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The other election: City Council 

It's the spectacle du jour: Money, newsprint, nine candidates (so far) and the promise of name-calling and mud-slinging.

But the race to become Colorado Springs' first "strong mayor" may be distracting voters from other big decisions ahead, like filling seven of nine City Council seats.

"I hope that the general populace out there realizes the importance of City Council," says El Paso County commissioner and former City Councilor Sallie Clark. "I think that there has been a great focus on the mayor's race, but I hope we don't forget that there's a City Council that's integral."

Under the new governmental system, which will go into effect in spring or early summer (depending on whether the city needs a mayoral runoff), the mayor will be the city's chief executive, with the city manager position eliminated. The new mayor will appoint the city clerk, city attorney, municipal judges, chief financial officer, city treasurer, police chief, fire chief, city department and airport heads, city department managers, and his own chief of staff and cabinet. He will have the right to unilaterally fire city employees. He will be able to veto almost anything City Council passes, and line-item veto any financial item. And he will enforce contracts and ordinances.

Which begs the question: Why should you care?

Well, because a huge amount of power still rests with the legislative arm of our city. Right now, only two sitting Councilors — Bernie Herpin and Scott Hente — are definitely remaining in their seats. Sean Paige is running for an at-large spot, and Jan Martin has said she'll do the same. But even if all four incumbents serve, they will be in the minority.

Which means new faces will have a chance to change our city in fundamental ways. Here are our Top 10 reasons why Council still matters.

1. It's the Utilities Board and regulatory agency. This year, the city is operating on a $358 million total budget, around a third of Utilities' $1 billion budget.

City Councilors, who typically have no training in the Utilities business, must approve a reasonable Utilities budget; invest in good projects while avoiding money pits; set fair rates for gas, electric, water and wastewater; and hire and manage a competent Utilities CEO.

It's been sort of a side job for Councilors. But with a strong mayor in place, sitting Councilors say they expect Council to focus more on Utilities, and that could have big impacts.

For instance, a new Council could eliminate a major project like Southern Delivery System, or fire CEO Jerry Forte, or cut all Utilities salaries and pass on the savings to ratepayers.

Hente, by the way, says deciding rates isn't just a rubber-stamp process: "I consider everything."

2. Council approves and marks up the budget. Yes, the strong mayor will write the budget. But not much will change from the current system in which the city manager writes the budget, then hands it off to Council. Once the mayor finishes his budget, Council will review it and make changes.

"Budget is probably the No. 1," Martin says. "We saw that last year, as we made all those difficult cuts."

Rely on the bus? Love your neighborhood park? Want your street snowplowed? Council can still help (or hurt) you with that.

The only real difference under the new system is that the mayor can line-item veto Council's budget changes. However, Council can override vetoes if it can lasso six votes. Which brings us to our next point.

3. Council can overcome a veto. The mayor may look like he's in charge, but a bit of Council unity can make the mayor little more than a figurehead on many issues. Today, five votes are need to pass anything through Council. Soon, Council will need six votes. And it's rare for Council to have contentious votes. Even on sensitive matters, a consensus is often reached.

Herpin says unity hasn't been difficult for the current Council.

"Even with Tom [Gallagher] and Sean [Paige] being kind of obstinate, and [Vice Mayor] Larry Small [who] can be obstinate some times, we've worked pretty well together," Herpin says. "And we've had some tough issues to tackle in this last year: SDS, the Memorial [Health System] Commission, dealing with medical marijuana."

4. It has sole authority over land-use issues. "Land use" doesn't exactly sound like the stuff of political battles, but don't be fooled. "Land use probably brings out more people to Council than any other issues discussed," Martin says.

Don't want that monstrous McMansion in your middle-class neighborhood? That's land use. Don't want a gas station and toxic fumes next to the backyard where your kids play? Land use.

5. Only Council sends questions to the ballot. City Attorney Pat Kelly says Colorado law dictates only legislative bodies can refer an item for an electoral vote.

Since petitioning an issue onto a ballot is arduous at best (expensive at worst), convincing Council to refer something to the ballot is the preferable way to change local laws. Council exercises great power by deciding to put an issue to voters, or not. This year, Council decided not to ask voters whether to outlaw medical marijuana dispensaries.

6. Council is the law-making body. While the mayor can approve or veto ordinances, only Council can write them. Council has outlawed homeless camps in creekbeds, made it illegal to panhandle aggressively, and allowed traffic cameras to ID red-light runners.

"The creation of laws is one of the biggest things that government does that influences people's lives," Martin notes.

7. Consider commissions and committees. The city has 49 major citizen commissions and committees that act as expert advisers to Council. Council appoints and then leans heavily on its boards in its decision-making, such as: Public Safety Sales Tax Oversight Committee, Sustainable Funding Committee, city Planning Commission, Independent Ethics Commission, ownership and governance of Memorial Health System, Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and the Liquor and Beer Licensing Board.

Sound familiar?

"The liquor board operates completely independent of City Council," Clark notes. "The boards and commissions are not only feedback, but in some cases they're making very important decisions."

8. Council controls Memorial Health System if it's city-owned. Memorial may become a private nonprofit, or be sold to the highest bidder. But if nothing changes, Council will still be responsible. Since the strong mayor will have no power over the hospital, Council must make sure the system continues to run in an efficient, cost-effective manner. And it will direct Memorial on navigating changes in health care law.

9. District Councilors remain champions of neighborhoods. Let's say you live on the north side and want more bus routes. You need an advocate — your district councilor.

Four district councilors represent their quadrants of the city, while the other five represent the city as a whole. District councilors have special interest in their sections. They'll advocate for your fire station, or improvements to your roads and parks. And that brings us to one more point ...

10. Councilors are citizens' main point-of-contact. With the mayor deciding the city's future, he's probably not going to hear about your annoying neighbor's new fence. But you can show up to a Council meeting and be heard.

stanley@csindy.com

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