They come in fawns and leave lions.
It's safe to say that, a few weeks into their tenure, the six new members of Colorado Springs City Council are still too busy learning to walk to spend much time roaring (Tim Leigh excepted). For one thing, they're tired after the marathon of introductions and informational meetings.
"I am collapsing into bed," Councilor Lisa Czelatdko says, though she's quick to add that she's loved the initiation process.
The newcomers all think they have something fresh to bring to city government. As Leigh puts it, "I expect great things from this Council." At the same time, in these initial weeks, most say they've been more than grateful for guidance from the three experienced Council members: President Scott Hente, President Pro-Tem Jan Martin and Bernie Herpin.
"If I think I can go in on Day One and tell them what to do, I'm a fool," newbie Angela Dougan says. "... If I had all the answers, I would just write a book, sell it, and be done."
In fact, most of the rookies say they're willing to wait until the new mayor takes office in June before making any big steps. That way, they say, the mayor will be able to help set the agenda.
Of course, that's not to say they'll all be deferential. Asked what kind of relationship she hopes to have with the mayor, Brandy Williams says, "I hope it's magical, and we talk all the time, and the mayor lets me do anything I want."
In separate conversations, each of the six recently talked with the Indy about what they see on the horizon.
Lisa Czelatdko, 41, District 3, 2-year term
Traditionally, district Councilors get their hands a little dirtier than their at-large counterparts. Though all must mull the big-picture items — Memorial Health System, the Southern Delivery System, economic development strategies — district reps spend a lot of time on stuff like potholes and neighborhood issues.
Czelatdko fits neatly into this paradigm, considering her initial priorities revolve around people and neighborhoods. "A lot of my parks' lights are out, and that's a concern," she says. "I've already been getting a hold of staff regarding that."
Those streetlights have provided Czelatdko an early lesson in government's complicated nature.
"I don't want my [west side] park ... in the dark, which it has been for almost a year," she says. "Darkness promotes vandalism ... and countless other problems. Yet, it's in the dark because thousands of dollars worth of copper wire was taken out and the utilities company hasn't budgeted it to be fixed. ...
"Now as the utility board, I am being told that we're looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars because of copper theft, we haven't budgeted that, and we can't replace that right now. So how do I balance that? It's difficult already."
Czelatdko says she didn't come into the seat with pre-decided goals; priorities have been rearing their heads. She wants to set up a blog accessible via springsgov.com to keep citizens abreast of current events. She wants Council to hold its meetings in the evening, and to keep them "efficient and quick" — and hopefully more appealing to citizens who might attend. Czelatdko also wants to bring interns into City Hall.
"We have these great education institutions in town," she says. "When I did my graduate work, I was an intern and I loved the experience. I was thinking maybe we could look into some [political science] students that might be interested."
Czelatdko also wants to see what services can be restored. As a mother of four young girls, she's keenly aware of what's been lost, particularly in parks and recreation. She wants recreational opportunities to expand, not shrink. Maybe, she says, sharing certain services with El Paso County will help. And Czelatdko says she'd very much like the city to look into building a self-sustaining shooting range, supported by user fees.
But she also wants to be cautious about adding items back into the city budget. If the city's going to revive recreation services, put more cops on our streets, re-sod a sports field, or bring back bus routes, she believes, those changes should be made permanent: "I don't want services given back to the citizens this year [just so we can] pat ourselves on the back, and then take them back again next year."
Angela Dougan, 47, District 2, 2-year term
Former City Councilor and current County Commissioner Darryl Glenn has been both a blessing and a curse to his protegé.
Dougan says she's very fond of Glenn, and feels blessed that he's mentored her. (Dougan started out as Glenn's campaign manager, then had his full support in the election.) Yet, Dougan says, she often has to explain that while she and Glenn share many ideas, she's not his clone.
"The media tended to put me off as the silly little mom who is Darryl's puppet," Dougan, a mother of two adolescent girls, says with a laugh.
That's not the case, she insists. Dougan says she's a question-asker and likes to figure out things for herself. When forming her opinion of Southern Delivery System (she supports it), she talked to Glenn. But she also talked to Utilities CEO Jerry Forte and public naysayer T.A. Arnold, as well as others. Then, she says, she read reports and examined maps.
"We're in economic times where it's very beneficial to keep working and building it," Dougan says.
