In June 2011, Steve Bach took office as the city’s first strong mayor, promising to transform city government, revitalize the local economy and run a lean, efficient, business-friendly administration. Those tasks would have challenged the most experienced politician, yet Bach had never served as an elected official.
His decades of business experience had familiarized him with the city and its regulatory structure. He had been one of the impatient young leaders who founded the city’s Economic Development Corporation in the 1970s, and he was named Colorado Springs’ Business Citizen of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 1992.
By early 2010, many business leaders were deeply concerned about city government. When the U.S. Olympic Committee retention deal almost collapsed, the city had to mortgage police headquarters and a fire station to save the agreement and prevent the USOC from perhaps leaving town.
The deepening recession and consequent steep decline in sales tax revenues had forced draconian cuts in city services. Poor long-term financial management had left the city unable to water parks or pay electric bills for streetlights, deficiencies that attracted unwelcome attention from national media.
The City Committee, a private group supported by local businesspeople, undertook an in-depth analysis of the city’s finances. Its findings helped convince core business leaders to fund an initiative to change the form of government, which passed overwhelmingly in November 2010. But changing the form of government would be irrelevant, absent a mayor committed to reform.
Bach seemed to represent a clean break from the past, and voters chose him over Richard Skorman by a 57-43 margin.
During his campaign, Bach often said he would likely be a one-term mayor, and he followed through by declining to run for a second term. During an extended, free-ranging interview Tuesday in his downtown office, Mayor Bach reflected upon the events of the past four years, passed on some advice to his successor and talked about his own future plans.
“Changing the form of government meant changing customs and practices that had been in place for 90 years,” he said. “What we wanted to do was to become [a] customer-focused organization, not a regulatory agency.”
“Under the new form of government, the mayor is the new city manager, a full-time employee responsible for city government,” he noted. “I never could step away from that daily responsibility, even though you always hope that you can get more time.”
Which City Councilors did Bach particularly enjoy working with?
“I appreciate Merv Bennett and Jill Gaebler,” he said, “and I appreciated Tim Leigh while he was there, and Scott Hente while he was Council president [2011-13]. Scott and I didn’t often agree, but we managed to work together.”
What about the Mayor/Council wars that erupted after the 2013 Council elections?
“I don’t know what happened after 2013,” he said, declining to revisit the angry conflicts of the past two years. He noted that ambiguities in the city charter contributed to sharply different views of the roles and limitations of the two branches of city government.
“The charter isn’t clear on whether City Council can or should have any administrative responsibilities beyond approving the annual budget,” Bach observed. “Does the community want City Council to be deeply involved in the administration of the budget? City Council feels that it should have post-budget authority, as well as have its own attorney. Denver has had a strong-mayor system since 1919, and they have a single city attorney for the mayor and all departments, and things function smoothly.”
Bach believes the City Charter needs further amendment to remove ambiguities.
“We all have a dog in the fight,” he said. “The amendments need to come from the community, not elected officials.”
In a 2011 candidate questionnaire, Bach was asked about Utilities governance.
“The ideal relationship,” he responded then, “would be to have the enterprises report to the Mayor with a governance board including independent industry professionals — the enterprise should be run as efficiently and effectively as possible.”
“Changing the form of government meant changing customs and practices that had been in place for 90 years.”
Four years later, Council still serves as the Utilities Board, and Bach hasn’t changed his mind, though he’d be willing to have the board report to Council rather than the mayor. He’s no fan of the Neumann Systems contract to install pollution control systems in Martin Drake Power Plant.
“The Utilities Director [Jerry Forte] signed the sole-source justification and the contract two days before the new city attorney took office,” Bach recalled, noting that departing City Attorney Pat Kelly had ruled the mayor’s OK wasn’t required on such contracts, despite specific City Charter language to the contrary.
“It had no cap, no ‘not to exceed,’ no performance standards … I asked in 2011, are we sure that we want to spend at that time $76 million on an experimental technology?”
