Columns » City Sage

Mayor might not be so strong

City Sage



In two weeks we'll have a new City Council — and by May 18 (presuming a runoff), we'll have a new mayor.

What will change? What won't? And how will it affect us?

That, as you might guess, depends. It depends a lot less on the form of government approved by the voters last November than on the 10 elected officials who will decide the shape and pace of change.

Consider the genesis of the "strong mayor" initiative. It was created and financed by David and Chris Jenkins, the Pikes Peak region's uncontested "strong developers." They wear the Triple Crown: most powerful, most respected/feared, most solvent. Like many of their peers, they were dismayed by what they saw as an inflexible, highly bureaucratized city administration. While city officials touted Colorado Springs as a low-tax, sensibly regulated, pro-business environment, most developers and builders saw things differently.

They saw a regulatory thicket, where nothing was simple or straightforward. While Mayor Lionel Rivera and the present Council majority routinely applauded city workers for their dedicated professionalism, developers railed at entrenched, unaccountable bureaucrats.

That's why the Jenkins père et fils wanted a strong mayor. They want a go-to guy, someone who understands business, bureaucracy and the way the world really works. They were tired of dealing with the endless compromises, delays and roadblocks of "the process."

As Fred Veitch, a former Planning Commission chair who has been in the development business for decades once told me: "John, we don't care what the decision is — we just want a decision!"

OK, now the city will have a boss... or will it? So flawed and ambiguous are the new rules of the game that the players will have to make them up as they go.

The mayor has many powers. He hires and fires senior officials, prepares the city budget, and, although not a voting member of Council, can veto many of its decisions. To override a veto, Council will have to muster a 6-3 supermajority.

Looks like game, set and match for the mayor, doesn't it? But wait a minute.

The mayor has absolutely no power over the city's vast enterprise kingdom, including Colorado Springs Utilities and Memorial Health System. The budgets of these two behemoths each dwarf the city's general fund, and both will be controlled by City Council.

It's as if President Obama controlled everything except entitlements and the military.

Suppose that a 5-4 Council majority opposes many of the mayor's initiatives. Not much they can do, right?

Wrong. Since Council has sole power over Utilities' budget, a scant majority could pass a budget omitting CSU's annual transfer of $30 million in "surplus revenues" to the city. The mayor couldn't veto the decision, since he has no power over Council's decisions when acting as the Utility Board.

Council also has rate-making power, as well as the ability to terminate any project or change any policy of any enterprise. SDS? Kiss it goodbye if the "Reform Team" sweeps the at-large ballot. City-owned hospital? Council has supported sending to the voters any proposal to sell or alter Memorial's status, but that's not etched in stone. A new body could sell or transfer the enterprise, then deal with lawsuits.

In any of those situations, the mayor would be powerless. He could bitch and complain — or, more likely, he'd go to Chris, David, Kevin Walker and others in the power structure, asking them for a new initiative putting enterprises under the mayor's control. As journalists, we'd love to report on such apocalyptic fights, but they ain't gonna happen.

If the past is any guide, all but one of our new elected officials will be candidates endorsed by one or more of the official political tastemakers, led by the Indy and Gazette. Young or old, tall or short, fat or thin, male or female, gay or straight — they run the gamut from moderate to conservative. Skorman or Bach, Lisa C. or Mike M., Brandy or Jan, Sean or Tim ... they'll all behave.

Little will change. The mayor and Council will make nice, city employees will be praised by both, developers will get a bone or two, and the only fireworks will be provided by Councilman Douglas Bruce, who without his cohorts will have just as much influence over policy as he did on the Board of County Commissioners.


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