Updated: February 17, 2014 at 2:11 pm
The Gazette editorial board has issued report cards on the City Council and the mayor of Colorado Springs. We entertain no illusion that all or most readers will agree with our assessments and look forward to publishing opposing views.
Colorado Springs City Council
Economy and jobs: F
All six new members of the City Council campaigned with promises of working to facilitate economic development and jobs. After nearly a year in office, the council has taken no significant steps to introduce ideas, plans or programs to turn around our sagging regional economy. Moreover, there have been little or no new efforts to remove barriers to private-sector success, to effectively market the community to outside interests or to stimulate growth. The council's marketing plan, proposed by City Council President Keith King, markets the council and not the community and that is an indicator of why we have seen no progress and question whether this legislative branch can help our community turn around our current trends.
The proposed marketing plan includes a logo and slogan that tell constituents the council is "proactive." If that were true, the public would see results.
Meanwhile, some members of the council have actively obstructed a major initiative to leverage state tax rebates in a manner intended to attract more tourists to the region. The Gazette would not downgrade the council for opposing City for Champions, if it had one or more alternative initiatives for growing the economy.
The council's "F" in economics also derives from the majority's effort to defund the region's primary tourism and economic development organizations at a time when the community needs more focus, money and leadership in all areas that can generate jobs, including tourism, the recruitment of good companies and protecting our military. All of these are mission critical to the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Regional Business Alliance. Only a mayoral veto kept the economic development and tourism funding in place. To raise its grade in economics, the City Council must present to the public a plan for kick-starting the economy and creating more primary employment in our region.
Colorado Springs Utilities: C
After Springs residents opened their utility bills in February, their bank accounts grew smaller. The council doubles as the board of directors for Colorado Springs Utilities, a $2 billion city enterprise that sells water, gas and electric, and in November the board voted for rate hikes. They increased electric rates by 3.4 percent, natural gas by 2.2 percent and water by 11.7 percent. They also approved a $94.9 million budget increase for 2014.
Only council members Helen Collins and Keith King voted against the rate hikes. Collins said the rate increases would deplete resources for customers while funding pay increases for employees of the utility.
"Two hundred and forty-nine utilities employees are paid more than $100,000," Collins said. "I find that raising rates and then giving everyone raises is not a good idea."
On a positive note, the council's new majority quickly reversed an expensive solar garden experiment enacted by a previous council and replaced it with an agreement that allows the project to move forward in a more fiscally responsible manner.
Colorado Spring Airport: D
A new Colorado Springs Airport task force, composed of some of the community's most successful business leaders, is trying to reverse the downward trajectory of a municipal airport in the difficult position of competing with nearby Denver International - the country's fifth-busiest and the world's 10th-busiest airport. Though the council has done little if anything proactive to help the airport, it has accommodated requests and recommendations of the task force and new airport administration in a timely fashion.
A legislative liaison to the council was fired by the mayor after he made calls to Alaska Airlines executives, including one that asked whether the airline might leave Colorado Springs if the city did not ban marijuana at the airport. The calls, which circumvented protocol by going around airport administration, potentially jeopardized a sensitive new relationship between city government and the airline. The council should have given the liaison better direction to avoid the blunder.
We hope to see more vision for the airport from members of the council in the year ahead.
Public safety: D
When micromanaging the intricate details of the proposed 2014 budget, without advocating a reduction in overall spending, a majority of council members chose to slash the police budget to pay for parks watering. The move threatened to undermine plans to hire more police officers and replace old patrol cars. It put an amenity ahead of a primary function of city government: law enforcement and crime prevention. Only a mayoral veto prevented the council from reallocating money from public safety to parks.
The City Council put the interests of families with young children first by resisting the temptation to allow and regulate retail sales of recreational marijuana. The council made its decision in the face of significant pressure to take the money that might come from fees and sales taxes. By declining retail sales, the council protected the city's relationship with five major military installations that are trying to keep military personnel drug free. It also protected the city's reputation as a family-friendly travel destination.
Stormwater dilemma: B
The entire City Council inherited the city's problem of outdated and inadequate stormwater infrastructure, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade. Though the council has yet to resolve the matter, it has vowed to work closely with El Paso County commissioners on a regional solution and has sought cooperation from the mayor. The right regional solution would spread the financial burden to communities and developments beyond the city's boundaries, which is only fair given the fact areas outside the city contribute to the volume of stormwater that runs through it. The council seems on a path to a possible long-term solution for stormwater. We encourage them to stay on top of this very important issue.
Political prowess: A
Though the council has achieved little of substance in the past year, we applaud the masterful political acumen of the new majority. Freshman members of the council, in particular, know what the public wants to hear and may be rewarded in future elections.
Overall performance: D
The council's new majority has spent nearly a year playing inside ball, working countless hours trying to grab more control of day-to-day operations of the city. It has micromanaged City Hall after voters resoundingly chose to hold one elected official responsible for the day-to-day operations of the executive branch of government.
