Does it really matter who's mayor of Colorado Springs?
Seven people who are vying for the title think it does.
Sure, under the city's form of government, the mayor is just one of nine City Council members, with just one out of nine votes. The salary is a paltry $6,250 per year, the same as that of other Council members. And an appointed city manager currently Lorne Kramer actually runs the city on a daily basis.
Yet nonetheless, the title "mayor" holds sufficient appeal that four current Council members are giving up their seats to vie for the top spot in the upcoming elections, taking place this month by mail ballot. The mail ballots will be tallied on April 1, Election Day.
Council members Sallie Clark, Ted Eastburn, Jim Null and Lionel Rivera all want to replace current Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, who has served since 1997 and leaves office next month due to term limits. Three political novices Tony Carpenter, MarieAnn Carter and Ken Kretzschmar are also running.
The title of mayor does carry some influence, and the mayor does hold the gavel at Council meetings, several candidates note.
"You get to set the tone of the discussion, and also, you get to control the discussion at the meetings," Rivera said.
And though each of the four leading candidates has been part of the Council for the past two to six years, they all claim they can steer the Council in a new and better direction, if they can only get their hands on that gavel.
"I think we can do better," Clark said.
Water, traffic, philosophy
The four top contenders largely agree on what the city's needs are for the future: Get more water. Improve roads to reduce traffic gridlock. Stimulate the local economy by promoting tourism, the construction of a convention center downtown and use of the city's airport.
And while they also agree on many of the particulars of how to accomplish these goals, they disagree on others. They also differ in their governing philosophies, and in the points and issues that they emphasize in their campaigns.
Null, a college professor, highlights his accomplishments on the Council, where he has served since 1997. He says he successfully championed open-space preservation and worked to increase funding for highway projects in Colorado Springs.
He also cites his leadership experience as a former dean at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. "I'm simply the best qualified" of the candidates, he said.
But despite his long tenure on the Council, and his status as the closest ally of the current mayor, Null assesses the current Council's performance harshly. It has gotten too bogged down in details, and it has spent too much time reacting to problems instead of planning ahead for them, he claims.
"We've had a huge tendency to micromanage things," Null said.
Null says the city's comprehensive plan to manage growth must be fully implemented, and city government should promote more mixed-use zones and higher-density development
"We need growth ... but our responsibility is to manage that growth in a quality way," he said.
At the same time, the city needs to speed up approval of noncontroversial developments, which are often caught up in red tape, Null says.
He also proposes handling transportation projects "a bit at a time" and funding them with a combination of borrowing and state and federal grants.
Hands on, hands off
Conversely, Clark, a West Side bed-and-breakfast owner who was elected to the Council two years ago, argues for increased Council involvement in city operations. In particular, she favors increased oversight over Memorial Hospital and Colorado Springs Utilities, both city-owned enterprises.
"That's my job, is to oversee and make sure that the tax dollars are spent the way the citizens want," she said.
In fact, the Council has spent too much time developing great visions and plans, and too much money paying consultants to help develop these schemes, which end up not getting implemented anyway, Clark says.
"We've got so many huge plans that we don't have the money to [carry out], and so we don't end up doing a lot," she said. "We need to do the things that we can do, and not get hung up on the things that we can't do immediately."
For example, to solve traffic gridlock, Clark proposes installing more double left-turn lanes, improving traffic signals, and switching from the current "hub and spoke" bus system to a grid-based one. She says she would prefer projects that don't require asking voters to raise taxes.
While she favors a more hands-on approach to city management, Clark wants a more hands-off attitude toward local businesses. She favors reducing the business personal property tax and says the best thing the City Council can do to stimulate local business is "getting out of the way."
Last year, Clark was one of four Council members who opposed extending healthcare benefits to same-sex domestic partners of city employees. The proposal passed on a 5-4 vote. If the issue is raised again, Clark says she'd like to place it on the ballot and let voters decide. "Maybe that's not our job as elected officials, to make those decisions," she said.
She said she objects to the benefits because of the cost which is estimated at about $58,000 per year, or less than 0.03 percent of the city's general-fund budget. The benefits are also unfair to other people who live together but aren't eligible, she said.
Fun with funding
Like Null, Rivera focuses on his accomplishments on the Council, saying he has successfully found ways to fund several initiatives, particularly in the public-safety arena.
"When I've made promises, I've found ways to fund those," said Rivera, a financial adviser who has, like Null, been on the Council since 1997.
His main criticism of the current Council is that it has gone too far in passing regulations affecting private property rights, such as historic preservation ordinances.
He also has made the city's same-sex benefits a cornerstone of his campaign, and says he would "absolutely" vote to repeal it if elected. The decision discriminates against other people who live together but aren't eligible for benefits, he says.
