How many governments are there in the Pikes Peak region?
That’s a simple question, for which there are multiple answers. You start with the feds, work your way down to counties and cities, then school districts — and then? Keep going — you’ll find yourself stuck in a morass of special districts of overlapping jurisdictions, of intergovernmental agreements, of eccentric zoning and murky property rights.
Of course, everything’s online, searchable, totally transparent, easily understandable and immediately accessible to any regional resident. I’m joking, of course.
A few years ago, I used to meet then-Mayor Steve Bach for breakfast at Wooglin’s Deli every few weeks. The mayor’s greeting was always the same:
“John, you’re not going to believe this!” he’d exclaim, and then describe some particularly bizarre governmental dilemma that he’d been wrestling with.
Having done my time on city council years before, I sympathized. Governing is a learned skill, one that requires years of practice. You have to absorb and understand the written and unwritten rules and hierarchies of our local democracies (city council, county commission) and joint ventures (the Area Council of Governments and Rural Transportation Authority), as well as those of powerful state bureaucracies (the Department of Transportation).
Mayor Bach took office as our first strong mayor in June 2011. He’d been a major player in multiple Colorado Springs business ventures since the 1970s, and was strongly supported by the business community. He had no experience in government, but vowed to make the city more business-friendly and less bureaucratic, while getting rid of superfluous regulatory barriers.
By approving the sweeping charter revision that changed the city’s form of government from council/manager to strong mayor, voters had hoped to create an accountable and decisive city executive. Plans would be formulated, action taken and the city would move forward. No more endless debate, no more cunning bureaucrats flimflamming the naïve volunteers who served on city council — a powerful, well-paid CEO would be more than a match for this long-entrenched power structure.
Reality intervened. Bach quickly found himself at odds with city council, a seasoned and experienced group that included Scott Hente, Jan Martin and Jerry Heimlicher. Although council had lost much of its executive power, its members still served as the board of Colorado Springs Utilities and made most land use decisions. For city government to function smoothly under the new system, mayor and council had to create a variety of power-sharing agreements, both formal and informal.
While Bach believed that such deals would fatally weaken the mayor’s authority, council felt that Bach’s uncompromising rigidity was both disrespectful and unrealistic. An uneasy truce erupted into open warfare in 2013 when Keith King and Joel Miller were elected to council. Council/mayor relations became comically dysfunctional.
“Bach was like a guy who sits down and joins a no-limit poker game,” said one former El Paso County elected official, “and starts betting without knowing the rules of the game. As the old saying goes, ‘When you look around the table and can’t figure out who the mark is, then you’re the mark.’”
Yet to extend the poker analogy, Bach was consistently dealt terrible hands, but managed to walk away a winner. He couldn’t get traction for plans to fund infrastructure and stormwater, but his much-mocked City for Champions project has helped ignite downtown’s extraordinary growth in recent years. Bach will be remembered as the stubborn visionary who pushed the deal through, fought for it tenaciously and then exited stage left.
The contrast between Bach and his successor couldn’t be sharper. John Suthers is a lifelong public servant who has been elected to three significant offices and appointed to two others. He knows how to build institutional and public support and deeply understands his native city. When elected mayor, Suthers moved quickly to rebuild trust and camaraderie between council and the mayor’s office and then set on the far more difficult task of persuading our tax-averse residents to support new taxes and fees to rebuild the city.
For most of us, local government is an incomprehensible mess that somehow works. For Bach, government was an adventure. For Suthers, it’s a craft that he’s mastered. He doesn’t care what hand he’s dealt — he knows how to play the game.
And thanks to our two mayors, we’re all winners.