March 13, 2013 News » Cover Story

Playing representative roulette in Colorado Springs 

The Independent lays out your best bets for six City Council races and two ballot issues

Talk to people around our city about politics, and one conclusion becomes inescapable: Apathy reigns. And it's especially obvious around the non-mayoral municipal April elections.

Today, too few local citizens can name more than one or two candidates for Colorado Springs City Council, yet alone articulate their positions on key issues.

Most folks have little idea which Council district they live in, or how many districts we have — and that was true even before the voter-approved increase from four to six, for which new district maps and boundaries were finalized only three months ago.

So that's the backdrop for the 2013 city election, with a total of 24 candidates in six district races.

Given the pressing issues facing our city, it's vital that citizens learn as much as possible about those seeking to help lead our intricate city government and enterprises. So we urge you to become educated, remembering that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

As has been true for the past two decades, the Independent invests significant resources in researching the candidates, to help voters navigate their options. We've checked out all 24 candidates in various ways: asking about their experience and positions in questionnaires, talking to many candidates in person, and finally watching their performances in public forums.

We've also studied the two issues that will be decided April 2.

So, with that, here are our endorsements.

Council races

District 1

This conversation has to start with Tim Leigh, who comes in as a de facto incumbent, after serving as an at-large Councilor since 2011. Leigh has brought all kinds of ideas, some of which have stuck, some of which are worth saving for later, and many of which have fallen flat. (As an example of the latter, he was sure a new Memorial Park beach house on Prospect Lake would be a huge hit.)

He also brags a lot. For example, he claims he's the reason why Memorial Health System wound up being leased to University of Colorado Health, though that's a long stretch. Still, he's probably best known for something else: mercurial behavior regarding Utilities leadership. Some of his grenade-tossing at Neumann Systems Group, Utilities' provider of coal-scrubbing technology, has landed him in an ongoing ethics investigation (see here). We also can't get past Leigh's low regard for the public, wanting to cut back on open comment during Council meetings.

The current representative of this area, term-limited Council President Scott Hente, pushed Don Knight to run for the seat. Knight's Air Force career, decade in the defense industry, and 20-plus years as a Rockrimmon homeowner make him worth considering.

In the military, Knight handled duties similar to what he'd face on Council, dealing with utilities and infrastructure as well as long-term strategic planning. He's also keyed in to city issues, with new ideas such as transforming more of North Nevada Avenue (between Fillmore Street and Garden of the Gods Road) into manufacturing-industrial locations.

Retired at 58, Knight can be a full-time representative, and he's far more level-headed than Leigh. He sees the wisdom in making the most of the coal-burning Martin Drake Power Plant while developing a plan for its replacement. He wants to try getting businesses to adopt parks and help pay for their maintenance, and he feels the city must be proactive in strategically courting outside companies. And we go along with his idea of putting City Charter reforms on the November 2014 ballot, so they can be implemented after the 2015 city election.

While Joe Barrera, Linda Mojer and Julie Naye are to be commended for running, they have made limited efforts with no broad-based backing. Each is better-suited to help the city in other ways, such as serving on issue-specific committees or task forces.

Though Knight didn't convey his stances very effectively in forums, he's still clearly the best choice in this race.

Endorsement: Don Knight.

District 2

The initial focus here is on incumbent Angela Dougan. She's played hard to what she sees as District 2's conservative base, but on Council, her lack of preparation and obvious disdain for decorum (repeatedly walking out of meetings, and going without shoes) have proven disruptive.

She also has a blind spot for oil and gas, blaming Council's lack of action on local regulations for Ultra Resources' decision to stop drilling (never mind its failed wells). And we feel it's disingenuous for her to take credit, as she does, for fast-tracking the widening of Interstate 25 when that was a combined effort.

That leaves Joel Miller and Bill Murray, two challengers who disagree about most things, except that Dougan must go. Murray has lashed out at Dougan and her unthinking, far-right conservatism, probably enough that he couldn't be elected from this area. We hope he'll try again for an at-large spot in 2015, when the entire city would be voting.

But we admire Murray for his willingness, just before ballots went out, to throw his support to Miller. As Murray told us last week, "We're splitting the vote and that won't accomplish what needs to happen, which is making sure Angela Dougan doesn't win."

Miller's a straight-laced Air Force Academy graduate, a FedEx pilot (with a flexible schedule thanks to seniority), a knowledgeable and thoughtful conservative. We like his strong feeling about rebuilding public confidence in Council, as he told us: "The ultimate bad policy is when people don't trust you." And he doesn't mind being critical of Dougan, such as "her saying she doesn't have information when she wasn't there to hear it." It's also admirable that Miller doesn't care about the business-endorsement game.

