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A lesson from Jan Martin’s fate

City Sage

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It's a measure of Jan Martin's class and dignity that she neither campaigned publicly to be named City Council president, nor complained publicly when the rookies banded together to select Keith King for the post. She made the best of things, even to the extent of gently correcting King when he tried to make a motion while chairing his first Utilities Board meeting.

Having chaired scores of meetings in her long career as a businesswoman, community activist, Council member and Council president pro tem, Martin knows the chair can't make a motion. She understands city ordinances, the City Charter, and the rules, practices and customs that have long guided Council. Her six-year tenure gives her a unique and important role on a body whose presiding officer has literally no experience in local government.

Institutional memory is important in any organization, especially those that provide essential and irreplaceable services. If the city doesn't fill potholes, water the parks, plan for future transportation needs, provide for public safety, keep streetlights on and traffic signals functioning, no one else will.

When private companies bumble and stumble, the marketplace punishes them. When local elected officials make unpopular decisions, voters toss them out. In Colorado Springs a few years ago, voters went further. Displeased by Council's retention package for the U.S. Olympic Committee, furious at the underhanded imposition of a stormwater "fee," disgusted by unwatered parks and extinguished streetlights, the voters didn't just throw the rascals out — they threw the government out.

Come 2011, it was goodbye city manager, hello strong mayor and six new Council members. Senior managers quit or were fired as Mayor Steve Bach cleaned house. Many new department heads came in from the private sector, or from other jurisdictions.

The new form of government got off to a contentious start with repeated public clashes between Bach and Council. Yet the whole edifice of government was shaky, since another charter change required that six new Council districts be drawn for the 2013 city elections.

We know what happened. Council President Scott Hente was term-limited, incumbent Lisa Czelatdko bowed out, and incumbents Angela Dougan, Tim Leigh, Bernie Herpin and Brandy Williams lost to newcomers.

With that, we lost nearly 25 years of institutional memory on Council. Of the three holdovers, Merv Bennett and Val Snider have been in office two years, as Martin starts her seventh year.

Martin's leadership style has been graceful, inclusive and non-confrontational. Her Springs roots are deep, stretching back to Guy Martin Buick, the family-owned automobile dealership. She has been deeply involved in business, politics and nonprofits, and guided by a single goal: to improve the city.

Redistricting was supposed to make City Council better able to represent underserved neighborhoods, but it also changed Council's balance of power.

Under the city manager form of government, Council consisted of the mayor, four district reps and four at-large members. Consequently, a council majority was chosen by voters citywide.

The mayor no longer is a member of Council, and district members have a 6-3 majority. Leadership now is vested in members chosen by a tiny fraction of city voters.

When Martin was re-elected to her at-large seat in 2011, she led a 16-candidate field with 44,901 votes, 11,000 more than runner-up Snider. To put that in perspective, if you add up the votes of all six 2013 district winners, they total only 33,625 votes — almost 11,000 less than Martin's 2011 total.

Should Council have selected Martin as presiding officer? That's a matter of opinion, but the failure to do so suggests a charter revision.

Why not reserve the positions of Council president and president pro tem for at-large members? That would both clarify the positions of district representatives as advocates for their particular slices of the city, and ensure that the interests of the entire city are served by Council's leaders.

Otherwise, we have today's peculiar situation. Council President Keith King received 5,737 votes, not even a majority of those cast in a crowded District 3 race. That's less than 13 percent of Martin's citywide total — not exactly a mandate to lead.

It should have been clear to the rookies: If any Council member has a mandate, it's Jan Martin.

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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