"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."
-- George Orwell
WHO IS THE RED ANT?
She is me. I'm her. My name is Elizabeth Milias. I'm originally from San Marino, California, but have lived full-time in Aspen since 2008. Prior to this, I worked in the Pentagon as a political appointee in the George W. Bush (43) administration, where I served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs under both Secretaries of Defense Rumsfeld and Gates. I ski over 100 days a season, regularly hike Smuggler, root for the Broncos, enjoy my "Wednesday B" shift at the Thrift Shop, hang with my pals in the Hotel Jerome's Living Room, breakfast at Main Street Bakery's "shared table," collect vintage Nancy Drew mysteries, and can frequently be found at the Bangkok Bowl counter where I get my spicy Thai fix! My background is in strategic communication, and I have my undergraduate degree in economics from UCLA and an MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University (with coursework at the Medill School of Journalism). My ties to Aspen stem from my first job out of college in the marketing and public affairs department of the Aspen Skiing Co. in the late 80's.
When I returned to Aspen in 2008, I saw the changes in Aspen. And no, I did not lament the bygone era of the Quiet Years. As a marketer first and foremost, I celebrated the leaps and bounds by my former employer: successfully building a highly desirable and accessible, first-rate, year-round, international and world class travel destination. I additionally embraced the "infill" effort that concentrated development in town in an effort increase vitality and prevent sprawl. Amidst the effects of the economic downturn, what I also saw was a vast class warfare divide that had infected a previously copacetic community that prided itself on sharing our collective experience with folks of every background and from every corner of the globe. Sure, there had always been a "town and gown" scenario, but without the vitriol so present today. Much of this quickly became attributable to the sitting mayor, Mick Ireland, and the pervasive "soak the rich" mentality that had been embraced by so many locals over the years of his tenure in public office at both the county and in city hall. I also saw an enormous "entitlement class" firmly ensconced in the community, primarily living in subsidized housing -- not in rentals or as the intended step-up to the free market in town or elsewhere -- but for life! (This was ABSOLUTELY not the intent of the program I remembered from the 80's; besides, where had all the youthful one-season, post-college "ski bums" gone?) Just observations, of course, but I sure didn't like what I was seeing.
Layered on top of this social upheaval was a bureaucracy-centered local government with an all-powerful city manager whose priorities were keeping his 300+/- employees in their jobs, spending $100 million in public funds every year doing it, and driving his own misguided and non-representative policies, all with the willing complicity of a head-bobbing and rubber-stamping city council. And yes, with Mick as mayor - an accomplice of the bureaucrats, ruling with an iron fist. Pretty despicable.
The straw that broke this camel's back was the Burlingame subsidized housing project. City materials in support of a 2005 vote for the project grossly understated the cost to taxpayers: $14.7 million (or a subsidy of just $62,500 per unit). In 2008, it was exposed that Burlingame had NO budget, and the per-unit subsidies were actually $372K, not $62,500 as promised to voters. The city (Mick, Jack, Barwick and all their cronies) embarked on an obfuscation campaign that only furthered to muddy the already filthy waters. Lies, cover-ups and random blame were rampant. It was during this time that I met Marilyn Marks, who had been studying the Burlingame fiasco as a member of the Citizen's Budget Task Force and writing letters to the editor about the outrageous and unethical goings-on. We were appalled at the deliberate attempts by the city to destroy materials and shut down websites that corroborated our findings. The local papers and others on council simply stood by and did nothing.
City hall was getting away with blatant corruption. And, in our opinion, much of the oversight (cover-up?) stemmed from the reticence of the local press to research and investigate the facts of the story. Thwarted in our efforts to convince the editors of the two daily papers to dive into the issue, connect the dots and shine a bright light on the illicit behavior of Mick, lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick and their complicit cronies, we knew the time was right to do something on our own to correct the record and opine on the nefarious goings on. It was 2008, so the medium would clearly be electronic: frequent enough to remain current, thorough enough to be relevant, and, most of all, fun to read. Fueled by countless lattes at Peach's (nee Zele) and blessed with generous "contributions" of email lists to get us started, The Red Ant was born!
We've had a bumpy ride! Dead animals (and other detritus) on our doorsteps, personal threats warranting restraining orders, regular 1-finger salutes from the mayor (Mick), hate mail, excoriating letters to the editors, foulmouthed postings on local blogs - you name it! Breaking stories like "the city knows how you voted," "the plastic bag 'fee' is actually an illegal tax" and "the hydro plant will cost millions more to build and operate than it can recover in energy revenue over the next half century" firmly put us in the crosshairs of Mick, Jack Johnson, Phyllis Bronson, Pete Louras and every hater in the entrenched political class this side of the Continental Divide. But a wise man once said, "If they're reacting, you're getting at something. It would be much worse to be ignored." And with each issue, subscription requests rolled in and our reach and influence became greater and greater. We were certainly not ignored!