Miller has derailed Dougan's somewhat-underhanded attempt to use the Republican Party for help in a nonpartisan race, because many of those same GOP leaders also like him. We might not agree with many of Miller's positions, such as preferring to opt-out on the city regulating legalized marijuana commerce. But we think Miller's relative youth (42), his strong feelings for the city and his lack of party-related political ambition make him the best choice here.

Endorsement: Joel Miller.

District 3

This district, including the downtown, west-side and southwest areas, attracted five candidates with incumbent Lisa Czelatdko not running. It's a fascinating mix: at-large Councilor Brandy Williams, former state legislator Keith King, ex-county commissioner Jim Bensberg, former Councilor Tom Gallagher and Green Party stalwart Bob Kinsey.

With his big-business ties and conservative connections, King has easily won the fundraising battle. He's slick and smart, but we're concerned about his fixation on turning Council into a mini-Legislature, complete with small subcommittees to consider bills and bring them forward. That's putting too much influence in the hands of too few, and it's not like a Republican caucus, where you can trust the others to want the same things that you want. (King says additional Council staff could help, but in this political climate, that's likely a non-starter.)

He has a track record of success as owner of Waterbed Palace, an effective state lawmaker and founder of charter schools. But his ideas for the city aren't realistic, in our view.

Gallagher once had a good connection with voters, but that's not the same after his failed run for mayor in 2011. He promises "you'd see a different Tom Gallagher this time — I'd be nice and play by the rules." But past is prologue. We think he underestimates the stormwater problem, and his eight years on Council already seem like ancient, inapplicable history.

Kinsey hasn't helped his minuscule chances by being very quiet during this campaign, though his pro-environment positions sound good.

For us it comes down to Bensberg or Williams. Bensberg, a native, has a good understanding of city issues. He articulates his priorities well, and we agree with him about emphasizing tourism promotion as much as possible. We also are on the same page with him in opposing the mayor's plan to break away from the countywide emergency service contract. This is not about looking for negatives to use against Bensberg, because there really aren't any.

But Williams, who already has two years on Council developing her presence and spunk, merits a full four-year term. She has intelligently and effectively led and/or participated in task forces that have studied everything from Memorial Health System to the Drake plant to stormwater. She thinks quickly on her feet, as evidenced by some excellent and humorous responses in public forums.

She also makes a good case that the Drake and stormwater groups still have work to do, and she wants to see them through to the end. She's firm in the belief that Council needs its own legal counsel who doesn't report to the city attorney, and she's ahead of others in wanting to push for more public comment at informal Monday meetings ahead of formal meetings, to help mold "the clay before it gets to the kiln."

Endorsement: Brandy Williams.

District 4

Deborah Hendrix is president of both the Harrison School District 2 board, and Keith King's Colorado Springs Early Colleges board, and she's a Dale Carnegie Training instructor. It's an impressively packed schedule, and she says she's ready for more with Council service. But we worry about her being stretched thin. (Her Harrison board term ends in November, but that's a full seven crucial months after the Council term starts.) It doesn't help that she missed two significant public forums last week.

Hendrix also concerned us by saying she wasn't interested in public comment at Council meetings, adding that such feedback should go to "committees and commissions" instead. She's seemingly in the same camp with King on restructuring how Council operates.

Neither Gary Flakes nor Helen Collins has campaigned enough to gain traction with voters, and by not appearing at public forums, they've missed chances to introduce themselves (or in Flakes' case, re-introduce himself) more widely.

That leaves Dennis Moore, who in reality is a worthy option. Moore, 65, has served in the military and worked for a defense contractor. He knows how to deal with systems, issues and people. He has been a longtime public-safety volunteer for the city, giving him deep understanding of police and fire. He says he'll fight for better bus service in his southeast part of the city, where so many more families don't have extra cars or money. He also has no interest in selling any part of Utilities, saying, "That's the craziest thing I've ever heard of."

Endorsement: Dennis Moore.

District 5

This one is arguably the toughest choice, enough that we're tempted to push two candidates equally. But we feel it's important to endorse one, as voters must.

It won't be Roger McCarville, who hasn't run a viable campaign. And it won't be Al Loma, the pastor and School District 11 board member who has shown his lack of knowledge on critical issues. At one forum, he insisted a "tax isn't the solution" for stormwater, then said a choice like PPRTA "would not necessarily be a tax." Yes, it would.

Jill Gaebler, at 46, brings a fresh view as a "socially moderate" conservative with supporters from all philosophical sides. Her involvement with the nonprofit sector has given her an understanding of the local homeless situation — likely to be a big issue in 2013 — and she admits "our city is in trouble. "I see cranes in Denver, but there's no building here," meaning commercial or industrial.

She's paying enough attention to notice that "our Business Alliance is spending too much time trying to bring business here. My tack would be to give more support to local businesses, especially those trying to improve our existing blighted areas." We also like her interest in young professionals, saying, "Creative capital goes where it's welcome."

