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A new outlook for City Council

City Sage


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Will our city democracy become a gerontocracy? Are we about to elect a gaggle of geezers better suited for the board of a retirement community than running the city and its billion-dollar enterprises?

Here's a potential lineup of worthy candidates, all of whom have a reasonable chance of success:

Mayor: Steve Bach 68, Richard Skorman 58, Dave Munger 65. Council members: Ed Bircham 74, Mike Merrifield 64, Douglas Bruce 61, Jan Martin 60, Larry Bagley 67, Tim Leigh 55, and Sean Paige (representing youth!) 51. Average age: 62.3.

Surprised? You shouldn't be. Since 1991, the average age of City Council members has been trending upward. Twenty years ago, only Mayor Bob Isaac and Vice Mayor Leon Young were over 60. Three Council members had just turned 50, and four were in their 30s. Today, three Councilors are over 60, and only Tom Gallagher (49) hasn't reached 50.

For at least a decade, our City Council has not been a source of new ways of thinking, or fresh approaches to old problems. It has been a time of drift and indecision, of flawed initiatives and frequent failures to understand and solve city problems.

Does age have anything to do with Council's collective impotence? Will an aging Council be impatient, inattentive and inclined to re-fight battles of the past while refusing to re-examine their beliefs? Will members tire easily, unable to absorb, digest, and make sense of the oceans of data they have to process every week?

Two years ago, newcomer Paige disrupted Council's sleepy routines with all the subtlety of a Rottweiler bursting into a roomful of poodles. This year, we can elect geezers and let them snooze away, or look for some new blood.

At 32, Brandy Williams is the youngest candidate on the ballot. Endorsed by the Independent, Gazette, the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors, Williams is well positioned to win an at-large Council seat.

For voters seeking ideological purity, or blind adherence to the settled dogmas of local politics, Williams is not a good choice. She's an uncompromising fiscal conservative who believes in sustainability, an urban woman who grew up on a ranch — in other words, she's not easily pigeon-holed.

Williams' great-grandparents came to El Paso County in the 1890s and established the ranch where Williams grew up, and where her father still ranches.

"My parents were older," she says in a recent chat at a downtown coffee house. "They had grown up in the Depression, and I absorbed their values. Working on a ranch, you have to do your job — you have to care for the cows and the horses, or no one else will. You don't get paid until you sell the cattle. I learned that you absolutely have to live within your means."

Williams, a civil engineer, graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. That experience, and subsequent trips to Portland, Ore., changed her way of thinking about the built environment of Colorado Springs.

"The city's paradigm hasn't changed in 60 years," she says. "Build a road, put some big boxes along it, build houses and apartments on either side, and then build another road and repeat."

What's so bad about that?

"The [commercial strips] are literally walled off from the neighborhoods. There's no ownership or involvement — the city is saying to people: 'Get in your cars, drive somewhere, buy something, go home, and don't bother us.' That model doesn't work for my generation."

What does work, Williams says, are sustainable, self-contained, less car-dependent neighborhoods such as those in Portland or Pittsburgh, both favored destinations for young professionals.

"That's where sustainability meets conservatism," says Williams. "I don't see why it makes sense to build infrastructure that has to be rebuilt or thrown away after 25 years. We can't just build car traps, or one day the cars just drive past." (Note: See Academy Boulevard.)

Unlike most of her peers, Williams has remained in Colorado Springs. And unlike any, she's running for office. Why?

"I blame my family background," she says. "I don't have cows to take care of now, so I'd like to help care for the city. I'd like to help people get engaged."

Why not? It should be fascinating to watch.


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