In 2009, Marilyn boldly ran against Mick for mayor and was narrowly defeated in Aspen's inaugural Instant Run-off Voting (IRV) election. The controversy surrounding this election remains unresolved to this day. Under the terms of the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), Marilyn sued the city to view the ballot images that were shown on GrassRoots TV on election night. The case was dismissed at city-friendly district court, but Marilyn prevailed on appeal. Council, with Mick at the helm and corrupt then-city attorney John Worcester egging them on, voted to challenge the appellate court's ruling at the Colorado Supreme Court level, but the Supremes refused to hear the case so the appellate ruling stands. Marilyn gained viewing access to the ballots and was additionally awarded legal fees that, to this day, the city refuses to pay. Mick's and John Worcester's personal vendettas against Marilyn continue today under the direction of current and equally compromised city attorney Jim True/False. It will cost the city over $300K when all is said and done. And it's far from done.
For 4 months in early 2010, The Red Ant hit the "pause" button. It was time to decide where to go next. The "experiment" had worked; we had a loyal and interested following that rather enjoyed this new voice on the local political scene. At least that's what you were telling us. After much discussion and consideration (and totally amicably), Marilyn opted to leave The Red Ant to pursue her open records case against the city. Notably, her case and its state- and nationwide implications have led Marilyn to a second "career" as a very effective and successful election integrity activist.
I then took the reign of The Red Ant solo, and, with Issue #40: VacANT, committed to continuing this new era of investigative journalism and political commentary, Aspen-style. They're not ignoring me yet, and the bumps continue, as expected. I'm regularly tormented by the haters (and even some of their wives) and have been kept from community boards for being "too controversial," but I'm also proud to have made an impact when it concerns issues I that care about. With just over 2000 subscribers, The Red Ant regularly enjoys a 50+% "open" rate, and on average I hear from 100+/- of you with each issue. Here are some interesting stats on the first 5 years and 100 issues of The Red Ant:
TOP 10 MOST FREQUENTLY COVERED TOPICS
- Hydro Plant
- Subsidized Housing - in general
- City Recycling/Plastic Bag Tax/Geothermal Drilling
- Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP)
- Aspen Valley Hospital (AVH) expansion
- Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA)
- Lazy and Incompetent City Manager Steve Barwick and the City Hall Bureaucracy
TOP 10 MOST-READ ISSUES (by percentage)
- Issue #97: ByzANTine Conundrums (7/18/2013)
- Issue #4: Chairman Mao's Diner and the Veggie Burger Requirement (8/25/2008)
- Issue #92: ANT Alert - Vote! (5/4/2013)
- Issue #7: Oops! Burlingame Brochure Error (9/7/2008)
- Issue #91: The Election PageANT is On (4/20/2013)
- Issue #19: Culture of Intimidation (11/2/2008)
- Issue #93: ANT Alert - Election Recap (5/8/13)
- Issue #90: Is the May Election RelevANT? (3/22/13)
- Issue #89: Power: An InebriANT (2/25/2013)
- Issue #27: Phyllis Bronson's Shakedown (2/5/09)
THE RED ANT'S POLITICAL INFLUENCE & NOTABLE PREDICTIONS / VICTORIES
- Burlingame $75+ million over-spend/cover-up exposed (Issues # 7 and #32)
- "Get Jack OFF City Council" campaign/Jack Johnson defeated in 2009 council bid
- Hydro Plant exposed as financial and environmental disaster; community opposition begins (Issue #45)
- The Red Ant speaks about "Secrecy at City Hall" at Business Luncheon in 2010 (Issue #48)
- "Hit the Road Jack J" campaign/Jack Johnson defeated in 2010 BOCC bid (Issue #51)
- Rob Ittner elected to BOCC in 2010 (Issue #51)
- Instant Run-off Voting (IRV) repealed in 2010 (Issue #51)
- University of Colorado sells The Given Institute for $13.8M; building torn down in 2011 (Issues #49, #54 and #55)
- "Sick of Mick" campaign of 2011 signals community's Mick-fatigue (Issues #58, #59 and #61)
- Voting oversight at city hall for 2011 election (Issue #62)
- Adam Frisch elected to city council in 2011 (Issues #61 and #62)
- Lawsuit challenging Plastic Bag Tax in 2012 (Issue #82)
- Advisory vote on Hydro Plant completion defeated in 2012 (Issue #86)
- City's draconian Subsidized Housing Mitigation plans exposed (then tabled, temporarily) in 2013 (Issues #88 and #89)
- City's Geothermal Drilling Experiment predicted and revealed to be $273K wasted (Issue #96)
THE RED ANT'S PAINFUL LOSSES
- Ordinance 22 of 2008 passes, preventing the "combination" of 2 free market condominiums because this "destroys" potential worker housing (Issues #9, #10, #11)
- IRV implemented in 2009 despite controversial, confusing and untested tabulation methodologies (Issues #29, #29b, #30)
- Burlingame Phase 2 proceeds with city as developer (Issue #32)
- Mick wins re-election in 2009, defeating Marilyn Marks in controversial IRV election
