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The new mayor's challenge

City Sage



It's Tuesday evening, and either Mayor Richard Skorman or Mayor Steve Bach had better get busy with the business of governance. Curiously, they'll face very different challenges.

Mayor Bach will start with a substantial disadvantage. Never having served in any position in local government, he'll be lost in a wilderness of mirrors.

Whom to trust? Whom to fire? How to construct a budget? Whom to hire as chief of staff? And how about crucial positions such as auditor, clerk and attorney? All three incumbents might resign — or maybe they won't.

Do you fire Clerk Kathryn Young, the city's senior African-American employee, and risk alienating her many fans and supporters? What about interim City Manager Steve Cox, whose unflappable competence has held the city together since Penny Culbreth-Graft's departure? Do you hire some corporate hotshot to run the city?

Tough decisions, and Bach will have to deal with a hostile work environment. Of the 1,700 city employees, you can bet that about 1,690 voted for his opponent. Cops and firefighters spent tens of thousands to defeat him; many other city workers made no secret of their preference. Many regard Bach as a willing tool of the anti-government hard right.

Bach's themes have put city employees on notice that he's ready to go to war. His public praise for staff, and promises to free them from red tape and help them do their jobs more effectively, have fallen on deaf ears.

They don't believe him. They believe that he wants to cut salaries and benefits and eliminate jobs, privatizing city functions to enrich his campaign contributors.

Staffers will smile and make nice, but every one of them will be ready to put the knife in his back as he tries to implement his agenda for change. The city culture may change, and not for the better. In such circumstances, it's tough to retain or attract gifted employees, even tougher to create a corporate esprit de corps.

Folks with options leave. New employees don't stay. The organization stagnates. Those who remain, like cockroaches in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, are wily survivors who devote much of their energy to office politics. They take no risks.

Mayor Skorman's job will be much easier, at least initially. His election would change the image of Colorado Springs.

A gay-friendly, progressive mayor??!! We'd no longer be caricatured as a city of mega-churches, military bases and hate speech.

Not only does Skorman understand city government, he'll have virtually unanimous staff support. He'll know whom to hire, promote, or escort gently to the door. And while city employees would fiercely resist any changes proposed by Bach, they'd happily accept the same measures from Skorman.

But Skorman would have his own problems.

His ambitious plans for downtown renewal, for sustainably redesigning the city, for getting rid of the downtown Drake power plant, for light rail, streetcars, and green energy may not materialize. The optimism of a decade ago has faded, as it has across the country.

In one of the nation's most conservative cities, will voters agree to raise taxes and/or increase city debt to fund such schemes? Probably not ... unless such schemes come from Mayor Bach.

Just as Skorman could more easily streamline and rationalize the city's bureaucracy, Bach could bring conservatives into a coalition to rebuild and re-imagine the city.

During his 45 years here, Bach has lived on the margins of power. His literature paints him as longtime city leader, but he's just one of many who have given time and energy to nonprofit ventures. He's not part of the local pantheon. He's no Steve Schuck, Chase Stone, Dusty Loo or Jon Medved.

Mayors can accomplish much. Bob Isaac built the airport and the municipal court building; Mary Lou Makepeace created America the Beautiful Park.

Build, and be remembered. Fight with the employees, and be forgotten.

Bach wants to build, campaign blather notwithstanding. So does Skorman.

But neither can accomplish much without the other's supporters. If Mayor Skorman can win over the conservatives, or if Mayor Bach can gain the trust of staff and moderates, we'll see positive change.

If not, expect four years of drift, indecision, false starts and hollow rhetoric.

"Here's the new mayor. Same as the old mayor!"

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