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City Council's first challenge: How to make an immediate difference

Between the Lines

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You could feel the instant anticipation, almost palpable, after the results came in April 4 for the 2017 Colorado Springs city election. The outcomes were convincing in the Council district races. And they sent a distinct message, though some local media exaggerated in their assessments.

No, it didn't suddenly create a "liberal" Council, ready to hug every tree in sight, put a retail marijuana store in every neighborhood and shut down all development except infill. And no, it didn't mean that the Martin Drake Power Plant will be "retired" as soon as possible, regardless of the cost.

There are much better adjectives to describe a majority of Council for the next two years: moderate, open-minded,compassionate, ambitious, optimistic.

How aggressive and independent will the new group be? That's the unanswered question.

The makeup actually won't be that different, with two newcomers (Dave Geislinger and Yolanda Avila) and one Council veteran (Richard Skorman) returning to the stage. For those tossing around the "liberal" description, the three re-elected incumbents are Republicans — Don Knight and Andy Pico are staunch conservatives; Jill Gaebler is more of a centrist but a proud GOP member.

Yes, we're likely to see a more moderate majority. We don't know whether that nucleus will feel empowered to move boldly. The revamped Council will have a retreat soon to consider priorities and learn what Mayor John Suthers has in mind. Specific proposals probably won't percolate until after the nine members decide leadership positions: Council president (currently Merv Bennett), president pro-tem (Gaebler), Utilities board chair (Pico) and vice chair (Tom Strand).

Will the Council let Suthers determine those leaders, who will loyally follow the mayor's agenda and avoid opposing Suthers at all, as has been the case the past two years? Or will Council flex its muscles, pushing some limits and dealing with Suthers to push certain issues forward?

We'll know the answer quickly. By all accounts, Suthers wants Bennett to continue another two years as Council president, following the mayor's wishes with a cautious agenda. But that would deviate from the trend in the strong-mayor form of government since 2011, with each Council president serving two years (Scott Hente, Keith King and Bennett).

Council's other option will be to gently push Bennett aside until he's term-limited out of office in 2019. In that scenario, Council would choose Gaebler or Skorman as president, perhaps with the other as pro-tem, possibly Strand heading the Utilities board. And that would open the door to all kinds of possibilities. Here's a mixture of ideas from pre-election and later conversations with the eventual winners:

• Specific strategies for fire mitigation, lacking in southwest areas;

• Transportation — from added bus service to a bike-share program, and priority for the Shooks Run master plan in completing the Greenway Trail;

• Specific local campaign finance reform, to take effect by 2019;

• Incentives for development of affordable housing and ultra high-speed business internet;

• A lasting solution for funding and maintaining stormwater infrastructure and improvements, with fees for residents and developers;

• Push a master plan for South Academy Boulevard, giving it equal priority to North Nevada Avenue;

• Consider asking city voters to decide, in November 2018 or April 2019, whether to allow the sale of recreational marijuana inside the city;

• Commit early to other ballot issues, starting with parks funding, a regional tourism tax combined with Teller and Fremont counties, and taking out anti-growth portions of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights;

• Change the name of the airport for a broader identity (Pikes Peak or Southern Colorado Regional Airport?);

• More initiatives for the homeless, such as a campus with services;

• Consider some cosmetic details, making the most of the new Interstate 25/Cimarron interchange and other gateways;

• Help turn the City Auditorium into the permanent home for a Colorado Springs Public Market.

• Work with the Sports Corporation to create an annual marquee event for the Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame, honoring new and past inductees.

Granted, that's a lengthy wish list, and councilors will have others.

But after this city election, with empowered Council leadership, this could be what real progress looks like. Why not?

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