Tim Leigh's two-year stint on the Colorado Springs City Council was, shall we say, interesting.
Leigh's not quite a tea party conservative — he flirted with the idea that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya — nor is he a doctrinaire libertarian. Call him a results-oriented communitarian, a big-government liberal who opposes big government, a free-market guru who occasionally supports massive market intervention, or an older guy (not really, at 57) who thinks like a 25-year-old, or a quote machine for reporters ... he's all that and more.
It didn't take long for Leigh to make powerful enemies. He became a scathing critic of Utilities, contending that executives of the municipally owned enterprise had made an irresponsible (even criminal, he alleged) $100 million bet on unproven pollution control technology for the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant. Utilities managers pooh-poohed his allegations, as did the contractor, Colorado Springs-based Neumann Systems.
At first, it was just another arcane discussion about smokestack emissions, available technology and federal mandates. It soon became heated and personal. Leigh wouldn't back down, demanding that the Neumann contract be suspended and that Council determine whether it might make more sense to shut down Drake.
Believing that Leigh had deliberately targeted his company for destruction, Dave Neumann responded to a perceived existential threat by charging Leigh with multiple ethics violations. Utilities officials vigorously defended themselves against allegations of impropriety, the anti-Drake campaign lost momentum as threats of a Sierra Club lawsuit evaporated, and Mayor Steve Bach reversed field on Drake, claiming he had never sought to close it.
But in the April city election, Leigh was toast. Painted as an ethically challenged scoundrel who wanted to tear down Drake, make money from the real estate and stick ratepayers with the bill, Leigh didn't have a chance. The coal industry and a CSU employee political action committee targeted him, and he lost the District 1 race resoundingly to newcomer Don Knight.
Months later, the city's sluggish ethics commission completely absolved Leigh of wrongdoing. It was a day late and more than a dollar short; Leigh's brief political career was over, his reputation stained, and his wallet $20,000 lighter thanks to legal fees. Yet, surprisingly, he seems to view the whole episode with resigned amusement. Our discussion focused entirely on today's city politics, not yesterday's, such as why Bach and Council are so visibly at loggerheads, just three months after six new Councilors took office.
"I don't think that anybody who hasn't been elected understands the dynamic," Leigh says. "When you get there, there's a certain amount of ego, especially if you're agenda-driven. You have some power today that you didn't have yesterday, and you don't want to give it up."
How does the business community feel about the infighting?
"This is a subject that's talked about, believe me," he says. "I think there's some surprise that he doesn't get on with Keith [King, new Council president]. Things might run a lot more smoothly with an accommodating mayor, but Bach wasn't elected to be accommodating. He was elected to make changes, and he's made a lot of them. Still, he should have put Council in the loop on the Regional Tourism Act — just sent [senior economic vitality specialist] Aimee Cox over to give 'em a confidential briefing."
Why didn't Bach do that? Leigh hesitates.
"My sense is that the mayor has no respect for Council, and vice versa," he says. "But it's not an equal fight, because the mayor has access to information from his staff, from private groups such as the City Committee, and from off-the-record discussions with community leaders that aren't available to Council. Council's screwed. Bach has the edge."
What about the Kum & Go planned adjacent to Old Colorado City?
"It'll be a sad day for Colorado Springs if this goes ahead," Leigh says. "Can they get any less sensitive to neighborhood uses? Why, when we have this really cool destination, are we sending a message: We're a convenience store market? This is an industrial use. It's not community. It's a few people making fast money."
Doesn't Goodwill have the right to market to the highest and best use?
"They overpriced it," Leigh says. "That's why it didn't sell."
That's typical Tim Leigh, always with an answer.