Lisa Czelatdko entered office during a time of incredible upheaval.
The city was under a new form of governance, which gave far-reaching powers to a brand-new mayor, Steve Bach. The new leader wasted no time asserting his powers, and replacing longtime staff members with his own picks. At the same time, six out of nine City Councilors were newly elected.
Czelatdko stood out among the crowd of newbies. Previously a nonprofit volunteer and a stay-at-home mom to four young daughters, Czelatdko proved to be a tough critic of the executive branch, questioning legal decisions that removed Council powers (see p. 19) and vocally opposing some of Bach's most cherished goals.
"If Council members had the courage to do what they need to do, Council actually has the most power and possibility to be change agents," the west-side representative says today. "We're the board for [Colorado Springs] Utilities, we're the legislative body — we've got it. It's just coming together and using it and not being so easily persuaded by a small, exclusive group of individuals."
Now, Czelatdko once again stands out — as the only eligible Councilor who won't seek reelection this April. Czelatdko says she's done what she came to do, to be a powerful voice for her constituents. But for now, she says, she'd rather effect change as a volunteer on several boards.
"I'm not leaving because I'm a mother with four kids and couldn't keep up with the busy schedule," she says. "I love being an elected official and I think it's important."
In fact, she plans to run for office again down the road, though not necessarily for Council.
Still, there's no doubt this has been a rough ride for the now-42-year-old. There have been run-ins with the mayor and the media; frustration over a lack of communication with the public; and a wide range of complicated decisions, from leasing Memorial Health System to dealing with the Waldo Canyon Fire.
"We're constantly bombarded with huge issues," she says. "I mean, it has almost been two years of never catching a breath."
Personalities and egos
When Czelatdko first came into office, the main issue was separation of powers — and that issue has been a persistent one.
She has remained fiercely opposed to the widening of mayoral powers in the last two years, saying it's taken city business out of the public eye and removed some of the checks on executive power. In early 2012, when Bach, under the assurance of City Attorney Chris Melcher, said he did not need to enforce "veto-proof" Council changes to the city budget, including some that Czelatdko had championed, she was outraged.
Worse, she says, she found herself painted as a big-spending bureaucrat by many in the media, who seized on Bach's explanation that the city couldn't afford to finance Council's amendments.
"I don't think that as an elected official I should be the one reminding people of the importance of the separation of powers," she says, adding, "How would they feel if Obama said, 'You know what, Congress is getting in my way — I'm going to reinvent Congress, take away their authority and voice'? And, 'I'm your president, you voted me as your president, so I'm going to do what I want'? It would never fly. So why do we find that acceptable at a local level?"
That was just the beginning of the head-butting. Czelatdko notes that she often voted "no" on items if she felt that Melcher had not given Council enough time to review them, which she says has been common. She was also critical of the mayor for not working collaboratively to create a single region-wide strategic plan.
Despite Bach and fellow Councilors' calls for change, Czelatdko also opposed any modification to the governance of Utilities, noting that, with Council as its board, it is accountable to the public, and that its low rates make it an economic driver.
Though she's led a task force to ask for proposals to study the Martin Drake Power Plant — the mayor has pushed to consider decommissioning it — Czelatdko says she opposes any change, noting that huge investments have been made in the plant, and that closing it would be costly for ratepayers.
Recently, she says, she's been disappointed by Bach's opposition to working with El Paso County to develop a regional plan to fund stormwater infrastructure.
"I just want to be like, 'What's the problem?'" she says. "We actually have people willing to partner with us on trying to solve this incredibly expensive, dangerous problem. Why wouldn't we jump all over that?"
The issue, she says, is that strong personalities and egos have prevented collaboration. "It's always, 'How do we look better?' [Or], 'How does the executive branch look better?'" she says. "Instead of, 'How do we all look better and do the jobs we were hired to do?'"
The transition from private person to public figure can be bumpy. Czelatdko certainly found it so.
The Gazette, in particular, brought her embarrassment, drawing attention to some of her questionable social media posts, including one in which she cited her city position in an attempt to garner tickets to a sold-out Pikes Peak Center show. The paper also repeatedly posted a "glamour shot" of her instead of the professional photo she provided.
Czelatdko, who has a master's degree in school counseling, hurt her own cause by reacting emotionally to issues, especially early on. But she says she was targeted for belittlement because she is an attractive woman with a big mouth. She admits having sometimes come off as less than polished in meetings, but notes that the executive branch has the advantage of filtering its messages through a communications staff. Council has no communications staff, and must meet in public.
"Council is made to be a deliberative, republic body," she says. "We can't be all sunshine and roses up there."
Czelatdko says she doesn't plan to endorse any candidate in her (newly redrawn) District 3, or elsewhere. But she hopes whoever is elected won't be afraid to speak as loudly as she has, and that he or she will come in prepared to tackle the huge issues that still lie ahead.
"If you're coming because you've got nothing better to do and you're going to be complacent and sit here and think that the Council is a very minimal, volunteer, part-time position, and you're excited about networking or increasing your notoriety, then stay away," she says. "Seriously, stay away."
Two years, it appears, has done nothing to blunt Czelatdko's sharp tongue.