Asked about her service, Jan Martin pulls out a battered business card — the one she's carried since running for City Council in 2007.
"Vote for Jan Martin," it reads, "because Jan can • reach beyond the status quo • invigorate economic development • promote civic engagement • advocate for our arts and culture."
Martin, who left office Tuesday after being term-limited at eight years of service, says she always tried to stay true to those goals, along with two others: promoting sustainable energy for Colorado Springs Utilities, and increasing funding for the city bus system.
Along the way, Martin racked up community awards and was popular at the polls. But it was no fairy tale. She notes that her first term on Council was ruled by an economic downturn, and her second by a tumultuous change of government. She didn't get Utilities on the sustainable path she hoped to, or see a big increase in transit funding.
"I didn't accomplish as much — you always come in, you're going to change the world," she says. "But I have to believe ... that I was right where I was supposed to be at this time."
Martin says she may volunteer for a city project in the future — maybe advocating for an increase in city councilor pay or helping to recreate a Citizens Academy (a program that teaches citizens and future city leaders about city government). She also has agreed to be on three nonprofit boards and may add more. But overall, she's ready to be less involved.
During her time on Council, her days often began at 4:30 a.m., when she'd read newspapers and do any needed work for the classes she teaches at the University of Phoenix. (She long ago gave up her computer systems business due to Council demands.) She'd respond to what could be a hundred emails, and might be in meetings and events from morning until night.
"It's been heart-and-soul giving for me for eight years," she says. "I wouldn't have had it any other way. And I'm leaving with a sense of, 'I did the best I could.' So I have no regrets, and it will go down as one of the highlights of my life."
We asked Martin to discuss her time on Council and her thoughts on the future of the city; below are excerpts.
Indy: There's a lot of talk on Council about what the public wants. How do you know what they want?
Martin: I think you don't know unless you're engaged with the public ... both ends of the spectrum have extreme views and the trick is to learn how to — this is the approach I took — was to sort of muffle those a little bit so that you could hear the general conversation. Because sometimes the extremes are so loud and sort of screaming at you that it's hard to not just hear them.
You were very involved with [locally founded solar company] SunShare.
I've worked hard to sort of nudge Utilities into a more sustainable future, which included renewables. And so when [SunShare owner] David [Amster-Olszewski] came to me for SunShare, it was just a natural fit. It was also still part of the whole economic development goal that I had because I saw the potential that his company had ... we had some control because of a locally owned utility to actually make that happen. And we did, as you know, become the first [community] solar garden in the nation.
There was some lost opportunity there, too. Did that surprise you?
It disappointed me. I'll never forget the day the [Regional Business Alliance] came to a Utilities meeting as we were going to expand the program and told us not to — that we should just wait six months and see how it goes. And I remember being so discouraged that day that our own economic development people couldn't see the potential in this organization.
And you can't tell a small business to wait six months and see how it goes. They can't afford to do that. So you have to move when the opportunity presents itself.
I don't think our business community ever saw the potential that I did. And it's proved to be true now. [SunShare has] moved to Denver and is just flourishing. They've opened a second business in [Minnesota].
Is there regret? Has anyone come to you and said ...
Never. Never. It didn't fall in the traditional mold. And yet, like I said, it had all the pieces. David was a recent [Colorado College] graduate, we owned our Utilities that could offer this opportunity, and the potential was significant — they sold out that first garden in [82 days] ...
I remember not long after the RBA came and said don't expand it, it was like a week later they called and asked for photos of the solar garden for their brochure for potential people coming to Colorado Springs. It was like, they didn't support it, but they wanted to use it to show how progressive Colorado Springs was. I mean, it just frustrated the daylights out of me.
Is the charter sufficient to enable the legislative body?
I still don't think we know what that means. I don't think we're clear on what the role of the legislative body is. We've had 12, count 'em 12 ... new Council members over the last four years — the first four years of Bach's term. And new people were just not in a position — they just spend two years trying to sort out their job ... I hope they do spend some time trying to look at that ...
You know, [Council President] Keith King came in and was gonna create this whole legislative agenda that just fell flatter than a pancake. So we spent a lot of time working through that, which went nowhere, and we're kind of back to square one again.
What gets lost in all this confusion?
We tend to just play defense. All we're doing is trying to defend things that come our way, or fight against them ... I'm not sure I could name — particularly in the last couple of years — a single initiative that really came from Council.
What are the pros and cons of the new form of government?
I think there's potential. You know, [Mayor Steve] Bach really did come in with a very clear agenda to keep Council out of the loop. That's part of the reason that Council has never found their legs as far as what they can accomplish. I described it as, we were literally set out on an island outside of the city government, left there with no staff, no support and no effort to include us in decisions for the city. So that's made it really difficult.
But if you look going forward and you look at a new executive, mayor, who wants to engage Council and wants Council to be a part of the decision-making process and the strategic-planning process, I think that there's some good things that we can accomplish.
