This year might well be remembered as a watershed moment in Colorado Springs politics — a time when voters and elected officials alike abandoned the deadlock and dysfunction that plagued the city ever since the 2011 voter-mandated switch to a strong-mayor form of government.
In retrospect, the thaw began on Nov. 24, 2014, when City Councilor Joel Miller resigned his seat and announced his candidacy for mayor. The articulate, energetic Miller had come to personify a naysaying Council majority who engaged in open warfare with then-Mayor Steve Bach. The combative Bach returned fire, frequently vetoing Council actions and even ignoring Council veto overrides.
Such sparring had overshadowed efforts by Council and Bach to deal with the city’s long-apparent infrastructure crisis.
Thanks to decades of under-investment, city streets and stormwater drainage structures were failing in place. Rather than agreeing on a common rebuilding plan, Bach and Council created dueling proposals. Council refused to refer Bach’s five-year road reconstruction plan to the voters, opting instead to join the El Paso County Board of Commissioners and seek voter approval for a fee-based regional drainage authority in November 2014.
Dismayed by the Mayor/Council wars, some of the city’s business leaders sought new leadership.
Although a highly competent regional task force had worked on the stormwater proposal for more than two years, marshaling support for the proposed stormwater authority across much of the region, Council and the mayor couldn’t agree on a mutually acceptable plan.
Absent Bach’s support and urged on by TABOR [Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights] author Douglas Bruce, voters rejected the referred flood control and drainage measure of 2014.
After Miller’s resignation, Council appointed Larry Bagley to fill Miller’s District 2 seat until the April city election. Bagley, a thoughtful, low-key military retiree, couldn’t have been more different from the fiery Miller.
Bach announced that he wouldn’t run for a second term, as did Councilor Val Snider. Council veteran Jan Martin was term-limited, creating a second open at-large seat.
Dismayed by the mayor/Council wars, some of the city’s business leaders sought new leadership. By late 2014, many had thrown their support to the amiable John Suthers, a Colorado Springs native who had served as district attorney, U.S. attorney, Colorado attorney general and director of the state Department of Corrections.
Three credible candidates joined Suthers in the race for mayor: County Commissioner Amy Lathen, former Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace and Miller. Suthers led the field by a wide margin in the April vote, and trounced Makepeace in the May runoff by a 68-32 margin.
Seconding Council’s choice, voters chose Bagley over right-wing firebrand Kanda Calef to serve the remainder of Miller’s term. Tom Strand, Bill Murray and incumbent Merv Bennett were elected to full at-large terms.
A chastened, reconstituted Council responded happily to Suthers’ peace offerings. Deftly using the political skills acquired during a quarter of a century in elected office, Suthers joined with Council to create a new spirit of amity and collaboration.
“It used to be that the mayor just sent Council the budget on Oct. 1,” Suthers said. “They had no input; they didn’t know what it might contain. It’s easy enough to send [the city’s CFO or the budget director] to meetings beforehand, and let them know what’s being discussed, what might be coming.
For [Councilor] Don Knight, I think it was important to be heard, to be part of the process.”
Knight’s relationship with former Mayor Bach was also particularly contentious.
When Suthers formally unveiled his proposed infrastructure fix, a 0.62 percent city sales tax that would both provide funds to fix the roads and potentially free up stormwater funding, Council supported the measure by an 8-1 vote, with Councilor Helen Collins the only dissenting vote.
City voters followed suit, approving the measure by a 65-35 margin.
Yet not everyone joined in the Kumbaya chorus.
Exasperated opponents of the downtown Martin Drake Power Plant watched disbelievingly as Council dithered and deadlocked on the issue of whether to scrap or convert to gas Drake 5, the plant’s oldest unit.
With the Utilities Board — City Council sitting in a different role — deciding to keep the coal-fired plant in service for as long as 20 years, the controversy may not end before most of the current Council have passed into “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn/No traveller returns.”
At year’s end, a confident Mayor Suthers predicted great things for 2016.
“We’ll have some good news about the airport,” he said. “And make sure that you listen to Governor Hickenlooper’s speech on Jan. 14 — I think we’ll all be pleased.”