THE RED ANT SPEAKS
On September 1, The Red Ant (a.k.a. Elizabeth Milias) addressed the Aspen Business Luncheon at the St. Regis hotel. Speaking to a packed house that seemed to enjoy it, I thought you might be interested in what I had to say. For those of you who were in attendance, thank you for the wonderful support. The following are my remarks. Be sure to read the city's panicked response below: "Thank you for coming... Alan and Todd didn't want to include the fact that I'd worked on the Bush-Cheney campaign in their email notification of this event. They said people wouldn't come. I didn't agree with them, but I went along. ---- Thanks guys for leaving that out.... Current Events in Aspen: The Real Story -- A Critical Discussion of Aspen City Hall Politics. As you might imagine, the City got very excited about my talk and contacted me last week requesting my "prepared remarks" for prior review. ......
I'm here today to talk for a few minutes about what I see as the "Culture of Secrecy" at Aspen's City Hall. In general, when I use the term "city hall," I am referring to city council, city attorneys John Worcester and Jim True, and city manager Steve Barwick. This is structured as several "Ant Bytes" that will illustrate an institutional practice of secrecy that has created dangerous scenarios which have current and on-going repercussions for each of us.
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But first, a little on the genesis of The Red Ant. I got back to town amidst the Ordinance 30 controversy and just prior to the lid being blown off the Burlingame budget issue. The only news on the stories was what was in the papers. It was clear to me that there was something rotten in Denmark. And nobody was connecting the dots. Enormous parts of the stories were not being told. But worst of all, people were mad, but they were afraid to get involved. Needless to say, I was outraged. It was in this time period that I met Marilyn Marks --- and we decided to do something ---- to take the issues head-on, name names and make the comments that the newspapers wouldn't. A periodic email essay, sent out to our friends, seemed to be the simple solution, and The Red Ant was born. Marilyn and I recently decided that our civic efforts are more powerful with a "divide and conquer strategy," and since this spring, I have been flying solo with The Red Ant. Last month, The Red Ant celebrated her 2nd anniversary.
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I'd like to begin with Ordinance 30 of 2007 aka "emergency" Ordinance 30. This legislation was brought forward by then-councilman and current BOCC candidate Jack Johnson. Passed close to midnight, without public input, Ordinance 30 required that all properties 30 years or older be reviewed for potential historic significance before they could be demolished or even altered. This "emergency" was justified by a list of 14 buildings that had allegedly already been demolished and another list of homes the city had its eyes on for years without the owners' knowledge. This "secret list" identified 53 post-war properties that had potential historic value. The properties on the "secret list" had been bought and sold to unknowing buyers throughout the years. The "secret list" was withheld from the public for a while, but when it was released, on the already-demolished list were several buildings that had NOT been demolished at all (like the Annabelle Inn) and others that were going through the proper legal procedure. ((((This is what happens without a public process.)))) This was also the first time that local property owners learned that their properties were on the "secret list".
So, where does what started as Ordinance 30 stand today? The Historic Preservation Task Force of citizens was recently disbanded after two years when they came to an impasse on the issue of voluntary vs involuntary historical designation of private property. For three years, the affected property owners have been in purgatory. Not only have their property values fallen with the market, those with houses on the now-public "secret list" have had to endure this additional burden of uncertainty. Just last night, the city's historic preservation staff proposed to council a NEW scoring system for the 53 properties still in purgatory. Properties would be scored on a secret "historic value scale" and those in the highest category would then qualify for involuntary designation. But surprise, surprise. Council apparently doesn't have the stomach for "involuntary designation" and they sent staff back to the drawing board.
With this, I'd have to say that despite the secret lists, the late night vote, the inaccurate justification, and the lack of public process, the outlook for those "purgatory" properties is looking better than expected. But, as usual, before completely eliminating the list, council rested. So what's next? I don't know. It must be secret.
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In the same timeframe, Burlingame was being built and nearing completion. Now recall that the former Bar X Ranch was annexed to the city of Aspen in 2005 when voters were promised that the per-unit subsidies at Burlingame were to be $62,500. At the completion of phase 1, a Citizens Budget Task Force was formed to prepare financial estimates for the Burlingame phase 2 bond measure. And then the big secret was revealed: there had been no budget for Phase 1.