Similarly, she has weighed other controversial issues — medical marijuana, for example. As a mom, Dougan has her concerns about the industry. But when voters defeated a proposal to ban county MMJ centers last November, Dougan says the argument should have ended.
"The voters have spoken," she says.
And now, after touring a dispensary and talking with advocates, Dougan feels the industry should create its own rules and oversee itself. "Any industry has to self-police," she says.
Speaking of which, Dougan was not pleased about how the city ran its election. She says the city should harness its home-rule power to write election laws, and also should pay the county, instead of the city clerk, to oversee its elections — which all should happen in November, saving the expense of a second election in April.
After those changes, she says, city election laws must be enforced — not just with a friendly reminder, the city's current method — but with real penalties. This year, too many candidates got away with filing late or incorrect forms.
Dougan's other goals run the gamut. She wants to re-examine the governance of Utilities and ownership of Memorial Health System. She wants to explore regionalization for parks, stormwater maintenance, police and firefighter training. She wants more services for her northern area, and insists on building a new fire station in District 2 within two years. She also wants to pursue ideas for expanding bus service, including asking school districts to combine resources with the city.
But, she says, everyone will have to collaborate.
"My issue is, we've got to work together with all the people, and if you want to stand on your hill, it's not going to work."
Merv Bennett, 63, 4-year term
After years at the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, where he rose to CEO before retiring in February, Bennett likes to think he knows something about running a successful organization.
A key piece, he says, is cooperation. He feels Council and the mayor should agree on a single strategic plan for the city, rather than the separate plans that the strong-mayor framework calls for. To start that and other conversations, Bennett suggests the new mayor join Council for a team-building exercise.
Bennett says he hopes everyone can agree "not to have contentious dialogue. That doesn't mean we [have to] agree."
Some opinions might set Bennett apart. He thinks Council, as the Utilities board, should look at the bond issuance schedule for SDS' pipeline project. Currently, bonds are being issued in stages to make sure current and future residents share costs. Bennett says that may not make sense if low rates are available now that may not be available later.
Bennett, seemingly echoing ex-Councilor Sean Paige, wants to pursue public-private partnerships, saying they often save money. He also believes in regional partnerships. And he'll look for efficiencies in the current budget before considering asking voters for a tax increase.
"I want to show we've done everything we can with the dollars we have before we go back and ask for more," he says.
A fan of parks and recreation, Bennett says he's watched as budget cuts have led to brown grass and fewer opportunities for youth.
"The damage has been done," he says, "and it's going to take us longer to recover than it took us to create it."
Tim Leigh, 55, 2-year term
It's fair to say that Leigh does not feel freshman anxiety. He's not interested in a get-to-know-you period, or in deferring to more experienced colleagues, or in waiting for the mayor so he can dutifully follow the leader.
"We're a city of commissions and studies, and we never take action," Leigh notes with displeasure.
With that in mind, Leigh already has tackled some of his to-do list. (Seriously, he has one.) On Tuesday, he won Council approval to install "sharrows," markers painted on the outside lanes of streets, for heavily bicycled areas. Different from striped bike lanes, which are for bike-use only, the sharrows remind drivers to expect and yield to cyclists in the shared-use lane and position bikes away from swinging doors of parked cars.
Leigh is raising private money for a sharrow that would run along Colorado Avenue from downtown to Manitou Springs. Each of the 199 markers needed for the Colorado Avenue stretch costs $106, plus labor. The city has agreed to pay the labor costs, and Leigh is trying to raise about $20,000 for remaining costs. (The sharrow project, which also will include other streets like 30th Street, is being funded by a state transportation grant, the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority and the city's $4 fee on new bicycle purchases.)
Sharrows, though, are just the beginning. Leigh says he aims to change the city's image, rebranding it as a health, wellness, recreation and leisure capital. That would attract the "young, creative class," which would in turn attract major employers.
All that, he thinks, begins with small steps, such as ensuring seamless cellphone service and free Wi-Fi citywide.
Leigh has a long list of ideas, from revitalizing Prospect Lake, to creating a trolley system, building a vibrant pedestrian walkway downtown, and turning Banning Lewis Ranch into a "hydroponic development prototype" that produces local food. More ideas could come out of community brainstorming, but Leigh says the important part is that the city actually does something.
