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Jul282017

ISSUE #136: Summer AmusemANT?!  7/28/17

"Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks. 
" -- Doug Larson

SKIPPY AND TORRE UNITE TO UP-END ASPEN ELECTIONS
If you can't win the old-fashioned way, change the way, right?  On the heels of the June 6 run-off election that put Ward Hauenstein on council, two aggrieved candidates, Torre and Skippy, announced plans to rally their millennial brethren (never mind Torre isn't one, it's just that his mentality is similar to theirs) to lobby for wholesale changes to Aspen's spring municipal elections. This clearly stems from the fact their demographic hardly bothered to vote (despite both the general election and the run-off being conducted by mail-in ballots and administered by perhaps the most generous and lenient city clerk ever, who moved heaven and earth to get ballots to those who requested them).  The two believe that if they force a date change to Aspen's voting season (making it earlier) via an amendment to the city charter, this issue will fix itself.  And if Aspen were to additionally re-adopt Instant Run-off Voting (IRV) and/or allow everyone to vote via the internet, all the better.  
 
Recall the major mess that IRV caused in 2009, resulting in its immediate repeal in 2010 and a significant lawsuit against the city that they eventually settled in 2012.  (History HERE.) Aspen has a LONG memory, kiddos.  We've been down THAT path before and we ain't going back!!  As for internet voting, are you kidding me?  The whole purpose of these wanton changes is so that the two one-namers can gather their young sycophants over free beers and pizzas at the brewery and group vote together.  It's about the only way they can figure how to create a voting block!  Millennials don't have stamps, you see, and they look at voting as something they have a right to do, but only exercise that right if it's easy.
 
Ahhhh, but wait.  Councilman Adam Frisch, prepping for his inevitable run for mayor next cycle and wanting to court the millennial demographic, quickly applauded the concept, ignoring the potential downsides by stating unequivocally that more voters is always better.  Always?  Just think: Aspen's ever-present laws of unintended consequences are waiting to pounce on a potential date change.  Imagine if elections were held the first week of April instead of May.  Many more people would indeed be in town and could arguably more readily access, vote and submit their ballots, but the question remains - in the heart of Aspen's March high season, would they?  Would they actually take the time to learn about the issues or meet the candidates?  Skippy emphasizes that such a change to the election calendar is a necessary means of ending "voter disenfranchisement" in Aspen.  (There's always a discriminatory rationale when these whiners don't get their way, isn't there?)  He goes on to say that those who are "disenfranchised" are so to the degree that they are already on vacation in May, despite being "younger, poorer and more diverse" than the rest of the Aspen registered voters who manage to ask for an absentee ballot or make arrangements to vote.  Yep, he said it HERE.
 
Furthermore, with an early April election, who is going to run for office?  With the bulk of those eligible for candidacy working their tails off in late February and March, often at multiple jobs, just who will be able to make the necessary rounds of door-knocking and phone-calling that have become mandates for voter consideration?  Or will it be self-selecting -- only those who do not have to work can campaign through 5-6 weeks of the high season?  I suppose that works well for Skippy, as he has no discernible means of employment, and Torre (who I'm sure is not through running for elected office in Aspen) who teaches tennis in the summertime.  But if you're like me, and appreciate a diverse mix of citizens at the council table, especially including those who work, the perceived "conveniences" of an earlier election cycle are heavily outweighed by the "inconveniences": less representative candidates, a distracted voter base, and especially, pandering to one voter group that has proven itself thus far to be too disinterested to participate in local elections.  No, thanks!!
 
THE "#RESIST" SIGN AT 7TH & MAIN SUBSIDIZED HOUSING
You've seen it.  It's been there for months -- the big "#RESIST" (anti-Trump) banner prominently hanging on the front of the subsidized housing complex at 7th and Main, across from the Hickory House for all who enter Aspen to see.  After I'd heard from a critical mass of you, I contacted APCHA, because surely the housing authority has rules about political banners, right?  Wrong.  But the homeowner's association of that very complex sure does, and they're ABUNDANTLY clear.
 