I think the new form of government was a direct result of — I don't know what to call them, the business community, I guess — being tired of having to work with nine people to get a decision. And they felt that if they only had one person, it would just be much easier. What I found — because I worked in both systems — is the truth is the diversity of opinion of nine made really good decisions, versus one person making those decisions.
How much more power do moneyed interests have now?
Oh, gosh. [Laughs.]
I mean the business community.
I didn't know what to call them either. They have a lot more influence than the general public will ever understand. ... As we've seen in this election, they will spend whatever it takes to get their person elected.
Do they expect something back?
I think they expect an open-door policy.
Some people feel there are specific agreements ahead of time. Like City for Champions. Here you had powerful people who owned a lot of land downtown that they had been sitting on for many years. For a long time, they had been saying they needed an anchor to develop it — maybe a convention center. The business community spent money to get the system of government changed and to get Bach elected, and what do you know? We now have two anchors planned for that area, and developers don't have to pay for them. It does raise eyebrows.
I don't think those deals are made ahead of time. Maybe I'm naive, but I do believe no one would run for office in this town who didn't believe they could make a difference or want to accomplish some things. Because it's not easy to run here.
Of course you were running for an office that pays $6,250 a year.
Versus the mayor which is [around] $100,000 a year. I believe even — I know both of the candidates in the [mayoral] runoff, and I genuinely believe there have been no back-room deals made. But it does buy access ...
It is one of my takeaways, is the power and influence of money in this community. And for someone who started from a grassroots campaign, it's been hard for me to watch that. That's why I will continue to encourage citizens to get engaged.
What are the biggest problems facing the city and what can Council do about them?
I think it's become very clear in the last four years that the city does not have, is not generating enough revenue, to provide the services that the citizens expect. It's just a given.
My least favorite [phrase] today is "efficient government." If I hear it one more time, I'm going to scream. Because everyone who comes into office, everybody who doesn't like government, they all talk about, "You're not efficient enough, you need to be more efficient." Well, in my time, we have laid off something like over 300, 400 city employees to where we were before. People are doing more with less and are working their hearts out for this community, and yet the citizens keep saying, "Do more, do more."
You ran a tax once.
I did. It failed miserably. But the timing was tough then, too, because it was right after the downturn. But here's a great story that happened during that time.
We had turned a third of the streetlights off and I was at a meeting where the public really complained. So the city started an adopt-a-streetlight program ... if you had a light in front of your house and you wanted it on, you could pay the city [$75] and have it on.
And I had a guy come to me after a meeting one day and say, "I just want to thank you for the adopt-a-streetlight program. I was able to turn three streetlights back on in my neighborhood, and I just thank you for the opportunity."
And I looked at him and I said, "Well, do you remember that tax thing we did a few months ago?" And he said, "Oh, yeah." And I said, "Well, for the average homeowner for that tax thing, it would have increased the average property taxes of an average-priced home between $150 and $200 a year. So for $200 a year you could have had it all. You could have had the additional police officers; you could have had the better parks; you could have had the swimming pools; you could have had the streetlights." And I said, "So if you would have voted for that, everything would have been OK."
And he looked at me and he said, "Well, I'd never support a tax increase."
But that story said so much to me of what the mentality is. I'm willing to pay more for my own than I am willing to pay for the community good. And that's a mentality you have to overcome, and you have to do it with a campaign that explains to people how when we share our resources, how much more we can accomplish.
You think people are more open to a tax now?
I think they're very open. Between the floods last year and the potholes this winter, I think people are ready.
I think a lot of people believe there is a ton of money in the city.
We used to joke that people think that there's all these hidden cookie jars in the city, and you just go to your cookie jar and you can provide another service. And the truth is there are no cookie jars.
People think if we had recreational marijuana [retail stores] it would solve our problems. Would it?
No. It certainly wouldn't hurt. I think with medical marijuana, I think we get somewhere between $2 million and $3 million a year [editor's note: It's actually less than $2 million in license fees and taxes] ... recreational marijuana, let's just say it's double that. Let's just say it brings in $5 million a year. Well, $5 million a year isn't going to fix our streets.
What should councilors do before they run for office?
It used to be, Council members worked their way up to Council ... They were on boards, they worked with nonprofits on projects, they were engaged in the political process, where they knew who the players were and they just had a sense of who the community was ...
In the two previous elections, we hired people who had not worked their way up to Council, who had just had a whim to run and ran and got elected. And it's taken them two years to really grasp who the community is ...
We had some young professionals in this last election who were terrific ... We need to take those young people and start plugging them in.
What are your greatest fears for the city?
[Laughs.] The Gazette. I know that sounds terrible. But it truly is.
My biggest concern is that our newspaper, where we get the majority of our news and the majority of our self-worth, I worry that they are going to continue to mix opinion with news and start reporting opinion as news. And to me that's no different than MSNBC or FOX News, and that scares me, that that could become the voice of our city.