- The City knows how you voted in 2009 and likely in every past election (Issue #36)
- Lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick granted a $170K/year contract (Issue #41)
- $50 million bond for Aspen Valley Hospital expansion passes in 2010 (Issues #44 and #51)
- City grants Aspen Art Museum permission to build a HUGE new building without public process, the result of city's lawsuit settlement with the property's former owners (Issue #49)
- Bag tax passes; called a "fee" (Issues #55, #56 and #69)
- Mick re-elected to 3rd term in 2011 with 50.6% of the vote; defeats Ruth Kruger (Issue #62)
- Bike sharing launches in Aspen with $200K in government subsidies despite abysmal financials and a joke of a business plan (Issue #96 and #97)
ANT GETS INK: LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
In an ongoing attempt to spread the good word, I also write on occasion to the local papers. Here are several of my favorite contributions to the local editorial pages:
- 8/18/2008 The Burlingame Bank Job: Jack Johnson on the Burlingame debacle
- 6/24/2010 Money Isn't Free: City does not understand debt financing
- 9/15/2010 Sick of Mick: Mick hates speculation
- 10/13/2010 Pure poor behavior: the "Hit the Road Jack J" website
- 6/24/2011 Wheeler subsidies are outrageous
- 11/21/2011 Talking trash: Jack Johnson obfuscating the truth about secret ballots
- 12/8/2011 That's big bank for bikes: ridiculous plan for the bike sharing program
- 1/13/2012 An "F" in Econ 101: Mick's war against the free market
- 6/6/2012 The Lodge that got away: how quickly they forget how Mick killed the 1A deal
- 12/29/2012 Can you say pathetic?: Council's 2012 accomplishments
AND DON'T FORGET
For giggles, take a minute to re-visit:
- "Aspen's Water-Gate" full-page ad about the hydro plant's dismal financials in the Aspen Daily News
CAN'T MAKE IT UP: ORIGIN OF THE NAME "THE RED ANT"
In August 2008, "the newsletter" was close to becoming a reality. But it had no name, and the name would be EVERYTHING. It simply had to stand on its own and be memorable. Upon receiving a particularly "good" email list that signaled we'd be reaching the "right" local audience, I exclaimed with glee, "I haven't had this much fun since putting red ants in the boys tent at camp!" Never mind I'd never gone to that kind of camp, somehow the words just came out and The Red Ant was officially ready for prime time in Aspen.
THORNS IN MY SIDE
Looking to the future, The Red Ant is committed to chasing down the real stories behind the shenanigans at city hall. Among others, these are the hot-button local topics I am watching closely and researching today:
- Hydro Plant: despite the 2012 vote to cease funding, and without council direction, city staffers forge ahead to complete the Castle Creek Energy Center
- Subsidized Housing Mitigation: draconian proposed requirements drastically increase housing mitigation fees, ostensibly to provide "a critical mass" of subsidized housing, but more likely to punish free market property owners for the crime of ownership and desire to expand or redevelop their properties
- RFTA: the $45 million upgrade predicts huge ridership increases
- Parking: Before we re-build the undesirable Rio Grande Parking Garage, have we considered all other options?
- Rubey Park: do we really want a $5M parking lot for 28 RFTA buses in the center of town? Is this the very best option? What are the viable alternatives?
- Barwick: the lazy and incompetent $170K/year city manager pursues his own policies and agenda without informing council or getting their direction or approval
- Cemetery Lane Open Space: the city proposes converting public open space for employee housing despite charter provisions that mandate a public vote for such alternative uses
These stories, and other inevitable nonsense of the day, will be featured in future issues. I'll keep writing as long as you keep reading.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
I am often asked, "How can I help?" The easiest way is simple: vote. Your vote ABSOLUTELY counts in our local elections. I will keep you informed, so please keep your voter registration current! If you cannot vote locally, it is EXTREMELY helpful to local candidates and issue committees when you make a donation to their campaign(s). Even $20 makes a difference. I promise to let you know how to contact the various campaigns. And notably, in the post-Mick era, the very real fear of retribution for contributing to local political causes seems to be subsiding. And, as for The Red Ant, this endeavor is a labor of love (obviously) and a free subscription. That will always be the case, but if you are interested in supporting this effort, please feel free to contribute:
The Red Ant
PO Box 4662
Aspen, CO 81612
And remember, if you hit the "reply" button at the top of your issue of The Red Ant, your email will come directly to me. Be in touch! Let me know what you think!
Thank you for your ongoing interest and support of government transparency, fiscal accountability and election integrity in Aspen.