decision and the city council oversees the airport commission.

Last month, the council was miffed when the mayor hired an interim public works director. He said the hire did not require council approval because it was an "interim" position. The council started a "City Council and Salary Approval Process" review, which aims to settle the issue of who can hire interim employees, and is expected to resume the discussion at its July 23 meeting.

Council members also were concerned that the executive branch moved to sever ties with the county over shared ambulance service and did not include the public. Some council members voiced their concerns, but the council voted to end its partnership with the county and pursue its own contract for ambulance service.

Martin said the lack of communication and strained relationship between council and the mayor is familiar. She had hoped communication would improve when new council members came aboard, but it has not, she said.

"The difficulties are that council is constantly surprised by issues brought forward that we didn't know were being discussed," Martin said. "The mayor was quoted in the article that city leadership had put this (Regional Tourism Act proposal) together. To not include council members in that list, as a council member it's very disheartening and creates a chasm that doesn't need to be there."

A strong-mayor government is designed for checks and balance, and that often leads to conflict, Loevy said.

"What is driving the unrest, and you would expect this, is under the council-manager form of government, the City Council was able to inject itself in the day-to-day administration of the city," Loevy said. "Now the mayor is in charge of the executive branch of the city, and the City Council has lost a lot of this power."

The mayor is under no obligation to include the City Council in planning and development of new ideas, Loevy said.

"When I hear from the council that it wants better communication, I hear, 'I want to interfere with the executive branch,'" Loevy said.

Maybe the mayor is under no obligation to include council in his decisions, said Richard Skorman, former City Council member and local businessman. But there is synergy when the executive and legislative branches work together, he said.

"They need each other," he said. "The mayor may have a great idea, but it may take an ordinance or annexation or something that will help facilitate the ideas. The council needs the mayor to direct their higher policy issues."

If the state approves the city's proposal for four tourism projects, the city would need to fund a portion of the projects with public money. The council, then, would need to be involved in the decisions.

Bach said if the city is selected for the sales tax rebate program, it has up to five years to start them, Bach said.

"There is plenty of time for robust community input on this," he said.

The mayor and the council have agreed to revive a short-lived roundtable meeting that he held with the previous council. The first meeting will be July 23. Martin said she is hopeful the meetings will open lines of communication.

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