"Who will govern the governors?" -- Thomas Jefferson
UNREST AND FAMILY TIES ON THE WHEELER BOARD
Longtime local Barbara Conviser abruptly resigned from the Wheeler Board last week. This comes amidst controversy over the make-up of the board of this high-profile, City-owned entity. The Wheeler has long had a student representative with voting power on the board, and that is to be commended. However, on a 7-member board, The Red Ant finds it puzzling that Council recently appointed a student representative whose father is board president, 15-year board member Ron Erickson.
The son is clearly talented, and his father has obviously served with dedication, but good governance principles would require that no immediate family relationships exist on a board with this kind of authority. All board members serve 3-year terms and there are no term limits, other than some apparently subjective ones. (Council recently did not re-appoint one of the incumbents and Mayor Mick wrote to her, "It's time to allow new people a chance to serve on the Wheeler Board.")
With the critical and controversial issue of the Wheeler Opera House expansion -- with all its major financial implications -- on the horizon, the need for diverse perspectives to be represented in the decision making is abundantly clear. The Red Ant hopes that Council will explain to the public why they apparently violated one of the most basic governance principles and created such issues of "board member independence" for an important board at such a critical time.
The Wheeler board will be soon making recommendations on spending approximately $30 million and incurring public debt for its planned expansion. Will father or son have to abstain from important votes because of this potential conflict? How has the Wheeler board structured its bylaws to deal with this unusual board governance matter? We feel that Council put the board, the father and son, and the public in extremely awkward positions by this related-party appointment.
CITY COUNCIL SPENDING, SPENDING, SPENDING ...
City Council met on September 1st to discuss the budget for the remainder of 2009 and begin work for 2010. It is alarming to The Ant to observe that after the lackluster summer where July sales tax revenues were down 17% and lodging taxes were down 32% from 2008, the growing revenue budget shortfalls don't seem to concern Council. (Remember, the original budget for the 2009 General Fund predicted a BREAK-EVEN year, despite Councilman Romero's requests to consider a 20% decreased revenue scenario.) Thankfully, over time, the budget was revised to cut some spending and plan for some revenue decreases to arrive at an operating loss prediction of $940K in March. But much to the Ant's dismay, Council has allowed the budgeted operating loss to increase 3-fold to $2.85 million in just six months! Good grief!! Where's the fiscal conservatism we were promised by our Councilmen? Aren't most of them businessmen and/or MBAs??
Looking at the budget for the coming months The Ant doesn't get it. How will the City keep the losses even at THAT level? Somehow, the City predicts autumn sales tax revenues to be only about 4% lower than last fall, including a 6.4% HIGHER December 2009 than December 2008. Huh?? A $2.5 million General Fund loss has already been incurred through July! And we are headed into off-season. We are anxious to see the August financials. If the trends don't seriously improve, we surely hope that citizens will be asking Council to focus far more seriously on fiscal matters!
The Council obviously sees it differently than the Ant. Instead of even discussing the concerns about the net operating loss, spending cuts, layoffs, deferring expenditures or preserving capital reserves, Council's budget discussion in September primarily centered around how to control growth in the future! (No, we're not kidding.)
The source document financial reports are at: http://www.aspenpitkin.com/pdfs/depts/45/TaxCollectionReport.pdf
... AND HOPING FOR A LESS-THAN-FULL RECOVERY
Councilman Steve Skadron and Mayor Mick shared with their colleagues that their constituents really didn't like it when Aspen was economically booming in 2007-2008. Rather, they preferred it in 2003-2004 when things were good, but just not as vibrant as they were to become.
As Mayor Mick waxed on about how to control and plan the local economy so as to avoid "booms and busts," we were hearing sounds of the classic "Command/Control Economy" lectures which surely set off our antennae! Skadron and Ireland agree -- 2007-2008 was a little too "crazy" for their tastes. Now Mayor Mick, who welcomed an economic downturn ("An economic downturn would be good for Aspen"), is joined by Councilman Skadron who would rather see less than a full local economic recovery. The Red Ant wonders just how the unemployed workers whose jobs were created during those robust times feel about the notion of those jobs never coming back!
The Ant finds those discussions of how to control future growth somewhat premature, and the discussions of how to keep from decimating the City's balance sheet long overdue.
BIG BROTHER TARGETS LOCAL RETAILERS
As if the past year hasn't been tough enough on local retailers, it seems that the Mayor wants to demand a level of private business sales information unheard of in a free economy. Mayor Mick proposed this disturbing notion at a recent Council worksession: he specifically wants "to know more about each retailer's individual transactions" so the City can know more "about each sale (the retailers) make." Talk about driving business away! The Red Ant challenges ACRA to say an unequivocal "NO" the next time this subject is raised. The government needs to stay out of the private transactions between merchants and their customers! A City executive objected to this overt intrusion, but Mick countered with a declaration that if SkiCo can have radio-pass lift ticket operations, surely there is a way to get detailed retail data that can be mined by City Hall!!
DOES CITY HALL KNOW HOW YOU VOTED?
Local attorney and voter Millard Zimet claims the City violated his Constitutional rights by not conducting a secret ballot election. Over 88% of the ballots were unique because of the great number of permutations and combinations of rankings for 13 candidates. If a voter remembers how he/she voted, it's quite simple to find one's own ballot "data strings" in publicly-released documents. With that data string/vote located, it's quite possible to look at the sequenced poll lists to then likely identify how those before and after you voted - a result of the City not shuffling the ballots before scanning them and releasing the sequenced individual ballot data.
If Zimet knows how people around him voted, who knows how YOU voted? Will this hurt or help you when you need a building permit? Will your boss or landlord know how you voted? Will City Council take you seriously when you speak during public comment if they know how you voted?
Zimet's complaint is currently in the hands of the Election Commission.
ISN'T THE PROPERTY TAX SCHEME ALREADY A STACKED DECK?
Just when you thought it couldn't get any more convoluted and controversial, Pitkin County recently hired Mayor Mick (on an hourly fee basis) as a hearing officer, granting him the authority to adjust citizens' recent property appraisals. (And we all know how HE feels about free-market property!!) Mayor Mick sees no conflict of interest here, because souls who come before him may request another officer if they are brave enough to do so.
But what's worse -- risking Mick's well-known wrath when you request an officer change, or leaving the determination of your property value in the hands of the elected official who has primary responsibility for the City budget that's quite dependent on property taxes?? With the deck already stacked against the property owner, imagine if Mick checks to see how you voted before he hears your appeal!?!
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