Pueblo to vote on strong mayor form of government

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Pueblo City Hall - CITY OF PUEBLO
  • City of Pueblo
  • Pueblo City Hall
A committee is urging Pueblo voters to switch to a strong mayor form of government after the city council approved a measure for the Nov. 7 coordinated election ballot.

Question 2A asks voters to switch to a full-time elected mayor instead of Pueblo's current system, which consists of seven part-time council members and a city manager that reports to them. The nonpartisan mayor would replace the city manager, and have the authority to appoint city department heads and propose a city budget with confirmation from the council. The Pueblo Board of Water Works and Civil Service Commission would continue to be independently elected.

Nick Gradisar, president of the Pueblo Board of Water Works and local attorney, is the head of the Committee to Elect a Mayor, which is calling for the change. He previously helped place two initiatives on the ballot, one for strong mayor and another for weak mayor, but voters rejected both. Now, he thinks it's time to try again, saying that many of the same problems that were present in 2009 are still present including, crime, opioid addiction and lackluster economic growth.

"We’re sort of going backwards while the rest of the state is going forwards, I think it’s hurt us significantly," Gradisar said at Southern Colorado Press Club meeting on Oct. 10.

And while it seems people have been flocking to Colorado in recent years, they haven’t been coming to Pueblo. Whereas it used to be the second largest city in Colorado in the ‘50s, Pueblo is now the ninth largest.

"That’s been very expensive for us, in terms of our influence in the state, in terms of our representation in the state legislature," Gradisar says. He adds that his group has taken valuable lessons from Colorado Springs, which switched from a council-city manager form of government similar to Pueblo’s, to a mayor-council form (or "strong mayor" system) after voters approved a charter change in 2010. Gradisar notes that the Springs’ first strong mayor, Steve Bach — known for an authoritarian streak and frequent battles with the council and others — didn’t necessarily have "experience with governmental entities."

"I think that we can see that although they had some issues with the first mayor they elected, the second mayor [current Mayor John Suthers] was able to focus the community’s attention on getting some serious problems solved and we think that the same thing can happen here in Pueblo," he says.

City Council is willing to give the measure a chance.

"All seven of us voted to put it on the ballot," says Councilor Lori Winner.

Winner says that doesn’t mean they all necessarily support the change, though she does. She did note that the general attitude on council is one toward change. She says there needs to be a figurehead in Pueblo that citizens can call.

Ralph Williams, president of insurance brokerage company HUB International, helped with the weak mayor initiative in 2009, but didn't push for it this year because he says he didn't want to confuse the public with two measures. He neither supports nor approves of the strong mayor initiative, because he thinks a weak mayor would better suit a city of Pueblo's size.

Should the strong mayor measure pass, the first mayoral election will be held in Nov. 2018, giving candidates a chance to campaign.

"Obviously you have to get the right people," Gradisar says. "We have a year to make sure we get the one."

Gradisar is hoping that the mayor’s proposed salary, $150,000 annually, will attract a wide variety of candidates, saying that the income was set that high on purpose, so that the mayor will not have to find another job. Gradisar has had complaints that the salary is too high for Pueblo, which only has a population of about 110,000 people and a median income less than $40,000 a year, according to the United States Census Bureau. The mayor of Colorado Springs is paid $103,370, even though he governs more than four times the number of people.

The committee didn’t take population into consideration when establishing a salary, Gradisar says, and instead focused on making the salary comparable to those of other leaders in Pueblo, most notably the presidents of Pueblo Community College and Colorado State University-Pueblo. Lexi Swearingen, a small business owner and also a member of the committee, says that the mayor would make around the same amount of money as the current city manager.

The Pueblo Association of Homebuilders and the Sierra Club of Pueblo both endorse 2A. In a letter to Gradisar, the Sierra Club said it believes an elected mayor can improve transparency and government responsiveness. However, neither club has given monetary donations, according to Gradisar. Most of the donations have been from individuals and the committee hasn’t purchased any media advertisements, relying instead on word-of-mouth, buttons and signs to spread the campaign’s message. According to Gradisar, the committee has spent all of the $7, 030 they received from donors.

But the word hasn’t gotten out to everyone. Margaret and Frank Grund, a couple who came to the press club meeting to find out more about the initiative, say they haven’t heard much about campaign. However, both do not see any downsides. Margaret Grund says she was surprised to find out that Pueblo didn’t have a mayor when she first moved to the city from Minneapolis. She thinks a mayor will hold city councilors more accountable and create some unity.

"I think it’s too easy for city council members to focus on their communities [districts] which is what they’re supposed to do. But then, who wins? You know, there’s always a kind of tension there," she says.

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