Given that Neumann’s projected cost is now close to $200 million, Bach’s 2011 comments seem prescient. He hasn’t changed his mind.
“I think that deserves a fresh discussion,” he said. “This isn’t a political comment, just common sense. We hear people saying that we need to have local control, but Denver sold their electric utility to Public Service Colorado [since acquired by Xcel], and I haven’t heard any complaints. As this goes forward, we need to look at best practices in other cities.”
“It wasn’t my idea,” he said of Building a Better Tomorrow, the recently released city-published summary of his four years in office. “The book is a roadmap to the future — throughout this book you see initiatives that are important to the long-term future of the city. You see the large number of accomplishments that required close cooperation between mayor and Council, which is striking — the lease of Memorial Health Systems, the establishment of the health foundation and the creation of the commercial aeronautical zone at the airport.”
City for Champions, which could have been the signature achievement of Bach’s administration, has had rough sledding with City Council. The administration has been faulted for excessive secrecy, for attempting to circumvent charter provisions that require a public vote on any new debt, and for fudging the numbers on potential costs and benefits.
“In 2012 we briefed Council in closed executive session,” he said, “and requested $75,000 of funding for the project to make an application to the state. Merv Bennett, Jan Martin and Val Snider were there. We had unanimous approval from that Council, actually briefed the new members of Council one or two at a time on the details in 2013, so for them to say that they first heard about it when they read it in the newspaper is not factually correct.”
What should be the next mayor’s focus?
“The department heads are working on 30-, 60-, and 90-day timelines for the new mayor and chief of staff,” Bach said. “No. 1, I’d like to apologize for the condition of our streets. You know what I proposed [a $150 million bond issue to repair and upgrade city infrastructure, which Council declined to put on the April ballot]. We’ve got to do something that will get us into the future.
“Also, if you look at the projections for the general fund, you’ll see that we’ll run out of our reserves in 2020, as expenses rise faster than revenue. We’ve pushed that date forward five years — when I came here I was told it was 2015. That’s the most important thing for the next mayor: How are we going to provide consistent quality core services on a sustainable basis?”
Whom does he support for mayor? And doesn’t the whole discussion about funding infrastructure through finding more efficiencies in government remind him of the same debates four years ago?
“I haven’t decided yet who to vote for,” he said. “I’ll make up my mind after the Thursday debate at UCCS. It’s hard for a candidate who hasn’t been here every day to see the whole picture like I can now. There are always efficiencies in government to achieve, but in my view they are not at a level that will satisfy what we have to get done in this city. We’re trying to cover too many square miles for the amount of resources we have.
“I hope that our future development will be more thoughtful, and that we’ll have concrete plans for providing services. For example, the fire chief tells me that we’ll need 10 more fire stations in Banning-Lewis if it develops under the current master plan. One of the hard things [candidates] will have to learn is to focus on priorities. I hear candidates saying that they want more transit funding, more parks funding, but we only have so much. They’ll have to set aside the campaign approach and get into the leadership approach.”
Any second thoughts about not trying for a second term at the age of 72?
“None.” Bach replied.
“As you know, I’m a businessman, not a politician. It’s not because of age — I have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and hopefully I will for a long time. I’ve spent my entire career in change management situations. I’ve learned that there comes a time when change agents need to step aside and allow a new iteration of management to take over, and hopefully take that organization to a higher level.
“I wish I had another year or 18 months, because we have a lot of important initiatives that I’ll be telling the new mayor about, but that’s not the way the system works. We have several good candidates, and any one of them can do a good job.”
So what’s next?
“I’m looking forward to doing some fly fishing and spending more time with Suzi and my two children in Denver,” he replied.
“You won’t find me hanging around and offering unsolicited opinions — I’m not going to do that.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done, and what we’ve accomplished. I’m looking forward to seeing this new generation of leaders continue the work.”