Leigh isn't thinking the city would fund all this. He's a small government guy who believes the city should stick to infrastructure and public safety and act as a "partner to the private sector." Leigh wants to reexamine "unsustainable" public pensions, chop the business personal property tax, and grow the city's already historically large nest egg. He wants all city enterprises — including Utilities — governed by their own professional boards. And unlike many past Councilors who decried taxes dedicated to specific purposes as crippling to government, Leigh says "governance by smorgasbord" might be workable.
"Think of an onion, and think of like, the core of an onion," he says. "That core might be municipal government, and all those other things might be interestingly parsed off. And then you can say, 'You know what, we want to have public safety, we want to have infrastructure, we want to have parks and art, we want to have' — pick an industry over here — [and] you get to vote on it."
Val Snider, 56, 4-year term
Snider's rise into city government was gradual. As an Air Force officer, he moved here in the 1990s to work for Space Command, and took an early retirement in 1996 to enjoy the area's natural beauty.
Snider became enamored with nature photography, and upset that so many pristine spots were being gobbled up by development. After being encouraged by friends, he wrote then-Councilor Richard Skorman, never expecting a response. But Skorman wrote right back. Snider began writing more Councilors, then volunteering for city boards and commissions.
Now Snider is a Councilor himself. And just as his path to office has been deliberate, Snider says he'll take his time making decisions. To start, he wants to adjust to his surroundings.
"One of my first goals is to get to know the other Council members better," Snider says.
Cohesion is important to Snider, who says the group must present a united front to achieve its goals. As for what those goals might be ... Snider, for the most part, hasn't decided.
Should election laws be rewritten? Maybe.
Should medical marijuana be regulated further? He's not sure.
Snider does think Memorial should be a private nonprofit, but says the city must be paid for its asset, and those details have to be hammered out. Similarly, Snider wants Utilities governed by a professional board — hardly surprising, given that Snider once sat on a charter review committee that recommended the same.
"The more you learn, the more awesome the responsibility is, and the more you think, 'Why the heck am I making these decisions?'" he says of Council overseeing Utilities. "I would like to spend my time on strategic planning, and dealing with constituents, and let the professionals deal with Utilities."
Snider also says the city must find ways to grow arts, culture, parks and transit, to fuel economic growth.
Brandy Williams, 33, 2-year term
To Williams, it's a simple equation: Identify the issues, create goal-based solutions, and make sure you have enough trust and buy-in from citizens.
A civil engineer, Williams believes in logic and process. But she also realizes that all the logic in the world won't save city government if it can't win over your constituents.
Take the Stormwater Enterprise. Given her career choice, Williams has a special understanding of how essential it is to fund stormwater needs. It's not just the problems now, she says, it's the problems we'll have in the future as water-quality regulations become more stringent and infrastructure continues to deteriorate.
But Williams says Council charted an inadvisable course, creating the now-defunct enterprise and charging a "fee" — sidestepping the requirement to ask voters for a new tax. That fueled anger toward city government, Williams says, and that anger increased when the Stormwater Enterprise bought new vehicles right away.
"[Was] that the best use of our money?" Williams questions.
Mad about Stormwater, distrustful voters defeated unrelated tax-increase proposals before killing the new enterprise at the ballot box. But the trust issue didn't start with Stormwater, Williams says, and it hasn't ended there. Trust erodes every time the city can't follow through on promises.
Take the city's drainage basin fund, which is meant to reimburse developers who build drainage infrastructure as a part of their projects. Despite good intentions, it has been, uh, drained, and is now $16 million in the hole. When voters don't trust government, Williams says, they're wary of tax increases, unless they are dedicated or "stovepipe" taxes with specific parameters.
That can be problematic. A recent study has proposed expanding regional bus service. Williams says she's all for more bus service, but a dedicated tax would mean that if the city ever went into another recession, it couldn't legally borrow from Peter to pay Paul (or borrow from transit to pay cops and firefighters).
"Until you have leadership people trust," she says, "you're stuck with the stovepipe."
To start restoring trust, Williams says, Council can rewrite election laws that confused her and other candidates, and create laws allowing Council to hire its own staff and attorney, so that the separation of government branches is clear and conflicts are avoided. She adds that Council should find ways to help businesses grow. As she puts it, "Let's just throw all the crazy ideas at the wall and see which one sticks."
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