The CBTF was immediately put under gag order and the press was kept from meetings. All references to the $62,500 subsidy mysteriously disappeared from websites overnight (and were later attributed to a "brochure error"). Budget and spending issues on Burlingame could not be discussed in public meetings.
However, much later, when the city tried to address the egregious fiscal mis-management at Burlingame, a "missing" $25 million was attributed to "inflation" - this, on a fixed-price contract. Currently, out at Burlingame, the city is still working through the punch list for phase 1, but there is $4m in the current budget for Burlingame phase 2 planning and design. Yes, $4M.
The denial of intentional voter mis-information, the many attempts to keep secret and cover-up the financial disaster, the arrogant and premature expenditures for the next phase...... I hope Burlingame phase 2 does NOT move forward. Just think - we don't have enough jobs for the people already in employee housing; we're in an environment of declining demand for it; it's terribly difficult to get financing for deed restricted property; and there is ABSOLUTELY no assurance that an enormous bond will pass to build this thing. But I'm sure they have a secret plan.
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Now, it's no secret that I was appointed to be an Election Commissioner in 2009, just prior to the now infamous IRV election. In short, here's how it went ---- The public voted in 2007 to use Instant Run-off Voting in our elections. That there were multiple methodologies of the controversial vote-counting scheme was kept secret from the voters. The "rules" for Aspen's vote count were determined mostly in secret meetings of city staff, the city attorneys and the incumbents running for office -- Mick and Jack.
Among other problems, as an election commissioner I witnessed messed up pre-election software testing. In one case, the candidate with lowest number of votes came out as the winner, while the candidate with the highest number of votes became the loser. Reminds me of the biblical reference "the first shall be last and the last shall be first." ---- But I digress.....
This precipitated some late-night last-minute software changes in the wee hours before the election. City attorney Jim True tested this software alone, in secret, in his office. And after the election, when the city's election contractor discovered a vote tabulation error, the city kept this secret until the deadline for a recount had passed.
But when the election commissioners began to ask questions, we were swiftly "disappeared." But before I left ---- one big secret had been revealed: the city knows how you voted. It's been proven. Your constitutional right to an anonymous ballot has been violated, and this was likely not the first time.
Now the city calls that election "the most transparent" in history. WRONG. It's all a big secret. It comes down to this fundamental question: Why won't the city show the same ballot images that they showed on television screens the night of the election? What are they hiding?
Currently there's a new EC in place and they have agreed to look into the citizen complaints and at various recommendations from the district attorney to make changes and corrections to the serious legal violations from the 2009 election. I will surprise you and say that my outlook on Aspen elections is so-so. I am cautiously optimistic. The issues are cumbersome and the ingrained environment is shrouded in secrecy. It will be extremely difficult for the EC to make the changes that the city attorneys and city council don't want made. But laws were broken, and we must demand that integrity and honesty be returned to our local elections. That's no secret.
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So you ask, how can this happen? Who's in charge over there at city hall? Steve Barwick is the Aspen's city manager - its CEO if you will. But the big secret is that he is not in charge: Mick Ireland is. Barwick never makes his positions known and is not functioning as a CEO.
In fact, Barwick 1) ...initiated the $18 million purchase of the BMC property and completed it without an appraisal, bankrupting the housing fund. 2) He led, oversaw and continues to lead wasteful expenditures of millions of dollars of public funds on unrealistic, ill-conceived, failed projects and programs such as the ZG Master Plan, the Main Street Median and the outdoor pool at the ARC. 3) And, he recently attempted to have an Aspen citizen "punished" by the Rotary Club for dissenting with the local government. We don't hear much from Barwick, just that he agrees with Mick on everything the mayor puts forth. This void in leadership creates the incubator in which the culture of secrecy thrives.
