by Pam Zubeck
Colorado Springs City Council President Scott Hente said he needed a drink last night after the Council meeting. No wonder.
His was the crucial vote in whether Council would prevail in eliminating any iota of mayoral authority over Colorado Springs Utilities, a measure Mayor Steve Bach vehemently opposed. Hente caved, despite having four other votes to push it over the top.
Council doubles as the Utilities Board, but the mayor has power to sign all Utilities contracts. Earlier in the meeting, Hente had said: "I brought this up right after the strong-mayor [form of government] was passed [in 2010]. I thought the Charter contradicted itself. It's a discrepancy, a contradiction." At that point, the vote was 5-4 against putting it on the ballot, with Hente one of the four.
But later, Councilor Val Snider switched his stance and called for reconsideration of the earlier vote. That meant the tally would go the other way — and the measure would be submitted to voters after all. (Besides Snider, President Pro Tem Jan Martin, Brandy Williams and Lisa Czelatdko had voted to refer the measure to the ballot.) But Hente mumbled something about not wanting to cast a vote from "emotions," and voted to postpone indefinitely.
After adjourning the meeting immediately after his flip-flop, Hente sat at the dais for at least five minutes. By himself, he looked confused and ready for a stiff one.
The surprise reversal attempt came after a contentious exchange over another proposed ballot measure: Hente and Martin's idea to make the Utilities Board, now comprised of Council, a seven-member board elected by voters.
Bach opposed it. City Attorney Chris Melcher also opposed it. His PowerPoint presentation, which wasn't presented but was passed out to all takers, reads like a campaign piece against the measure, going so far to note that that a subsequent election to select board members would be an "unnecessary expense, waste of money."
Melcher also griped about the short notice Hente and Martin gave him (on Jan. 16) that they wanted such a measure drafted. Melcher also told Council that he had to give up his three-day weekend to work on the proposal, and that three business days — Thursday, Friday and Tuesday — weren't enough for him to get the job done adequately.
"The problem here is this is probably one of the best examples of why things have to change," Martin said, "why the system isn't working. We have every right to bring forward ballot measures." Yet, Melcher effectively squelched that effort by giving the proposed language to the Council at the last minute, Martin said, and the language was wrong.
For one thing, Martin and Hente wanted Utilities Board members elected in June following the April vote on the measure. Melcher's measure called for an election in either 2014 or 2015.
Martin says it wasn't the first time Council has been "stonewalled" on issues by Melcher. It's previously expressed a desire to have its own legal counsel, but to no avail. (The mayor appoints the city attorney with Council confirmation.) The issue is notably acute with Utilities, over which Bach has no authority other than to execute contracts, Martin said.
She also warned against Bach's assaults on Utilities, such as his pushing for the Martin Drake Power Plant to be removed, and his desire to look at selling the electric service. The mere exploration of these issues, according to Martin, could erode Utilities' financial position and ability to borrow, due to an atmosphere of uncertainty and instability such discussions create.
After several Council members expressed disappointment and disgust with how Melcher handled the ballot measure, Bach said Council should tell him it needs "better access to legal help," and he'll make sure they get it. Time will tell.
While the Council was agitated and critical of Melcher and Bach's maneuvers to gain control of Utilities, their efforts fell flat. In addition to his victories in the two Utilities-related measures:
• Bach prevailed in opposing a maintenance of effort clause in the ballot measure that seeks greater flexibility over spending trails, open space and parks money for parks maintenance. Backers of the measure wanted the city to promise to maintain current funding levels for parks maintenance, so that the the city shifts the burden for maintenance entirely to TOPS. TOPS, by the way, is designed as a capital fund that's supposed to provide money to acquire and build, not maintain.
• And Bach prevailed in persuading Council to postpone consideration of a measure that would make the city attorney position elected by voters, rather than appointed by him.
The only measure on which Council didn't agree with Bach is one that would increase Council pay from $6,250 per year to $48,000 — and Bach hasn't given up on that. He said at a news conference today he hopes Council will turn away the measure at second reading on Feb. 12, and instead convene a charter review panel. He'd be at the table, of course.
Before the dust had hardly settled, city communications director Cindy Aubrey sent out the following message, urging media outlets to quote it in full because, "it is important for your readers to understand all that transpired."
Read it carefully. It sounds like a policy statement, and the city attorney is not a policy maker under the mayor-council form of government. Rather, he is to take his marching orders from his clients. In this case, that would be Council. Of course, Melcher has perhaps a more persuasive client — namely the guy who can fire him, Bach.
We support the Council's decision to postpone indefinitely the proposed CSU ballot measure, and allow for a thoughtful discussion of the critical issues affecting the future of CSU and its consequences for the entire community. The draft ballot measure suggested by Councilmembers Hente and Martin proposed not only the election of the CSU board of directors, but also the complete independence of CSU from any City oversight or City audit review. Additionally, the draft ballot measure proposed a dramatic increase in CSU powers — to independently set all budgets and all rates, exercise independent condemnation authority over private property, increase salaries and compensation for CSU employees without review, expand CSU service territory independently, enter into contracts in the name of the City, issue bonds and increase debt of any form without City involvement, and give CSU the ability to reduce or eliminate the PILT payment to the City in their sole discretion. These measures, taken together, could potentially have transformed CSU from a City Enterprise into a separate quasi-governmental entity and caused significant unintended harm to the City and the entire community. Council is to be commended for not rushing this matter to a ballot prior to a community-wide discussion. Our Office looks forward to working with Council, CSU, and the community as this important discussion moves forward.