Clock ticking for Bach 

City Sage

Remember "Hope & Change"? No, not the one you're thinking of, but the 2011 Colorado Springs version.

We were about to elect the city's first strong mayor, and things were going to change. The new mayor, whether Steve Bach or Richard Skorman, would be able to cut through the city's ossified bureaucracy, energize the disillusioned citizenry, and revivify our decaying, disconsolate city.

Imagine it! City government no longer would be a hall of mirrors, a rickety funhouse where no one was accountable, no one was in control, and no one was responsible for anything. Elected officials might as well have been street mimes: attending meetings, expressing opinions and casting meaningless votes.

The mayor would make decisions. He'd be the go-to guy. Council's petty quarrels would disappear from the news. Within a year, we'd see some changes.

It's been nearly a year, and we're still waiting. Council is still quarrelsome, dysfunctional, and great copy, while city government seems as plodding and unimaginative as ever.

Half a dozen senior city officials have quit or been shown the door, but their successors have yet to gain much traction. The administration has enlisted dozens of high-powered volunteers for so-called "solutions teams," which have yet to solve much of anything.

Didn't the new form of government change things? Or is Mayor Bach just not doing his job?

Consider the hand he was dealt. The rewritten charter was sold to voters in 2010 as changing the form of government to a strong-mayor system — but that's not what we have.

Ours is an odd coupling of two opposite systems. Bill Maher and Sarah Palin? Rachel Maddow and James Dobson? Some couples just wouldn't work.

The mayor gets a nice office, a generous paycheck and the power to manage city operations. But he has no authority over Colorado Springs Utilities or Memorial Health System. Those operations dwarf city government, yet City Council controls both. Council also retains control over land-use decisions, which are not subject to mayoral vetoes.

This irrational division of power, which gives a body of nine essentially unpaid volunteers more executive authority than the city's CEO, might have been designed to create conflict.

We've seen Bach try, without much success, to extend his writ to Utilities and Memorial. We've seen Council characterize a petty dispute over funding tennis courts as an underhanded power grab by a scheming mayor. And now we have the signature moment: Robert Shonkwiler vs. Brandy Williams!

Shonkwiler spent months analyzing the transit system, came up with thoughtful recommendations, and expected to be thanked, not subjected to an unfriendly grilling. In asking Shonkwiler whether he'd ridden on the transit system he so extensively analyzed, Williams was pitch-perfect. She showed herself to be concerned with those who must rely on public transit, not just looking to cut costs and find operating efficiencies. Shonkwiler's response ("None of your business!") sent the media into a delighted frenzy.

It's Rashomon. Did a crusty, arrogant Bach crony disrespect a bright young Councilor? Or did a scheming young politician disrespect a wise elder giving selflessly of his time to help his city?

Neither. What we saw was a clash of cultures.

Council is used to the slow rhythms and rituals of city government, not the jangly, competitive impatience of the private sector.

Does Bach want advice? Tell him to listen to civic-minded volunteers on scores of boards and commissions. Does he want to get things done? Tell him to learn how the city really works, and stop spouting meaningless slogans.

This clash won't go away, and will likely intensify. It's taken Bach a year to understand city government and get his team in place. Now it's time for action.

Slogans such as making Colorado Springs "the most business-friendly city in America" may sound like meaningless political verbiage, but wait until the mayor's private-sector hires start implementing the changes that slogan requires. And don't be surprised to see drastic proposals for restructuring city government in the 2013 budget.

Bach's almost 70 — he's not going to wait for a decade or two to get things done. As someone from Bach's administration told me the other day: "John, you remember the word drag-ass? It's what we used to call people who just wouldn't do anything. We're getting rid of the drag-asses."

But turnover alone won't solve the city's problems. Only changes will.


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