Unfortunately, the council has made no effort to grow the economy and create good jobs, solve bigger issues and lead Colorado Springs down a new path of success. Too much time has been spent on conflicts with the mayor, its own image and the desire by a few members of the council to obtain more power and control. The council is smart, well educated and capable of moving Colorado Springs in the right direction by setting aside personal disputes and putting the community's interests first. But first they need a real understanding of their purpose. In the words of one freshman council member, frustrated with the council's unwillingness to do anything but pick apart others' work: "what do you stand for?"
On a positive note, some of the council's obsession with the inner workings of city bureaucracy have been fruitful. Adjustments to the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax (LART), for example, establish more accountability and may grow revenues.
Individual council members
Merv Bennett: A
The editorial board does not always agree with Bennett but trusts him and respects his mature approach to politics. Bennett listens to opponents and has never stuck rigidly to ideology for the sake of winning. He was the voice of reason when colleagues were toying with the idea of legalizing pot sales. He usually does not engage in the marathon meetings that the council is known for, debating the most intricate details of city management. We believe Bennett could be a leader in the effort to refocus the council and also act as an effective bridge between the council and the mayor's office.
Helen Collins: B
If there are people in city government who don't like working with Helen Collins, we haven't found them. With Collins, what you see is what you get. She doesn't mince words and appears to answer only to herself. We disagree with Collins on a number of issues, most notably her opposition to City for Champions. But Collins makes her point succinctly, with honesty, votes and moves on. She has avoided excessive micromanagement of City Hall.
Jill Gaebler: A
Like Collins, Gaebler is an affable politician who speaks her mind and appears to answer only to herself. She is articulate and smart and seems driven by genuine affection for the community that elected her to serve. Again, we don't always agree with Gaebler. She's the council member who proposed taking money from police to water parks. She's also the council member who reconsidered the idea and tried to rescind it, revealing the high quality of character required to publicly concede mistakes. She clearly wants the council to get out of the weeds and move on to much more important work, badly needed by our community.
Keith King: D
The Gazette enthusiastically endorsed King for election and then appealed to other council members to elect him president of the council. Alas, we have been disappointed. King has allowed the council to spend nearly a full year fussing over internal process at a time when Colorado Springs desperately needs local government to move the city forward and make it competitive again with Denver, Fort Collins, Boulder, Greeley and Longmont. We need big ideas, jobs and inspiration. We need leadership, not a council that's mostly busy governing itself and its relationship with another branch of government. King can do better than this. As council president, the council's lack of results sits squarely on his shoulders.
Joel Miller: D-
Miller, who was endorsed by The Gazette, has emerged as the most outspoken member of the City Council and not in a good way. He not only opposes City for Champions, he has led a no-holds-barred crusade to kill the proposals in their infancy before they can breathe or be sufficiently scrutinized by the public. A recent special council meeting, called for discussion of City for Champions, became the Joel Miller show with few others able to get a word in edgewise. Miller's strident rhetoric, which panders to fear with false dilemmas, includes insinuations that "crony capitalists" are plotting to confiscate homes for selfish personal gain. Miller contradicts his ardent anti-tax appearance with enthusiastic support of a tax increment finance deal that forced taxpayers to support the lone developer of Copper Ridge, a shopping center that will compete against established retailers. He has voted no and obstructed every idea we can remember that would help the city gain a better economic footing.
We worry that Miller's decisions are driven more by personality disputes than passion for the community's best interests.
Val Snider: B
Snider showed true leadership and strength when he voted against retail marijuana sales. The most liberal-friendly member of the council, Snider faced considerable pressure from constituents who even threatened a recall. His experience in city government has been somewhat of a stabilizing force and we hope this can help the council get back on track in 2014. Like other high achievers on the council, Snider is principled but not driven by an intractably rigid ideology or personality conflicts. He listens and shows willingness to compromise and change his mind, never pandering to fear.
Don Knight: C
We're told by professionals in city government that Knight is chief micro manager on a council that's known for micromanagement. Knight is very thoughtful and budget-focused. He has also been diving into City Charter issues. The amount of time spent on processes that don't really affect the average citizen is extreme and troubling. We expect more leadership and vision from a retired military colonel. Where are the new ideas that help build a better community?
Jan Martin: A
We don't always agree with Jan Martin. She's among a minority on the council who voted in favor of regulated retail sales of marijuana, for example. And she opposed the strong mayor form of government. But Martin does not let personality disputes determine what she stands for and how she votes. She brings maturity and experience to the council and exudes passion for the community's best interests. She's one of the council minority who has tried time and again to refocus the council on things that matter and that can improve the quality of life for our citizens. Martin understands the need for local government to ignite a local economic renaissance.
Andy Pico: C-
Pico has mostly followed and helped lead the City Council in the direction of micromanaging the executive branch and spending exorbitant time fiddling with the inner workings of government. Pico, a former contributor to The Gazette's editorial pages, has not used his position to help foster economic growth with removal of barriers that impede private-sector endeavors. He listens intensely and seems determined to do the right thing. We expected a free-market warrior who would champion community and prosperity, not a politician who would niggle process. We believe Pico can be a force to steer the City Council toward more productive endeavors.
Note: Colorado Springs typically has mail-in ballots. We are working in a similar fashion, publishing a sample report card on page A23 in Sunday's print edition of The Gazette that you can buy today. You can clip and return the report card to us with your grades of the mayor and City Council.