Their HOA Declarations (7.8 p24 HERE) state: "No signs or advertising devices of any nature shall be erected or maintained on any part of the project without the prior written consent of the Association, which, solely with the respect to the commercial unit, shall not be unreasonably withheld."  (There are no commercial units in the building, by the way.)
 
My correspondence with the APCHA director about this "discrepancy" proved futile, although he was entirely sympathetic. As unbelievable as it may sound, APCHA cannot force an HOA in its portfolio (that we all paid for) to adhere to its own rules.  Yep, it's another example of the inmates running the asylum.  He even ran it up the city management flagpole, only to be told that a formal (signed) complaint must first be lodged with the Community Development department.  The city attorney was pessimistic about any remedy because the city would not get involved in "free speech" issues.  It was agreed that HOA's SHOULD enforce their own rules, but APCHA was reminded that it has no legal authority to force an HOA to do so.
 
The issue certainly raises a host of questions and puts the answers on a very slippery slope. The Red Ant ponders, what if said banner were pro-Trump?  A Confederate flag?  Or what about a swastika?  What would the city do then?  Has Aspen become the place where political speech is only protected for certain points of view? 
 
BAG TAX UPDATE
Just as a refresher, in 2012 Aspen enacted a ban on reusable plastic bags accompanied by a 20 cent charge for paper bags if grocery shoppers did not bring their own.  This "fee," as the city deemed it, was immediately challenged as a "tax," that, according to Colorado's own TABOR laws, mandates a public vote for approval.  The non-profit Colorado Union of Taxpayers immediately sued the city on what they see as a violation of TABOR.  In 2014, the city prevailed in district court. No surprise.  Then in 2015, the city again prevailed at the appellate level.  In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, intending to determine, "What standard of review a court should apply when deciding whether the levying of a charge by a local government, without voter approval, violates TABOR."  Oral arguments were made before the Supremes in June 2017.  Their decision will have precedent-setting ramifications with far-reaching impacts and could possibly establish a less-stringent government fee-setting standard.  After all, the bag "fee" is a framework that can be replicated for anything.  We all await the outcome.  (And, FYI, The Red Ant has always believed this so-called "fee" to be an illegal tax.)
 
The strangest thing of all to contemplate is why Aspen didn't call it a tax to begin with and simply put it to a vote.  In greenie Aspen, it would easily have passed. Could it be that the consequences are intentional -- to launch a seemingly innocuous trial balloon in a small town setting in hopes of CREATING an avenue to bypass TABOR, enabling new government fees for just about anything?  Food for thought.
 
ASPEN'S WALL:ART MUSEUM FURTHER IMPACTS ITS SURROUNDINGS 
In case you had forgotten what "art" is, the Aspen Art Museum remains in its role to show you.  This season's external installment, part of the museum's landscape requirement to provide rotating art exhibits on the corner of Spring and Hyman outside of the museum itself, features a 12' tall, L-shaped wall in the middle of the pedestrian plaza.  According to the Aspen Daily News, the intent of this piece is to "challenge the viewer's comfort level and push them to re-evaluate their surroundings."  Aspen's community development office approved the installation because it met mandatory ADA accessibility and sight triangle distance requirements.  The museum director added, "If it's unclear and confusing, that's ok."  Is it though?
  
 
WARD WATCH: NEW COUNCILMAN OFF TO A SHAKY START
We worked hard to elect him.  And I was the first to say that we wouldn't always agree.  But Ward made an astounding decision recently that raises questions about his role on council.  Yes, already.  
 
The issue at hand was a vote on the financing of the city's new Taj Mahal City Hall.  Yes, you're right, we kinda won 16 months ago when it was decided that city offices would remain in the historic Armory and a new building would be built on Galena Plaza for additional office space (vs the proposed "one roof" 50,000 sf Taj). (Reference ISSUE #122)  But the city's new building has grown and grown and grown, so now it's the Armory AND nearly 40,000 sf of the proposed Taj, approved by council this year on April 3.  But to build or not to build was NOT the question on July 11. It was simply how to pay for it.  All $23 million of it.  Two choices were presented to council:  general obligation bonds (GOB) or certificates of participation (COP).  It was rather straightforward.  GOB, by law, must be approved by the voters.  COP do not, plus they're more expensive.  (COP have become a popular voter work-around, avoiding the legal requirement that the city not incur large debt without taxpayer approval.)  In Aspen's case, GOB would save the city $400,000 in present value dollars (a conservative estimate).  But apparently financing costs are immaterial in Aspen. 
 
