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New format earns an 'F'

City Sage



Remember the pitch for the "strong mayor" form of government back in 2010? It was simple and effective.

Tired of quarrelsome, ineffective municipal government where no one is in charge? Tired of having some bureaucrat running the city, responsible only to nine part-time politicians who get paid $500 a month? A capable, well-compensated strong mayor elected by all the people will run the city, ably assisted by a City Council serving as the city's legislative body. It'll be just like Denver, only better — because we business-friendly Republicans are better managers than those pea-brained Denver Democrats!

We bought the pitch and installed the new government. It doesn't work.

We may have thought that we had created a go-to guy, a strong executive who could move the city forward. We may have thought that we'd put Council back into its box, and that its members would be comfortable with a diminished role. Instead, we created rival governments.

City Council has sole responsibility over Utilities, a billion-dollar company that directly affects every person living in the city. Council hires Utilities' CEO, decides upon rates and makes policy. The mayor, a non-voting member of the Utilities Board, seldom attends meetings. "I don't have time for that," Steve Bach said recently. "That's Council's responsibility."

Council also makes laws, approves the mayor's budget and makes land-use decisions. Despite such heavy duties, members are paid only $6,250 annually. The mayor gets $96,000.

Another big difference: By charter, the mayor must receive a majority of votes cast; Councilors can take office with a plurality. In 2013, only two candidates received a majority (Joel Miller and Don Knight), while four (Keith King, Helen Collins, Jill Gaebler and Andy Pico) received fewer than 40 percent in their districts. Of the at-large candidates running in 2011, only Jan Martin was selected on more than 50 percent of ballots.

Also worth noting: Since the mayor is no longer a member of Council, the two entities are entirely separate. That separation is not just legal, but geographic. Council meets and has offices at City Hall, while Bach is at the City Administration Building.

Separate responsibilities, unequal pay, different constituencies and little literal common ground — that's a recipe for conflict.

Consider Council's graceless public crucifixion of City Attorney Chris Melcher, appointed by Bach in 2011. I don't remember any senior city employee being so treated in an open meeting during the past 30 years. The previous Council had its differences with Melcher, but veterans such as Martin and Scott Hente kept things civil. This Council reduced his salary, impugned his ethics and all but demanded his head on a platter. Melcher soon quit.

That's exactly the kind of dysfunctional behavior that this form of government was supposed to prevent — and that's just one example. Council's "not invented here" attempt to kill Bach's Regional Tourism Act proposal is another, as is the battle over stormwater. City government ought to speak with one voice, especially to other regional governments.

Can we cure the problem? Sure, by amending the charter once again. If we wanted to adopt Denver's model, here's what we'd do:

• Put the mayor in charge of Utilities.

• Pay Councilors a living wage and give them staffed offices in their districts.

• Schedule weekly meetings between the mayor and Council.

• Create the "City and County of Colorado Springs," reducing layers of government and city-county clashes. Clarify Council's role as non-administrative.

But what we really need is a new culture of government. Secure in their roles and responsibilities, Denver elected officials don't waste their time in vicious turf battles. That's one reason extraordinarily able people aspire to work in city government. For example, former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper is now governor; his chief of staff, Michael Bennet, is a U.S. senator.

Competent, cooperative, community-oriented and focused on the future — isn't that what we need to build a great city? Yes, but the kind of people who can do it may not be electable here.

Thirteen people serve on the Denver City Council. They're male and female, black, white and Hispanic, young, old and middle-aged, but 11 of the 13 share a single characteristic: They're Democrats.

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