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The pros and cons of a strong mayor for Colorado Springs 

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Con: Let's slow down

The League of Women Voters of the Pikes Peak Region is concerned over the current, vague proposal to change the form of the Colorado Springs city government. Rushing such a complex, important change to the November 2010 ballot invites errors. We are convinced this proposal is not a quick fix to city problems.

The League, committed to transparency and efficiency in government, has studied the efficacy of our current situation. Our consensus position: "Support the council-manager form of government as the form best-suited to serve the citizens of Colorado Springs, because this form is more businesslike, efficient, responsive and less susceptible to graft and political influence than other forms of government."

The League has added a caveat calling for "the provision of clearly published criteria for choosing the city manager and the continued need to monitor its workability."

The turn of the 20th century was known for corruption and graft in local government. The council-manager concept was developed to prevent recurrence of city-hall scandals. In 1920, Colorado Springs amended its charter to set up this "cleaner" form of government.

Under this plan, the mayor and Council provided vision and leadership to the city. Council also employed a professionally trained city manager to provide executive functions to city government relatively free from local politics and to lend professional management skills and stability to the day-to-day functioning of our local government. The city manager provided administration at the direction of the Council and mayor.

In the beginning, City Council elected a mayor from its membership. The mayor and City Council were unpaid volunteers.

Since 1975 the mayor has been elected by popular vote, creating a hybrid form of council-manager with a stronger mayor. In 1995 a charter amendment provided for a $6,250 stipend to Council members and the mayor. The mayor has a voice and a vote, but no veto. The mayor presides at Council meetings, serves as official head of city government, supervises execution of legal documents, represents the city at ceremonial occasions, and may take command of police and military in cases of emergency.

Council-manager is a form of government employed by 58 percent of U.S. cities with populations greater than 100,000 — including Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Charlotte, N.C.

A major change in governmental structure is a complex issue. Time and effort are needed to study the type and scope of changes. There should be time for public education through forums and public debate so electors can understand the importance, scope and details of proposed changes. People are not likely to, and should not, support a government formed by sweeping changes they don't understand.

In addition, this is a city issue and should be considered only in an April municipal election, not competing with numerous, complex county and state issues in a November general election.

The devil of any proposal is in the details, and the "strong mayor" proposal is no exception. Just how strong would we want to make the mayor, and which powers would we wish to remove from City Council? Do we want a system like that in Denver, with a strong mayor and weak Council? Denver's mayor can award any contract up to $500,000 without Council approval; submit a budget to Council in which no line item can be changed without a two-thirds vote; and appoint department heads, boards and commissions without affirmation. Any vetoes require a two-thirds vote of Council to override.

What will be the cost of this new system? Pueblo's proposal, which failed to pass in 2009, would have awarded the mayor an annual salary of approximately $100,000. Would Council members wish to become full-time city employees, too? In Denver, each Councilperson receives $220,000 for salary, office expenses and staffing costs.

Certainly much of our city government's crisis traces to budget problems resulting from the economic recession and exacerbated by TABOR complications. Our present budget problems will not go away, no matter what the form of government. In fact, they'll probably get worse before they get better.

The League believes good government at any level is dependent upon leadership, vision, skill, honesty and transparency. Structural changes should be made very openly with care and debate, and eyes open for any unintended consequences.

Jane Merritt is a board member of the League of Women Voters of the Pikes Peak Region. For more, contact the League at 447-9400 or lwvppr.org.


Pro: Time for change

A full-time mayor, accountable directly to voters, as the leader for Colorado Springs.

Why change?

Our city is at a crossroads. We have a unique opportunity to move our community forward; to make a change that will allow us to elect a leader who, with a majority of voter support, will have the tools and ability to implement a vision for the future of our community. Many think the mayor already does that, but he is only one of nine City Council members.

Colorado Springs is a city of almost 400,000 people, the 47th most populous in the country. Nearly two-thirds of the 50 most populous cities have a council-mayor form of government, with an elected full-time mayor as chief executive and council as the legislative branch. It's a system with clear accountability directly to voters, and one better able to respond to change.

Why now?

Most would agree that what we have now is not working. Difficult financial times have exposed a system unable to react quickly and creatively to new challenges. Our most recent city manager, here barely two years, abandoned the position in frustration. Our current mayor is term-limited; next year we will elect a replacement and a majority of new Councilors as well. This moment is uniquely suited for voters to decide whether a systemic change is advantageous.

Who is working on this?

Citizens for Accountable Leadership, a broad-based community coalition, has brought forward the idea that a new system of government is worth asking voters to consider in November 2010.

Why a full-time mayor?

A full-time mayor will have expanded ability to make and implement decisions in line with a vision for the city, articulated to and chosen by a majority of voters. The mayor won't be burdened with making a living at a different job; working full-time for the citizens will be a welcome change.

The mayor will better represent our city to other levels of government and will better assist in economic development activities for our community's prosperity. The system will improve our ability to respond to challenges and opportunities. Voters will have the ability to hold a single leader accountable for implementing the vision they voted for.

The future is full of opportunity if we are able to better manage the inevitable change. This one idea, put forth to voters for discussion and debate, is an important step in creating a more resourceful and successful community. It will provide a working foundation for other ideas for changing our government.

What could it look like?

A full-time, elected mayor would lead the city's executive branch. City Council would remain the legislative body, with potentially expanded powers to approve department heads proposed by the mayor, and to give more input into rules guiding how the city does business, and it would still approve the budget. Council could continue to oversee all matters pertaining to Colorado Springs Utilities and Memorial Hospital System.

The mayor, who might make less than half the previous city manager's salary, will propose the budget and have line-item veto power subject to Council's override. The system would encourage visionary leadership with appropriate checks and balances.

The November election presents an opportunity to debate and decide what kind of government our community really wants to take us into the future. The pivotal election of April 2011 will bring change for our city; it should be change designed to face the future's unique, fast-moving challenges.

A strong-mayor system will allow voters to elect a visionary, accountable leader who can decisively make the right decisions for our government, citizens and city employees. An opportunity to elect a leader who is accountable to you!

Moving our community forward with the election of a full-time leader is a simple change, one that takes Colorado Springs from an unelected manager to a full-time, accountable, visionary mayor.

Many in our city believe change is inevitable and needed now. We invite you to join this grassroots community effort in a discussion of this idea. Review the details and let us know what you think in a town-hall format online at our website, springsaccountabilitynow.org; and on our Facebook page; and, most especially, in the debate and discussion that will precede the November election.

McElhany, McNally and Murphy are the spokespersons of Citizens for Accountable Leadership, the campaign for a strong mayor government. For more, call 331-5480 or go to springsaccountabilitynow.org.

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