After the voter-approved strong mayor initiative took effect in 2011, many observers expected that the Colorado Springs City Council would devolve into a relatively powerless, policy-making body.
Absent the power to hire and fire the city manager, to determine city budgets or to require senior city managers to respond immediately to councilors’ individual concerns, council would clearly be much diminished.
But instead of withering away, council has become more proactive, more engaged and arguably more powerful since 2011 — although not without false starts and dysfunction.
When Mayor Steve Bach first took office in 2011, he assumed that the powers of his office were such that he could pretty much do what he wanted. As one with no experience in government, he ran into the same kind of institutional constraints that have handicapped our newly elected president.
While city rules and procedures have changed since Colorado Springs was first incorporated in the 19th century, those changes have usually been gradual and cumulative, not sudden and disruptive.
Bach’s attempts to seize the reins of government were seen by a council majority as imperious overreach. The mayor wasn’t interested in compromising with council, even to the extent of allowing the members to appoint their own staff. He believed that doing so would fatally weaken mayoral authority and expected that elections in 2013 would bring a more malleable group into office.
The business community’s effort to identify and support new candidates who were both business-friendly and collaborative failed spectacularly. The 2013 councilors were anything but conciliatory.
District 3 Councilor Keith King was selected by his colleagues to become council president. The wily King, a veteran state legislator, was used to the give and take of partisan politics. He expected that Bach would be open to compromise, just as Republican and Democratic governors had been in times when the other party controlled at least one branch of the legislature.
But Bach refused to compromise, even ignoring council vetoes. King’s fragile majority came to be defined by its opposition to all things mayoral, frustrating any attempts to end intragovernmental hostilities. Council and mayor couldn’t agree on proposals to fill potholes, fix the streets or rebuild stormwater infrastructure — so nothing happened.
Four years after the strong mayor form of government was instituted, it was clear that neither council nor mayor could move forward without the other. Far from being powerless, council had reasserted itself as an equal player.
A new template was created in 2015 when John Suthers became mayor and Merv Bennett succeeded King as council president. Both had managed large organizations, both had political experience and both had a keen appreciation of the other’s position in government. Newly elected councilmembers Larry Bagley and Tom Strand helped create positive momentum, as did a resurgent economy.
Council and the administration worked together to pass the “pothole tax” and craft an intergovernmental agreement on stormwater mitigation with Pueblo, but there still are occasional signs of strain in the relationship. Will council and the mayor keep singing Kumbaya, or will today’s era of good feelings come to an abrupt end?
Council and the administration worked together to pass the ‘pothole tax.’
In many respects, the mayor holds most of the cards.
“If we want to work on an issue that the mayor doesn’t support,” said one councilor, who didn’t want to be identified, “city staff may not be very cooperative, so we have to work very hard to get the facts.”
Given that councilors are paid so little, have limited staff and contend with a well-paid mayor with dozens of senior staff members, how can they hold their own?
“I think they can,” said one long-tenured city staffer, “because council has changed in the last few years. You have a majority of military retirees — they understand large government bureaucracies; they’re financially able to commit their time and they’re kind of relentless.”
“You can’t be part-time if you’re going to represent your constituents,” said District 5 incumbent (and Air Force veteran) Jill Gaebler. “There are about 72,000 residents in my district, and I owe it to them to treat it like a full-time job.”
And while council was stripped of some of its powers in 2011, it retained authority over land use decisions and also serves as the Utility Board. In today’s booming economy, those functions are particularly important to the business community.
And that’s why organizations such as Colorado Springs Forward and the Housing & Building Association are investing so much time, money and energy in the April city election.