Colorado Springs City Council: Choices for the future 

How important is the value of incumbency for the Colorado Springs City Council? How influential is active support for certain candidates from powerful entities on behalf of the business community? What issues stand out as reasonable litmus tests in contested races? How much could a reshaped group of elected representatives transform our local government, given that the “strong mayor” structure makes that person the unquestioned chief executive of Colorado Springs?

Those questions help frame this 2017 municipal election and the Independent’s endorsements, with all six Council district seats on the ballot. (The three at-large members — Merv Bennett, Tom Strand and Bill Murray — were elected in 2015, and those positions come up again in 2019 along with the mayor.) The unsettling part of this format is that voters could create an all-new majority of Council rookies on April 4, if the four competing incumbents were to lose.

We’ll definitely have two new faces on the nine-member Council, as Keith King (District 3) and Larry Bagley (District 2) decided not to seek another four-year term. We were especially sad to see Bagley go, because his common-sense demeanor and many involvements made a difference. The lack of candidates for that seat was alarming, enough that we hoped Bagley might reconsider pursuing re-election by the filing deadline.

It turns out that only one person filed in District 2, attorney-turned-chaplain Dave Geislinger, so he’s actually guaranteed to win. But we still interviewed Geislinger, along with candidates in other districts, so we could offer our best assessments along with endorsing those whom we see as best for the city.

During the process, we talked in depth with candidates about the ongoing issue of Colorado Springs Utilities governance, thinking that might guide our conclusions. The responses literally filled the spectrum, from those wanting no changes to others preferring the CSU board to be separate — elected, appointed or a hybrid. Clearly, the business community led by Colorado Springs Forward and the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs wants Utilities off Council’s plate and governed instead by a mayor-appointed board. But that’s a tall order to pull off in six separate district races, with each voter only affecting one outcome.

Obviously, the slate backed by CSF and HBA — Greg Basham (1), Chuck Fowler (3), Deborah Hendrix (4), Lynette Crow-Iverson (5) and Andy Pico (6) — could create a new majority and change Utilities’ governance. But Council did agree by 8-1 vote in June 2016 to a five-year timeout before revisiting the question again, so reversing that would not be easy. Especially with four of those five (except Pico) facing difficult races. For voters who see this as a power-grab, the Utilities issue could be a deciding factor.

We’re just as concerned about whether several prominent candidates, fully involved with their own businesses, realistically have the time needed to serve effectively on Council, given the demands of the current structure. (Former Councilor Jan Martin, who served from 2007-2015, says that by her second term, necessary commitments and appointments were filling every weekday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) If we come away with multiple new Councilors who don’t have as much time for the job, that would be detrimental to the city.

So we thank all the candidates for making the effort to serve, and we also implore each city resident to study your district race, as well as the three ballot issues we've already endorsed and, of course, to cast your vote.

The better the turnout, the better your collective decisions will be.

click to enlarge Don Knight - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Don Knight

District 1

Don Knight won this seat in 2013 on the strength of a strong background in military and space systems, technology and budgeting. The retired Air Force colonel, now 62, admits he has micro-managed at times, “and I’m proud of that,” imploring city staff for more information and questioning decisions. With another term, he hopes to continue pushing for “how staff brings a package to us,” wanting pros and cons for different options instead of one recommendation with reasons to support it.

Knight’s expertise has helped considerably as he has headed the budget committees for both the city and Utilities. As a retiree, he confirms “this is a full-time job,” but he wishes Council members could earn half the mayor’s salary to attract younger candidates. But he’s not sure the city can afford that, showing his constant realism.

He’s all in for Issue 2, asking residents for TABOR excess revenues to go for stormwater projects. He also would prefer sending a LART (Lodgers and Automobile Rentals Tax) increase to the ballot when the time is right, “but it’s not polling well now.” He’s fine with medical marijuana but opposes the city allowing sales of recreational pot, and he wonders why the city hasn’t been tougher on marijuana clubs.

That comfortable awareness of issues and priorities drives home the point that being an incumbent does carry weight. His opponent, Greg Basham, refuses to discredit Knight, praising his military service as well as his time on Council.

