Paying for a bad idea 

City Sage

After City Council's meeting April 8, one question came to mind: Why do we have a City Council?

The show began at 1 p.m., with an invocation from the Rev. Ben Broadbent of First Congregational Church. It was a fine effort, but its considerable length may have presaged what was to come. The meeting would last almost 12 hours, finally adjourning at 12:25 a.m. For members and staffers forced to stay the course, it was an excruciating experience.

"I'm numb," said one victim. "I can't recall feeling worse and not having a physical pain."

"It was a never-ending nightmare," said another.

"We are so powerless," said a third.

The printed agenda, with attachments, was 989 pages, mostly for a single land-use issue appealing a planning commission decision on the Whistling Pines West indoor shooting range.

Yet Council President Keith King displayed no sense of urgency. Council recognized volunteers, welcomed our newest sister city, meandered slowly through various items, and eventually got to Councilor Joel Miller's proposed eminent domain ordinance.

Miller put on quite a show. He spent an hour or so explaining his proposal, introduced others to speak in favor, and glowered darkly as members of the reality-based community voiced objections. All about nothing, a meaningless piece of Kabuki theater. By the time Council voted to postpone the item, three hours had been wasted. It was clear that the measure could never get the six votes necessary to override Mayor Steve Bach's promised veto — so why did King indulge Miller?

The Feckless Five (King, Miller, Don Knight, Helen Collins and Andy Pico) tend to prefer ideology to duty. Their battles with the Frustrated Four (Merv Bennett, Jill Gaebler, Jan Martin and Val Snider), plus frequent clashes between Bach and Council, have virtually paralyzed city government.

It was not always thus. For years, Council meetings were orderly and productive. What changed? The easy explanation is that changing the form of government in 2011 has led to bumps in the road, as elected officials and managers adapt. It hasn't helped that many senior managers have departed, or that a dozen newcomers have held office in the past three years.

A less obvious narrative suggests that our municipal dysfunction is a direct result of a 2011 charter amendment that radically reshaped City Council. Formerly, five members (including the mayor) were elected at large and four from districts. Now six represent districts with three at large.

"The tendency of every elected official in the world is to consider what it takes to get re-elected," says former Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace by email. "Thus, the district Council member works to satisfy the narrow interests of his/her district, which may not be in the interest of Colorado Springs. We are seeing this played out in our current district Council members."

Makepeace saw nothing broken with the former system.

"With a nine-member Council, I prefer a 5-4 split between at-large and district," she says. "Having served in both a district seat and an at-large position, I know the importance of both, but all of one or the other skews the perspective of the body as a whole. We need both."

The change, pushed by former Mayor Lionel Rivera, was touted as giving a voice to "unrepresented" areas. It was also argued that a district supermajority would be more sensitive to needs of different constituencies.

That hasn't happened.

City-wide elections reward those with broad community appeal — and weed out marginal, eccentric candidates. In 2011, 16 candidates vied for four at-large seats. Jan Martin led with 44,901 votes, followed by Bennett, Snider and Brandy Williams, each with about 33,500. Tim Leigh took the final spot with nearly 30,000.

In the 2013 district elections, the six winning candidates received a total of 33,625 votes. In District 4, Collins squeezed in with 2,342. Two years earlier, running in Douglas Bruce's "conservative coalition," she lost badly.

The new structure rewards single-issue candidates and ideologues, who are more likely to prevail in small-scale elections with multiple candidates.

Could we go back to a majority of at-large positions? The sooner the better. It could help return City Council to sanity.


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