The simple question on financing was apparently too simple, so council conflated and distorted the issue to such a degree that one of the more contentious meetings in recent history ensued:
  • Ann re-lived the old argument of whether or not to build a new city hall, which was totally irrelevant to the issue at hand.
  • Adam disparagingly characterized citizens' legal right to vote on incurring public debt as "holding an election every other day."
  • Steve, ever confused by complex issues even though this wasn't one, questioned whether this issue is a tax question or a land use question.  (It's neither.  It's a financing question.)
  • With utter contempt for their constituents, and, fearing a NO vote, a campaign where the project's opponents might mis-represent the city's need for massive amounts of new office space, and voters who wouldn't understand the nuances of the space allegedly needed, Ann, Adam and Steve voted for COP. (They know better than the voters.)  
  • Several vocal citizens who oppose the project in its entirety managed to completely derail the meeting which was specifically about financing.  Sure, they're entitled to their opinions during public comment (and for the record I support their premise), but the vote of the evening was not an up/down vote on the project.  This was neither the time nor the place.
  • City Manager Steve Barwick weighed in against GOB, comparing voter's enthusiasm for voting to tax themselves for government buildings with getting a colonoscopy.  (What a guy!?)  Besides, 40,000 sf of more office space enables him to continue to enlarge his already bloated bureaucracy, despite the fact that now days people simply work differently, and laptops and tele-commuting are modern and viable alternatives to the formal office settings of yesteryear. And note: Barwick will be the maharaja of the new Taj, so more is, of course, more.
  • Bert wisely voted for GOB, stating that if voters say no, it's time to go back to the drawing board.
  • And sadly, Ward fell prey to the chaos of the unstructured meeting and lost his focus of representing the will of the people, the very principle and promise he ran on.  He started the night strongly in favor of GOB.  But when the meeting came off the rails and became a street fight about whether or not to build the building itself, Ward caved.  Fearing a campaign of misinformation (hell, aren't they all) and a future of leasing office space from the private sector, he lost his way. Losing the focus that the only real question at hand was one of financing options, he flip-flopped and in the end voted for COP.  Yep, our guy whose track record of standing up to the government and empathizing with citizens voted to let the city bypass voters on a major debt issue because the bureaucrats feared a NO vote. By joining the other three with his vote, Ward signed on to the long-standing political belief in city hall that "they" in power know better than the rest of us.
But it is not too late.  There is one last re-affirmation vote on the financing in early August.  The Red Ant encourages you to write to Ward ASAP HERE and help guide him back on track.  Please remind him to focus on the issue at hand in the upcoming vote: FINANCING. Period. Hold him to his citizen-centric campaign promises. His concerns about the city leasing more and more office space at private sector rates are certainly valid, but that is another issue entirely.  If the public denies the cheaper GOB at the polls, council can still proceed - later - with COP, at their own political peril.  Or, as Bert contends, they can go back to the drawing board.  It's just a matter of following logical steps and not getting overwhelmed by the chaos and turmoil the mayor allows and enables at his meetings.
 
COMIN' DOWN THE PIKE: WHAT OUR BUREAUCRATS ARE UP TO
The following are several dubious projects and programs that The Red Ant is closely following.  Look for more information in coming issues.  I'm on it!!
 
>>>CASTLE CREEK TRAIL
A proposed pedestrian/bike trail linking the Marolt Housing project and the campus shared by the Aspen Country Day School (ACDS) and the Aspen Music Festival and School along Castle Creek Road is back on the front burner after a decade.  The current proposal is for a 3300 ft long path from the existing speed bumps at Marolt to the ACDS entrance, with a cost estimate of $6 million.  Yep, $6 million.  That's nearly $2000 a lineal foot.  The schools have wanted this for decades and 10 years ago an earlier proposal was shot down in the courts when local property owners sued over the county's failure to follow its own permitting process and dubious public outreach.  The County is back, seeking input this time (however, not more cost effective alternatives), but the gist remains the same: a cantilevered path above a steep embankment, 8 ft wide with curbs on both sides, that's covered in snow for about 6 months of the year from the Castle Creek snowplows, with a 200 ft stretch that is subject to rockslides from the opposite side of the road, necessitating the removal of 100+ trees and diminishing property values along the way.
 