And we're encouraged by her having had some skepticism for oil and gas drilling, saying most of those jobs "really aren't great-paying jobs" and that "the community has a right to a clean environment." She's firm in pushing for a tax "similar to PPRTA" for a regional stormwater solution, and she likes the idea of an "unbiased" attorney working for Council. Finally, we appreciate her concern for Academy Boulevard, saying, "We need a comprehensive plan. ... We have to focus on infill."

Bernie Herpin, 69, has our full respect after five years as a Councilor — he's often proved the most prepared of anyone on the dais, despite working full-time. He understands Council's weaknesses from the inside, especially the need for better communication and cooperation, and has stood up firmly to the mayor when merited.

We also agree with his willingness to offer "performance-based incentives" to companies thinking of moving here. And he makes perhaps his strongest point about Utilities, saying that even if it ends up having an independent board, Council should retain power over rates, budget and tariffs, "in part to avoid a situation like we had with the Memorial Hospital board" and the huge severance package it cut for CEO Dr. Larry McEvoy.

To be honest, we believe either Gaebler or Herpin will represent District 5 very well. But between those two, we feel that Gaebler is capable of becoming more of an influential voice in years ahead. So why not start now?

Endorsement: Jill Gaebler.

District 6

This three-way battle for a new district carved out of eastern Colorado Springs has no marquee status or any candidates with experience in office.

Ed Bircham, a longtime business owner. David Moore, a pastor retired from the Postal Service. Andres Pico, a Navy veteran and "semi-retired" defense contractor. All conservative.

Moore enjoyed some early momentum from a Housing and Building Association endorsement, and comes across well in person. But his lack of depth, and his knee-jerk conservative responses in candidate forums, have been disturbing. Even after word came that Ultra Resources would not pursuing drilling for oil or gas in El Paso County, Moore was insisting that drilling could bring thousands of jobs averaging $109,000 a year to the area.

Bircham, who almost won an at-large seat two years ago as part of Douglas Bruce's reform team, is trying again and has some unusual ideas. For example, he says, "we should cover part of Tejon Street and heat it." (Good luck with funding that.) We take exception to his total support for fracking, and his certainty that our city's crime isn't cause for concern. And it's hard to ignore that Bircham's past includes plenty of anti-gay rhetoric, and even running a post-9/11 Gazette ad that posited "70 percent of the problems we have in our society today" would have been extinguished if terrorists had "wiped out Hollywood instead of the Twin Towers."

Pico's intelligence and bluntness stand out, and the 61-year-old is straightforward in saying that "the stormwater issue is reaching a crisis point." He also thinks the anti-Drake crowd has gone "off the rails by focusing on decommissioning the plant, when they should be talking about a long-term plan."

Pico believes Drake could last another 20 to 30 years, which may or may not be the case, but at least he makes a good argument for making sure either way. He speaks far more intelligently about Utilities than other candidates, and that separates him from his opponents. And though he's clearly a strong conservative and anti-taxes — he's a co-founder of the local Coalition for a Conservative Majority — he's realistic enough about stormwater to support a regional solution and say, "I don't know if we can avoid" a PPRTA-type program.

Endorsement: Andres Pico.

For an in depth look at all the candidates take a look at our combined candidates answers.

Ballot issues

Issue 1 (putting all TOPS parks money into maintenance)

Skeptics understand this measure would enable the city to replace current general fund money dedicated for parks maintenance with these additional funds, thus radically reducing support for our parks. Mayor Steve Bach denies interest in doing that, and last week Bach sent a letter to Trails and Open Space Coalition executive director Susan Davies stating, "I have no intent and no desire to see any reduction in the City parks budget as a result of possible new TOPS monies in order to redirect monies to other City needs."

We appreciate the mayor's words, but note that he refused to agree to a "maintenance of effort" clause that would more officially ban such shenanigans. We concur with the Trails and Open Space Coalition that until needed guarantees are in place, we should not support a measure that could decimate TOPS. Vote No.

Issue 2 (increasing pay for City Council, starting 2015)

Colorado Springs voters deserve better candidates. And one reason we're lacking is that Councilors earn just $6,250 a year, less than Denver City Councilors or El Paso County commissioners make in a single month.

As a result, Council service is largely limited to retirees and those rare citizens with independent wealth or eminently flexible sources of income. By paying Council one-half of our mayor's current $96,000 annual salary (which computes to $48,000 a year per Councilor), far more everyday citizens — including talented young professionals — will be able to run and serve, leading to a stronger and more representative Council.

Independent publisher John Weiss assisted with this measure early on, and the paper as a whole stands behind his reasoning. By limiting Council pay, Colorado Springs is being penny-wise and pound-foolish. If we want stronger, more diverse, more competitive candidates, we need to pay a fair wage. Vote Yes.


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