The Bachocalypse? The Bacherdammerung? The Last Roundup? Whatever you call it, one thing is sure — Steve Bach is leaving office this spring.
For those of us in the media, it's been an exhilarating ride. Whatever your opinion of him, Mayor Bach rarely has been boring. The arc of his short career in electoral politics has been as dramatic and improbable as a ride on the original Twister. We expected Bach to be a colorless, business-friendly servant of the 80906 establishment, and instead we got a fire-breathing change agent.
Soon after taking office in 2011, Bach injected himself into the debate over the future of Memorial Health System. Ignoring the inconvenient fact that City Council had sole jurisdiction over Memorial, Bach urged Council to revisit the issue and encourage more bidders to come forward.
Council agreed, although it appeared that a group led by then-Memorial CEO Dr. Larry McEvoy had the inside track. As originally presented, the deal called for McEvoy's team to pay $500,000 annually for 30 years and assume the assets and liabilities of the system, excluding the Public Employees' Retirement Association (PERA), for which the city would remain responsible. It would've been a giveaway, to say the least.
After much maneuvering, Council finally inked a $1.9 billion deal with University of Colorado Health that took the city off the hook for PERA, funded a $100 million nonprofit, and has led to the planned establishment of a local branch of the University of Colorado School of Medicine. PERA-related lawsuits persist, and it may be a while until the foundation is fully funded, but the outcome remains a big win for Bach.
Seeking to make government more innovative, entrepreneurial and customer-friendly (except for certain segments of the media, or anyone wanting open records), Bach replaced senior officials and brought fresh approaches to long-festering problems. Some were tough and unpopular; e.g., privatizing fleet management and withdrawing from the regional ambulance contract.
Bach had been in office for slightly over a year when the Waldo Canyon Fire erupted in June 2012. Determined and decisive, Bach came to symbolize the city's gritty response to an unparalleled disaster. He wasn't universally applauded, but many residents appeared to view him as our Ronald Reagan, not our Neville Chamberlain. Had he been an amiable collaborator, compromising with Council when necessary and refusing to get in fights, he'd probably be looking forward to a second term today.
But rather than be Reagan, he chose to be Rahm Emanuel. He supported closing Martin Drake Power Plant and publicly aired his concerns about Neumann Systems' contract to install anti-pollution controls. He seemed friendly to the idea of selling electric generation and transmission to a private operator, which deeply concerned Utilities employees.
He fought with Council from 2011 to 2013, and the fights intensified after a new Council majority took office in 2013. Led by former state legislator Keith King, Council protected its turf and sought to expand it. Several new Councilors, with support from the coal industry or a CSU employee group, had no interest in cooperating.
The Bach-Council wars had political consequences. City for Champions, bolstered by the promise of $120 million in state tax increment funding, was demonized by irritated Councilors who had been excluded from the planning process. What might have been a community celebration became a bitter community fight. King's cynical, eccentric leadership style has been rightly criticized, but Bach's failure to build good relations with individual Councilors also can be faulted.
Does Bach have anything more to accomplish, or will he withdraw from the fray and spend his time poring over houses for sale in warmer climes?
On Monday, the city issued an RFP for planning and design work on a new Pikes Peak Summit House (see here). That long-deferred project, requiring city parks boss Karen Palus to forge a complex series of agreements among the power players, may finally become reality. If so, it will be the most enduring and visible symbol of Bach's drive to rebuild and rebrand the city. You can bet his successor will happily take the credit.
And where will Bach be? Not sitting around in Grenada or St. Croix, but engaged in government at a different level. We think he's rigid and uncompromising, but Gov. John Hickenlooper may see him differently. Bach won't fade away obediently into obscurity.