Citizens who speak out can come in handy, as Mayor Steve Bach's administration demonstrated last week. When trying to make a point, a politician can nod to a statement of support and say, "Here's a regular Joe who agrees with me."
Or, in this case, a regular Marge. But Marge McCarthy isn't just a regular citizen.
At the crux of the issue are Bach's Oct. 12 letters to City Council, urging it (in its role as Colorado Springs Utilities board) to be more transparent with the enterprise's budget and adopt the reporting style Bach uses for the municipal budget.
"I offer these suggestions to you in the hope that a meaningful review by the Board and the public will occur before the CSU Budget is brought forward to City Council," Bach wrote.
The letters were sent to the media Oct. 15; within half an hour, former resident McCarthy e-mailed, supporting Bach's position. She complained about a high water bill for her Springs rental property and closed with, "I am grateful to Mayor Bach for being a Strong Mayor. The moniker fits and I like the changes that I have read about."
Her letter was sent to the media the next day. "I just felt it would be of some interest to the print report[er]s who have been writing about Utilities issues of late," later wrote Jarred Rego, a city spokesperson. Sure enough, the Gazette posted McCarthy's letter online with little explanation.
Here's the thing: When Marge McCarthy wrote that letter, she was an advertising and marketing consultant for Nor'Wood Development Group — though she's not anymore. (More on that later.)
Nor'Wood is owned by the Jenkins family. Longtime developer David Jenkins gave nearly $1 million to the strong-mayor charter change campaign in 2010. His wife Carolyn, and entities controlled by the Jenkins family, own land in the 100-acre Southwest Downtown Urban Renewal Area, which borders Utilities' Martin Drake Power Plant.
As the lead developer of the Southwest Downtown Urban Renewal Area, Chris Jenkins, David's son, is in a position to push the idea of a sports stadium, which Bach has indicated would be the centerpiece for lower downtown development. And Bach has championed a study to look into removing Drake, which would open up greater possibilities.
McCarthy tells the Indy she doesn't know anything about all that. She says she learned of Bach's letters to Council from the news releases, which she routinely receives as a marketing professional. Then she wrote to Bach because during her 25 years here, before she moved to Georgia two years ago, Utilities "ran the way they wanted to run without input from the public." She adds that there's "a lot of fat" in its budget — which she knows because she used to work for a utility in Cleveland.
City spokesperson Cindy Aubrey, who got McCarthy's permission to forward the letter, says her motive was to share "a positive report on the Mayor's performance."
But Beth Rosenson, author and University of Florida associate professor with a focus in political ethics, describes that practice as "heavy-handed" and "suspicious," considering the city failed to reveal McCarthy's ties to Nor'Wood.
"There's a clear conflict of interest," Rosenson says. "She has a financial incentive to support the mayor. It's ironic this whole thing is about transparency, and there's a lack of transparency in identifying who she is."
Then again, any such conflict ended when, after 10-plus years, Nor'Wood ended McCarthy's contract the day her letter went public. "I was told that I was gone," she said last week.
Nor'Wood spokesman Ralph Braden contends the letter and her dismissal are "totally unrelated."
"We made the decision to bring our marketing in-house," Braden says, "so that timing is curious to you, but there's absolutely no nexus in that relationship. Nothing at all."