Basham, 54, says he’d change the energy level to “moving at the speed of business, not politics,” and he’s critical of how slowly Council and staff have operated, “wasting 18 months on decisions that could have been done in two weeks.” He insists the city must move more quickly to take advantage of the healthy economy before that window closes.

Our main concern with Basham is that he still plans to run his window business, which will be time-consuming. Asked about how being on Council would affect him, he says, “You’re going to cut into some of my mountain bike time, for sure.” And he’s convinced the city should run more like a business (we remember former Mayor Steve Bach saying that), which often isn’t the realistic route.

We like Basham and hope he’ll try again in the future, perhaps for an at-large seat. But it’s hard to minimize the value of a second-term Councilor who studies budgets and knows how to deal with complex systems.


click to enlarge Dave Geislinger - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Dave Geislinger

District 2

We’ll be honest, Dave Geislinger surprised the heck out of us. The sole candidate in District 2, who bluntly told us that he decided to run after realizing with some outrage that no one was running for the seat, was a long-time attorney until a life-changing decision turned him into a Catholic hospital chaplain. Earlier in his career, he worked under a district attorney with a familiar name: John Suthers.

All of which might lead you to believe that Geislinger would be the type of steely-eyed conservative who thinks open-mindedness is for sissies. But that’s hardly the case. We came into our interview uncertain whether we’d feel comfortable giving him an endorsement, despite having no opposition. But that view soon changed.

Geislinger started by telling us how it’s time for Colorado Springs to act like a big city. A few of his ideas: We need a steady funding mechanism (ahem, taxes), we need to support building more low-income housing as much as we support creation of high-quality jobs, and we should support our parks because “that’s who we are.”

Geislinger wants to wait to see which way the federal winds blow, but if recreational weed survives the Donald Trump presidency, he thinks voters should decide whether it’s sold in Colorado Springs. He also wants to see the city “invest in itself” and says our image has represented a select few viewpoints for too long.

Being a chaplain now, Geislinger is obviously sensitized to morality — though it doesn’t strike us as the evangelical brand of morality. Rather, he says, he’s interested in respecting “the dignity of all.”

Amen to that.


click to enlarge Richard Skorman - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Richard Skorman

District 3

Let’s draw a sports analogy here to, yes, the Denver Broncos. When they acquired star quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012, the football world knew his experience and savvy would make a huge difference. So it is now in this southwest/west/downtown district, as former Councilor and Vice Mayor Richard Skorman (now 64, he served from 1999 to 2006) seeks to return. The long-time downtown businessman, who ran for mayor in 2011, brings a bulging list of credentials and connections that cannot be minimized.

Running against him is Chuck Fowler, a businessman and consultant who hasn’t hesitated to acknowledge Skorman’s prowess. But Fowler, 62, is making his first run for office, and his positions appear limited to supporting Mayor John Suthers on stormwater, hoping the military and tourism continue to carry the economy, backing the business community’s agenda and wishing for more quality jobs. It’s also apparent Fowler is counting on a conservative base, since he didn’t respond to our request for an in-person interview.

Skorman, meanwhile, has stayed close to the action and has a far deeper grasp of the issues. While others can say they support stormwater solutions, Skorman instigated the city’s $19 million annual commitment that settled differences with Pueblo. He helped form the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District , and still has many relationships with key people to show for it. He was working for then-Sen. Ken Salazar when the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District began, and he assisted in laying that foundation. In fact, he envisions working with the watershed district to set a pre-allowed small regional tax levy to deal with fire, flood and landslide issues, not even on the radar screen for any other candidates.

Obviously, Skorman has been a champion of open space and outdoor-related causes, enough to get him crossways with The Broadmoor last year when he opposed the Strawberry Fields land swap with the city. But from what we’ve heard, many District 3 residents were on his side. Having led the successful Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) campaigns in previous decades, he’d make sure the city stays on top of all things outdoors, such as the Legacy Loop greenway around the city center, also because he sees “a great opportunity to bring down a lot of Millennials here from the North Front Range.

We could go on and on, citing areas where Skorman stands out, such as articulating more than other candidates the need to address police and fire staffing.

