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Strong mayor: It's a tangled web



For most people, it was as simple as checking a box.

But changing Colorado Springs' form of government from council-manager to strong-mayor, as approved by voters in November, has created quite a strain for city officials, who must implement mass changes and interpret the implications. All this before April, when a new mayor will be elected and the new system will go into effect.

Complications have ranged from small to tall. One of the more obvious and immediate: Who'd be eligible to run for mayor, since the new law requires a "full-time" executive with no other paid employment? Would candidates have to shed their investments? Put their business interests in a trust? Stop collecting a pension?

Uh, no, apparently. Deputy City Attorney Wynetta Massey says her office determined that the requirement simply means a mayor can't collect a paycheck from any other work while in office.

But Richard Skorman, a former city councilor and potential mayoral candidate, says he still plans to turn over his businesses to his wife if he's elected — just to be sure he's on the right side of the law.

Meanwhile, Councilor Randy Purvis says the requirement has hovered over his decision of whether to run, since taking a break of four or eight years from practicing law would mean losing his practice. Councilor Scott Hente says the restriction blew up his plans to run — he can't take that kind of time off from his development business.

Still, that's hardly the most challenging legal issue to crop up for the city since "strong mayor" passed.

The new process has overwhelmed the city attorney's office with "housekeeping items" in written law and personnel books. Meanwhile, councilors worry about what effect the new government will have on their duties and their ability to access information. There are concerns that parts of the law give duplicate duties to Council and the mayor. And, of course, there's the issue of how the city will function with as many as seven new councilors and a new mayor.

"I can't imagine," city spokesperson John Leavitt says, "that the day the mayor takes office we're going to have every little thing worked out."

Devilish details

The first order of business would seem to require little analysis. Massey notes that city code contains more than 150 references to "city manager," a position that won't exist after April. But it's not as easy as changing those references to "mayor," because some of those powers will go to Council and some to the mayor. Each has to be checked. Same goes for policy and procedure manuals throughout the city.

Then there are other kinds of clarifications to make. For instance, the new law calls for strategic plans from the mayor and Council. But is it reasonable to have two sets of goals for one city? Shouldn't the plans be merged?

The biggest job of all, however, will be laying out procedures for a runoff election. Under the new form of government, a runoff will take place if a single mayoral candidate does not receive a true majority (more than 50 percent) of all votes cast — a likely scenario, given that votes will probably be divided among at least a handful of candidates for the $96,000 position.

"We don't have any rules for a runoff," Massey notes.

And one thing's certain: Time isn't on anyone's side.

"We have six available Council meetings," Massey says, "where work can actually be done ... before the April election."

Cooperation helps

With four councilors (counting Mayor Lionel Rivera) term-limited, one leaving to become a county commissioner and two up for re-election, only two will definitely be around after April: Hente and Bernie Herpin, both elected to four-year terms in 2009. (Under the new form, the mayor is no longer a member of Council, but a ninth Council position will replace the mayoral position.)

This is a lame-duck Council, and most members seem to want their successors to carve out the minutiae of how the new government will function. But Hente, for one, isn't too pleased with putting off the inevitable — since he'll be part of cleaning up the mess.

One thing he wants this Council to do is require city staff be made available for informational presentations at future Council meetings. Under the new form, city staff report to the mayor, and if the mayor doesn't want staffers at Council meetings, they would not attend. That scenario could leave Council to vote on issues they know nothing about.

Other councilors agree it's a concern. But Purvis, for one, thinks even that should be one of the workable customs to be hammered out between the new city leadership.

"I think what everyone on Council, and whoever is the new mayor, will need to do is be very cautious of everything they do because it will be done for the first time," he says. "They need to act with the realization that they're setting in effect policies and procedures that will be in place for quite some time."

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