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Mayoral muscles

Two potential 'strong mayor' ballot issues aren't better than one



With one year remaining before he's term-limited out of office, it's probably fair to say Mayor Lionel Rivera is, uh, legacy-challenged.

Deserved or not, in the seven years Rivera has led Colorado Springs, he's faced accusations of scandal over deals such as retaining the U.S. Olympic Committee; he's been called bigoted and insensitive; and he has presided over the decimation of many basic city services.

Not exactly a political triumph.

So it may seem odd that many people these days are clamoring for the office of mayor to be given greater powers. Yet, these "strong mayor" proponents seem to be everywhere. In fact, separate organizers have two strong mayor proposals hoping to make it onto upcoming election ballots.

And that may or may not be a good thing, depending on who you ask.

For his part, Vice Mayor Larry Small isn't jumping for joy over either proposal.

"Our problems aren't associated with our form of government," Small says. "They're associated with our fiscal resources."

Lack of enthusiasm from some folks isn't the only snag for strong mayor proponents. If both proposals get enough petition signatures to qualify for the ballot, voters will be asked in November whether they want a strong mayor — and then, next April, they'll be asked if they want an even stronger mayor.

Sound confusing? It is.

But there's no room for mistakes or misconceptions here. These are very different proposals.

In this corner ...

A few months ago, the Citizens for Accountable Leadership started the "strong mayor" conversation around Colorado Springs.

The citizens group now is gathering petition signatures to put its question on the November city ballot. The long, detailed proposal is modeled after other cities that already have the "strong mayor" form of government.

Briefly, this proposal aims to eliminate the office of city manager and give those responsibilities to the mayor. The mayor would have increased powers including the ability to veto City Council decisions and make appointments.

"Strong mayor" proponents say it ensures that voters would know whom to hold accountable for the success or failure of the city government.

But recently, another proposal has appeared, this one aiming to get on the April 2011 city ballot.

While there are several sponsors of the proposal, the name that leaps off the page is that of anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce.

Under this concept — which Bruce prefers to call "reformed mayor" — the mayor would replace the "city manager, assistant city manager, chief financial officer, economic development director and manager, community development director, and the public communications division."

Bruce's proposal also would grant mayors the power to veto ordinances, resolutions and appointments made by City Council, as well as spending and budget line items. The mayor could also pay off debts and claims, impound funds, refund charges, and lower taxes and fees; excuse code violators and penalties; and direct enterprises and authorities.

Which means that the mayor could basically do whatever he wanted except raise taxes or fees.

The mayor could, for instance, all but eliminate city sales and property tax. He could take over the running of Memorial Hospital, Colorado Springs Utilities, the Parking Enterprise, and even the golf courses. The mayor could decide to eliminate all funding for the parks department, or the police department for that matter, even if Council didn't agree.

"It's going to save over $2 million in administrative costs of overpaid bureaucrats, and that's very appealing," Bruce says of his proposal. "It's going to give the mayor the veto power to stop wasteful spending."

One thing's for sure: While the Citizens for Accountable Leadership's ballot measure would increase the mayor's powers, Bruce's proposal would hand nearly all power to the mayor.

Courting controversy

While the Citizens for Accountable Leadership proposal led to polite discourse and debate, Bruce's proposal has (surprise!) created something akin to a political bar brawl.

The fighting words are flying fast.

"That's one of the most ridiculous, absurd views of government that I've ever seen," Small says of Bruce's proposal. "That's not a strong mayor; that's a sovereign dictator. That's no different than Saddam Hussein."

"I think people are realizing that he is devastating our community and our state," Accountable Leadership spokesperson Mary Ellen McNally says about Bruce's tactics. "I think people have finally had the 'aha' moment."

"He thrives on turmoil," Chuck Murphy, another Accountable Leadership leader, says of Bruce. "That's his diet. Most people want harmony and contentment. [With] this guy it's just a never-ending saga."

Even the mayor is unusually candid when speaking about Bruce's proposal.

"I think if it does get on the ballot," Rivera says, "... I think the citizens would say, 'Why on earth would I want to have one individual with so much power and no oversight?'"

Meanwhile, Bruce has thrown his own counterpunch at the city, in the form of a (surprise again!) lawsuit. One day after filing paperwork with the city clerk requesting petitions, Bruce filed suit June 9 claiming the city is violating state law by not granting him the petitions immediately and instead forcing him to wade through the petition approval process with the Initiative Review Committee and the Title Board.

"Right now the city is stonewalling my ability to petition," Bruce says.

Under state law, Bruce has 90 days from the time he submits his proposal to collect at least 12,581 valid signatures. However, the city's review process will cut into those 90 days considerably.

All initiatives with the city are put through the same process.

Mayor Bruce?

Assuming Bruce is able to resolve his lawsuit and get the proposal on the ballot next April, some are guessing he has more plans.

Small and Rivera predict that Bruce — or someone he approves of — will run for mayor. If elected, they say, this person could decimate what's left of the city budget.

"You have a lot more responsibility [under Bruce's proposal]," Rivera says. "And you get paid $6,250. Can you think of one person who would want that job? Doug Bruce!"

"I guarantee you he has a candidate, and he'll have a candidate in the race this year," Small says.

Bruce is dodgy when asked if he has a mayoral candidate in mind. Sure, there might be a few he could think of, he says, but he's not naming names.

He's straight-forward about his own aspirations, however.

"I am not running for mayor," he says. "I am running a petition drive."

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