The conclusion remains inescapable: This is like adding that all-world quarterback to the roster, knowing he’s far from done. In fact, we could see him soon becoming Council president, given his vast experience on pertinent issues plus his connections from Pueblo to Denver, not to mention across Colorado Springs.


click to enlarge Yolanda Avila - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Yolanda Avila

District 4

This three-way race on the city’s oft-challenged southeast side has been fascinating, perplexing, even exasperating. After interviewing and studying the candidates, we could defend all three. Incumbent Helen Collins, despite often opposing measures before Council (putting her on the short end of many 8-1 votes), feels she deserves a second term based on how much she has done to deal with constituents’ problems.

During our upbeat visit, she was able to convince us that at least some of those 8-1 votes were based on a deep knowledge of policy and of her district’s needs. She had no hesitation opposing the Strawberry Fields land swap, and despite being anti-marijuana herself, she voted (and would again, she says) to allow recreational marijuana sales or a city ballot question because District 4 voters approved Amendment 64.

Deborah Hendrix, who lost to Collins in 2013 and again in 2015 amid the recall effort based on Collins’ dealings with friend Douglas Bruce, has high-powered endorsements and backers. But Hendrix still works full-time and hasn’t been able yet to prove a strong connection with voters. But she did serve on the Harrison District 2 school board during a time of many changes, which was a tough task.

Then there’s Yolanda Avila.

We entered this process concerned that Avila, 61, might not be able to meet the high demands of office or that her agenda might be limited to a few issues that impact her directly. That’s because Avila is legally blind and, by no fault of her own, she’s been impacted greatly by the city’s limited transit system and ADA-noncompliant infrastructure. After she lost her sight in her mid-40s — she can see only shadows now ­— the local native and Colorado College graduate eventually moved back here from California and turned into a self-advocate and activist, focused on issues and causes but especially improving bus service.

The more we have learned, the more we feel Avila is exactly what City Council, actually all of Colorado Springs, needs most. The retired government investigator (her 20-year career in California) ran for an at-large Council seat in 2015, hindered even more by an ankle in a cast, but she stayed with it in a race of 13 candidates for three spots. She finished ninth with 10,612 votes but came away encouraged and determined to try again, this time representing the district where she has lived much of her life.

“I’m dismayed at how District 4 has been treated by the city,” Avila says, citing situations such as the Pikes Peak Workforce Center moving to the city’s far northwest side, a long and tedious bus trip from the southeast. “I want to do something about that.”

Since she grew up speaking Spanish at home (“my mother spoke Spanish, my father spoke English”), she can communicate with that large element of the district. She’s also been a familiar presence at City Council meetings for years, pressing the issues that matter to her and her area.

How could someone legally blind cope with the massive paperwork and other obstacles facing Council? To her, making full use of her iPhone (dictation) and iPad (turning documents into audios) is sufficient. She’s as educated as anyone on matters such as Utilities, stormwater, public safety and City for Champions.

Plus, she’s a phenomenal listener. “I hear things people don’t hear,” she says.

And she already knows the value of relationships, such as playing a role in state Rep. Tony Exum’s return to the Colorado House last year (Exum is endorsing Avila now). She says she’d share town-hall settings with others such as new County Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez and state Sen. Michael Merrifield.

We can see how Yolanda Avila, if elected, would raise awareness in so many areas with her focus on abilities, not disabilities. We can also see how she would instantly become a moral compass for City Council, and a heroic leader for her segment of Colorado Springs.


(Note: We realize Avila has sued the city for damages resulting in $70,000 of medical bills from a 2014 fall into an uncovered hole on a sidewalk. It did not impact our endorsement.)

click to enlarge Jill Gaebler - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Jill Gaebler

District 5

After watching Councilor Jill Gaebler champion everything from bike infrastructure to the public’s right to vote on recreational marijuana over the past four years, we had an idea she’d earn our endorsement again this year. Our interview with the personable Gaebler didn’t change the way we felt.

That said, we were pleasantly surprised by her opponent, the knowledgeable and friendly Lynette Crow-Iverson. Like many other candidates from the CSF slate, she emphasizes her “business acumen” — she runs a drug-testing business — but she also shows a healthy understanding of government and has some experience in that arena, having campaigned successfully for the 2C road tax issue.

Crow-Iverson also seems thoughtful about issues. She thinks the city should put more money toward the proposed new Pikes Peak Summit House, but feels a public vote should be required before dedicating tax dollars to a City for Champions stadium downtown.