To increase the city's revenues, Rivera has proposed reducing the city "vendors fee," which is the portion of sales taxes that local businesses are allowed to keep as compensation for collecting the taxes. The City Council may also need to seek voter approval to raise taxes for specific transportation projects, Rivera says. "I would anticipate putting something on the ballot."
Particularly, Rivera favors projects that would improve access to the city's airport. In terms of mass transit, he also proposes backing "pilot projects" involving express bus service.
To boost the local tax base, city government should do more to promote tourism, Rivera proposes.
He says that with current residential watering restrictions and the possible passage of a landscaping ordinance, additional water restrictions won't be necessary in the short term. However, he favors increased conservation education and incentive programs.
The way of doing business
Eastburn, meanwhile, is perhaps the least critical toward the current Council.
"I'm proud of what we've done," says Eastburn, a cardiologist who was elected to the Council in 1999. He cites the passage of the public-safety sales tax in 2001, and regulations such as last year's streamside ordinance to protect waterways from development, among the Council's accomplishments
Nonetheless, Eastburn envisions some big changes for the city.
"This race is about leadership," he said. "It's about who has the vision to move this community forward."
One of his most radical ideas is to examine whether the city should continue its current "council-manager" style of government, where the city manager runs daily operations, or switch to a system such as Denver's, where the mayor holds a more powerful executive position.
Eastburn says he's also "intrigued" by the idea of the city breaking away from El Paso County to form the City and County of Colorado Springs, led by a single government. Currently, city taxpayers are subsidizing county services for residents outside the city, Eastburn notes.
Eastburn says he believes the city's current tax base is adequate, though he might favor seeking voter approval for tax increases to fund specific transportation projects.
In addition, he has proposed increasing the lodging and auto-rental tax to help build a downtown convention center and possibly provide financial support for the performing arts.
While all of the candidates favor luring additional commercial airlines to the city airport, Eastburn says airport management should also focus on attracting more "general aviation" business, such as distribution and maintenance facilities.
He also would like to see Colorado Springs become a center for fitness and sports medicine, by building what he calls a "multi-sport fitness and training complex."
Marxist plots and more
The contest among Clark, Eastburn, Null and Rivera is considered wide open, although Eastburn enjoyed an early fund-raising advantage when campaign-finance reports were filed in mid-February. He reported having raised more than $63,000, while Rivera had pocketed almost $32,000. Null and Clark each collected about $23,000.
Powerful business groups including the Chamber of Commerce, the Housing and Building Association and the Pikes Peak Area Realtors, have all made the highly unusual decision not to endorse a candidate for mayor this year, saying their members had trouble agreeing on a clear favorite.
Meanwhile, Carpenter, Carter and Kretzschmar are all considered long shots due to low name recognition and their complete absence of fund-raising.
Carpenter, who was fired from his job as a city truck driver five years ago, says he's running to expose waste and cover-ups in city government. Carter, who works for a marketing company, says the city's same-sex benefits are a Marxist plot to destroy the family.
Kretzschmar, meanwhile, has promised to give a city job to everyone that votes for him, and to eliminate doctors and lawyers from the City Council.
"I will have no attorneys or doctors on the council," Kretzchmar wrote in an e-mail message, "since attorneys write our lawyer language and doctors keep vegetable bodies alive for job security."
Where do I go to vote? The April 1 city elections will be conducted by mail ballot only. No polling places will be open, though there will be three drop-off locations if you choose not to send the ballot by mail. The locations are the Sand Creek police substation, 4125 Center Park Drive; the Falcon substation, 7850 Goddard St.; and the City Clerk's office, 30 S. Nevada Ave.
How do I get a mail ballot? All registered voters who cast a ballot in last November's county elections will automatically receive ballots via U.S. mail. The ballots will be sent out March 11. Other registered voters must obtain a special form from the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's office, at 200 S. Cascade Ave., and bring it to the City Clerk's office, in order to obtain a ballot.
What if I'm not registered? You're out of luck. The deadline to register was Monday.
What if I'll be out of town? You can make a signed, written request to have your ballot sent to an address other than your home address. The request must be received by the City Clerk's office by March 25.
When must the ballot be in? All ballots must be received at the City Clerk's office (by mail or drop-off) or at one of the other two drop-off locations (drop-off only) no later than 7 p.m. on Election Day, April 1. Simply having the ballot postmarked by April 1 is not sufficient it must be in the hands of election officials by the deadline.
Where can I get more information? Call the City Clerk's office, 385-5901, or visit www.springsgov.com (click on "city elections").
SOURCE: City Clerk's office.