The rationale is on one hand, safety. ACDS wants its kids to ride bikes to school, and the Music School students often walk between Marolt and the campus during the 9-week summer season despite the free RFTA service.  Plus, the county wants to connect the campus to its trail system. There is also a biker safety argument floating around but that's less of a concern in my book because road bikers are going to use the road, regardless.  On the other hand, the opposition is quick to point out the environmental impact (removal of so many trees along their properties), the aesthetics (a cantilevered monolith in their front yards and along the gateway to the pristine Castle Creek Valley), and the phenomenally high cost for such a small constituency when other options have yet to be considered.  
 
A recent public meeting presented what's at stake, again, and the positions have changed very little since 2007.  The price has tripled, however, and the politics are hot.  Respected longtime local Jon Busch wrote before the meeting that this 6/10 of a mile trail is "the most important missing piece of our trail inventory," and without it, someone is going to get hit, or worse.  After the meeting, Busch immediately wrote that he sees it a bit differently.  And kudos for him for hearing the other side and cogitating on it.  His "Spartan" idea sounds to me like a VERY workable solution.  How about duplicating local examples already at work?  Like Cemetery Lane, narrow the road and slow down the traffic in this section.  This will create a shoulder for bikes and pedestrians, which will be paved like the roadway but will have bollards placed to keep cars from crossing into the designated pathway.  "Lower cost.  Not a single tree cut down.  What's not to like?" Busch wrote.  And regarding the rockslide danger?  Emulate the barrier used at Shale Bluffs.  
 
I like the thinking, but will the Castle Creek Caucus play ball with this more Spartan trail in their midst?  They prevailed in the courts last time and are willing to fight again.  What about the schools? They want the trail so badly at any (public) cost that they even filmed a propaganda video of the entire 4thand 5th grade ACDS classes on a "mandatory bike day" to show the dangerous chaos of many children riding bikes along the road, despite a known survey that showed on average 3 students and 3 teachers rode their bikes to campus during school days in September and October 2016. Then there's the county's Open Space and Trails board (OST) that had a $12.5 million fund balance at the end of 2016.  These folks are always looking for projects (irrespective of cost) to justify the perpetuation of their dedicated funding source.  
 
To be continued....
 
>>>MUNICIPAL WATER STORAGE
In 2016, the city filed controversial due diligence to maintain its conditional water rights and stated intent to build ginormous dams and reservoirs in the Castle and Maroon Creek valleys to meet future municipal water needs in the case of an apocalyptic drought.  Perhaps seeing the error of its ways, city council is now considering a host of other water storage options.  Con$ultants are working to determine if the land beneath the golf course, the Maroon Creek Club course and/or Cozy Point Ranch is viable for water storage, and the city is also under contract for a giant land purchase in Woody Creek to which they hope to transfer their existing water rights.  These 63 acres have been on the market for ages with no action, but are now under contract for $2.65 million, likely far more than the land is worth given its prime location next to an industrial gravel pit/asphalt yard, race track and antennae farm.  This purchase, reminiscent of the city's $18 million BMC lumberyard purchase in 2008, is considered the centerpiece for a re-worked solution to the dams/reservoirs scenario that is currently being challenged by no fewer than 10 respected environmental entities, including: American Rivers, Colorado Trout Unlimited, Wilderness Workshop, Western Reserve Advocates and Pitkin County's own Healthy Rivers board, among others.
 
It's up to the water court to decide if the city's conditional water rights can be transferred in this manner, but if they can, look for the city to complete their purchase and spend untold millions constructing the facilities and infrastructure to collect and move water UP VALLEY to Aspen. 

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