Having watched City Council for years, we thought her belief that serving on Council could be a part-time job was a bit optimistic, especially since she expressed a desire to be effective in a variety of areas. And we differ from her viewpoints on a number of issues, from the Strawberry Fields land swap (which she supported) to recreational marijuana (which she opposes). Finally, while we appreciated her blunt observations on why she thought Gaebler didn’t deserve a second term, we didn’t agree with them.

Crow-Iverson, for instance, singled out Gaebler to blame for the troubled start of the Colorado Springs Public Market. But that initiative’s issues aren’t Gaebler’s fault, and we applaud the incumbent Councilor’s willingness to champion fresh ideas. Crow-Iverson also said Gaebler was too “in the weeds,” saying she should work on building the police force instead of championing a law that allows people to keep goats in their yard.

Most people agree police are more important than goats, but Gaebler’s interest in quality-of-life issues is in addition to her commitment to big-city issues, not in place of them. Gaebler, by the way, is aware of this “in the weeds” criticism, and she points out rightly that, “whether you think they’re trivial or not, they [quality-of-life issues] are significant to the younger workforce.”

At 50 (the same age as Crow-Iverson), Gaebler is currently the youngest person on Council, and she’s embraced the chance to make city government more appealing to younger people. She’s also shown a willingness to stand up to power (her vote against the Strawberry Fields deal, citing a comment made a century ago by city founder Gen. William Palmer, is a good example) and sympathy for the poor, people with disabilities and homeless citizens.

A former Greccio Housing employee, Gaebler has insight into ways the city might deal with its burgeoning population of people living on the streets, such as a camp that would provide sanitation and safety as people make their way into permanent housing at their own pace. The key here is that Gaebler understands not all homeless people are ready to live indoors yet — an understanding she gained by talking with homeless people. And that’s something we noticed throughout our conversation with her — she listens. Not just to people at the top, but to all her constituents.

That listening has made Gaebler an invaluable presence on this Council, a role that could grow more with another four-year term.


click to enlarge Andy Pico - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Andy Pico

District 6

Four years ago, in a race involving three political newcomers with fairly equal appeal, all three pulled more than 30 percent of the vote in this district that spans the city’s eastern side. The victor was Andres “Andy” Pico, a retired naval aviator and defense contractor with a hefty academic resumé.

We endorsed Pico in 2013 because, in simplest terms, we felt he was smarter than the others and could apply that intellect along with his military background in positive ways. He has done exactly that, rising in prominence and now serving as chairman of the Utilities Board as well as the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments.

Armed with four years of experience — he says “the hardest part was understanding the budget” — Pico, 65, seeks a second term but this time shouldn’t have to worry about a close race. He has three opponents: Robert Burns, Melanie Bernhardt and former state legislator Janak Joshi. Burns and Bernhardt haven’t been able to mount serious challenges, and Joshi has stayed low-key, though we hear he might try late negative ads to undermine Pico. That tactic didn’t work in Joshi’s most recent race, when he lost his state House seat to Larry Liston.

Pico, meanwhile, has a clear view of what matters in District 6, from economic development along the Powers Boulevard corridor to eradicating illegal marijuana home-grows in D-6 neighborhoods. He also understands the need to deal with Banning Lewis Ranch, reworking that outdated annexation agreement “because it was set up more than 30 years ago to create a second urban core, and that’s not the case anymore.”

We differ with Pico on some points — he doesn’t acknowledge that global warming is human-caused, he opposes Issue 2 and is a staunch TABOR believer. But he knows the value of economic development, improving the workforce and funding stormwater projects. If you live in District 6, you can feel better knowing you have an influential presence on Council, so why change that?


Details about the city election

This is an all-mail city election, and ballots should be mailed to all registered voters by now. But if you are not registered to vote, there’s still time. All citizens with a Colorado driver’s license or state-issued ID card can register online at govotecolorado.com. As the April 4 deadline nears, though, it’s smarter to go directly to the city.

No license, ID card or access to a computer? Or if you think you are a registered voter, but do not receive your mail ballot by Thursday, March 16? Call the city clerk’s office at 385-5901, option 4. You can register all the way to Election Day, Tuesday, April 4, also the deadline when ballots must be received.

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