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Utilities Board mission, makeup dominate Colorado Springs City Council candidate forum

March 7, 2017 Updated: March 13, 2017 at 4:01 pm

What role should Colorado Springs City Council - or possibly even political appointees - play in governing the city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities?

The question proved a defining issue Monday in several races for City Council during a candidate forum featuring all 14 candidates.

The candidates - a mix of incumbents, military veterans, business executives and a former state lawmaker - jockeyed to distinguish themselves in the rapid-fire forum.

But few issues proved as divisive as how to govern the four-service public utility.

Repeatedly, candidates argued that the board should be at least partially elected. But several of them advocated placing political appointees on the board, while others argued that the Utilities board should become its publicly elected entity that is separate from City Council.

Chuck Fowler, who is running in District 3, jabbed a previous City Council's decision to install Neumann Systems Group scrubbers, which have ended up costing $178.4 million.

He has previously advocated for a board of three council members, three council appointees with utilities experience and one mayoral appointment.

"I would love to think that we could get three experts out of Colorado Springs," Fowler said. "That may be tough."

His opponent, Richard Skorman, immediately voiced caution - recalling a decision made during his previous time on City Council to remove two council members from Memorial Hospital's board.

"It became very self-serving," Skorman said. "It really wasn't good for the citizens of Colorado Springs."

The issue comes on the heels of the council's 8-1 decision last year to keep its dual role as the Utilities Board - an issue that, despite its lopsided vote tally, has become a divisive campaign issue. The lone dissenting vote came from Merv Bennett, whose seat is not up for election in April.

One group in particular, Colorado Springs Forward, has advocated for appointees on the board - siding with Mayor John Suthers on the issue and endorsing and financially backing several candidates who share that view.

In advocating for appointees to the Utilities board, Greg Basham stressed that fears are overblown of such a switch leading to a sale of Utilities outlets. All it would do, he said, is help the board make better-informed decisions.

"We have made mistakes," he said. "We could use more guidance."

District 1 incumbent Don Knight said he once held the same high opinion of "hybrid" boards. But he said research proved otherwise.

"We were told hybrid boards don't work," he said, adding he favors a separately elected board.

Not all of Colorado Springs Forward's preferred candidates favor appointees; Andres G. Pico favors an elected board. In addition, incumbent Jill Gaebler of District 5 said she favors an elected board, but is open to additional appointees. Her challenger and Colorado Springs Forward favorite Lynette Crow-Iverson has favored a shift to an appointed board, but added Monday she would like it to have council oversight.

The outcome of the April 4 election could have deep implications for the city's legislative body over the next several years, with six of the council's nine seats up for election, and five of them in hotly contested races.

The format of Monday's forum left little time for substantive policy debates. But what it lacked in depth, it made up for in breadth.

Five of the 14 candidates said they would favor a tax increase to pay for the city's parks, including Skorman, David Geislinger, Basham, Gaebler and Yolanda Avila.

Nine of the 14 candidates said they favored seeking to extend the 2C tax increase, which funds road repairs, beyond its current expiration date. They were Knight, Robert M. Burns, Melanie Bernhardt, Crow-Iverson, Deborah L. Hendrix, Avila, Fowler, Geislinger and Basham.

And the notion of Colorado Springs acting as a "sanctuary city" hardly won support from the slate of candidates.

Stark differences emerged between candidates in a few district races - most notably, in differing approaches to landslide issues west of Interstate 25.

Skorman, a former city councilman who owns several businesses along North Tejon Street, voiced support for part of a proposed ordinance that increase geohazard surveys.

"We need to have laws that are solid that tell people that if they're going to buy a home, that the homebuilder is held responsible," Skorman said. "It's obvious - it's what other communities have done."

By contrast, Fowler took issue with the proposal.

"My problem is that it stigmatizes the entire west side of I-25, when all property west of I-25 is not affected by landslides," Fowler said. He added that while most properties are at risk, "stigmatizing it is not the way to go."

Division also emerged in the race for District 5, which has pitted the council's current president pro tem against the opponent with the deepest coffers this election season.

Asked about her preferred approach to addressing Colorado College's concerns about pedestrian safety along Cascade Avenue through campus, incumbent Gaebler said she supported narrowing the roadway.

"They're still kids, and we need to keep them safe," Gaebler said.

Crow-Iverson, however, derided that idea as unpopular, and asked that other ideas - such as pedestrian bridges or even crossing guards - be considered.

Residents there fear the notion of Cascade Avenue closing.

"The constituents do not want that to happen," Crow-Iverson said.

The three candidates vying for District 4 also differed on how best to revitalize the economically depressed southeast corner of Colorado Springs.

Crime topped the list of concerns for incumbent Helen Collins, who lamented the lack of attention developers have paid to the area.

"Please get some development in southeast Colorado Springs," she said.

Avila said addressing the area's high unemployment rate - which she said is more than double that of the rest of the city - is critical to transforming the community.

She also advocated improving public transportation in the area and revising zoning laws to allow for more creative-business uses. Perhaps, she said, farmers markets could improve access to healthy food.

"We need to get people to jobs, and well-paying jobs," she said.

Hendrix called on finding ways to create incentives for businesses to locate to the area. And she said that just as much attention should be spent figuring out how to keep businesses there, once they arrive.

The area's future hinges on the answer to one question, she said:

"How do we get them to invest in District 4?" she asked.

Asked about the leadership needs of Colorado Springs, candidates in the crowded race for District 6 mused about varied approaches.

Pico, the incumbent, said the city's leaders that take a more long-range approach to governing. Bernhardt called for strong leadership, which she planned to offer by getting out in her community.

Janak Joshi said the city needed "a leadership where everybody can work together."

On this, he found agreement. Burns echoed that sentiment, saying that "we definitely need a collaborative leadership style."

The forum was sponsored by the El Pomar Foundation, the Colorado Springs Leadership Institute, The Gazette, KKTV and AARP.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story has been clarified to state Colorado Springs City Council District 5 incumbent Jill Gaebler favors an elected board overseeing Colorado Springs Utilities but is open to adding additional appointees. It also clarifies that her challenger Lynette Crow-Iverson has favored a shift to an appointed board, but would like it to have council oversight.

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