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Between the Lines

Mayor Lionel Rivera could not hide his relief, along with a noticeable tinge of smugness, after learning Monday afternoon that the city's Independent Ethics Commission had dismissed conflict-of-interest allegations against him related to the city's dealings with the U.S. Olympic Committee and LandCo developer Ray Marshall.

It's been a rocky year for Colorado Springs' top elected official — and it's not over yet, with another stormy budget season dead ahead.

Rivera had to withstand a more immediate barrage Tuesday, as City Council heard from constituents opposing the revised agreement to keep the USOC here for at least three more decades. That controversy, with its hefty annual (debt-service) price tag and all its naysayers, certainly didn't go away because the mayor had just prevailed in his personal challenge.

But the charges of ethical violations, if verified, could have made it difficult for Rivera to finish his second and final term in office.

To his credit, Rivera assured City Council all along — even when pushed hard about it privately — that he had done nothing wrong. It's also worth nothing that, unlike many elected officials facing similar circumstances, Rivera did not retain a high-priced attorney (or any attorney, for that matter) to argue his case.

In the end, the commission's report totally cleared Rivera. And yes, the mayor displayed that "smug" reaction as he chastised the media for jumping to conclusions and pre-judging him. He probably was including this column, which on June 18 provided a list of pressing questions for Rivera, such as whether he might have had a conflict of interest in stopping an earlier effort to move the USOC headquarters to the north side, near Interstate 25 and Interquest Parkway.

Granted, that was in 2007, and the ethics commission wasn't required to look back more than 12 months before the complaint filed on May 4. So that question, along with some others, remains unanswered.

It also would help if Rivera would admit publicly that he should have handled at least one matter differently. In the fall of 2007, as the wheels were turning toward LandCo Equity Partners winning the USOC sweepstakes, Marshall was the one who requested that Rivera stop handling Marshall's investment accounts with UBS Financial Services.

Why didn't Rivera make that suggestion first, long before Marshall did? And how much more time might have passed before Rivera made the suggestion himself? From this view, that might have qualified as an "appearance of impropriety," enough to warrant some kind of sanction. Even if Rivera didn't exercise wrongful influence in other ways.

Nobody is saying that the Independent Ethics Commission erred in its conclusion. But these past few months showed us that the city's framework for dealing with ethical questions is flawed. The commission only had two available members after one, Jan Doran, recused herself. Commissions like these always should be of an odd number, to guard against deadlocks. More significantly, the commission did almost all its work in secret, when the public and even City Councilors were hoping for much more transparency.

Also, the final timing came across as a little too ... convenient. At its special meeting on Friday, July 31, City Council clearly wanted to know the ethics commission outcome before voting Tuesday, Aug. 11, on the revamped Olympic deal. Voila, the commission's nine-page report came through Monday, just in time.

Rivera still has 20 months remaining as mayor — unless, of course, he runs for county commission next year and wins. Regardless, the final verdict on his tenure as mayor is far from decided, and the 2010 budget lurks as a minefield that could seriously erode Colorado Springs' quality of life. The rising quandary cries out for strong leaders who can make convincing arguments to sway people into realizing the full extent of the fiscal disaster that could strike our city government next year.

If nothing changes on that front (such as a possible property tax increase in the November election), people won't remember Lionel Rivera as the mayor who survived an ethics challenge.

Instead, they'll remember him as being at the helm when the Titanic went down.

routon@csindy.com

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