The current situation? City council recently rewarded Barwick with a $170,000 annual contract, never mind that he's been in this role for 11 years now and no previous councils would give him one. As such, the outlook for professional city management is BAD. Now Barwick has a contract. And it's no secret that he gave "free housing for life" to the public works director when this individual threatened to leave his job. ---- It's a fair bet that Barwick is secretly hoping that Mick does the same thing for him.
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There are ongoing issues of what I call Funny Money at city hall. The City has a knack for secretly moving money around, misplacing it and spending it inappropriately. As citizens, we never learn about the city's secret money maneuvers until they get caught!
During its 2008 land-banking spending spree, the city "borrowed" $8M from the Wheeler's RETT account to buy the $18M BMC property. They're paying it back with interest now, but ....??? And then there's the missing $475K from Obermeyer Place, earmarked for the recycling center...... But don't forget the city employee purchase cards or "P-Cards" ---- These debit cards that pull straight from the city's coffers were revealed to have been used by employees for meals at high end restaurants and even for purchases from a fur store, totaling in excess of $250,000 in 2007 and 2008.
The current situation on funny money -- ?? Another secret. We won't know until the next one's revealed. And the Outlook - BAD.
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Speaking of Funny Money, my favorite issue du jour "Affordable Housing" ---It's the subject of a major story I'm working on for an upcoming Red Ant, so look for that... I prefer to call it "subsidized housing" because there is nothing affordable about affordable housing. The dirty little secret about subsidized housing is that the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority - APCHA - is really not in charge. Nobody is.
You see, APCHA merely facilitates the sales of the subsidized units, and after that, it's no longer their responsibility to manage the homeowners associations. These are on their own to manage and collect dues from themselves. Yes, APCHA determines eligibility, conducts the lotteries and is working to improve enforcement, but the fact is, once the units are sold, nobody's in charge.
As a result, the entire program is facing an enormous and potentially financially catastrophic capital reserves issue. Most subsidized housing projects have not collected sufficient capital reserves for on-going maintenance and repairs, if they have even collected them at all. You see, there is no incentive as a subsidized housing owner to pay into capital reserves - demand's been high and there was always the next guy, waiting in line to buy his subsidized housing from you.
Consider the big mess at Centennial. In the owned-unit portion of the project, there is a terrible mold problem that is affecting a number of structures there. The problem is, the HOA reserves are so terribly insufficient that the tens of millions the repairs will take will have to come from another source. And special assessments from the owners will likely be more than the places are worth! But, interestingly, at Centennial, there is also a rental unit portion of the project. This is privately managed. And they have no deferred maintenance problems because the rents being charged cover the cost of ongoing maintenance, and security deposits exist to fix up the units when they're turned over.
Currently, a new-ish group called Housing Frontiers Group is looking into the problems at APCHA and trying hard to come up with new solutions. I like the direction. Outlook: ok. But APCHA needs to be completely reworked, from scratch.
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So what can we as a community do to address the culture of secrecy at city hall? The key is to get and stay informed. Get involved. Ask the tough questions. ((((I always start with the question: where's the money?)))) But most importantly, VOTE, and vote knowledgeably.
There is a terrible pattern of cart-before-the-horse ballot measures that we've fallen victim to because the city kept parts of the issues secret. We believed ballot language that convinced us to vote for: 1) Annexation of Burlingame - the secret: they marketed the measure with false subsidy information 2) The Hydro electric plant - the secret: city doesn't have federal permits nor have they determined the proper water level for the river 3) IRV was sold as way to conduct cheap elections with just one trip to the polls - the secret: there are numerous methodologies that each yield different outcomes with the very same ballots. 4) This November, we'll have the option to repeal IRV. This is a good thing, right? Secret: without a definition of what IRV will look like if it's kept and without a definition of what the "traditional" voting method means, it's hard to know which is better. The city would prefer to make these decisions after the vote ----- likely in secret.
It's like herding kittens over there. As I often say in The Red Ant, city hall is a target-rich environment, and these guys put the "fun" in dysfunctional..... But actually, they're running a tight little game ---- at our expense. Until we started asking the tough questions, they've been keeping secrets and laughing all the way to the bank. Our friend Jack Johnson here says that "voters should vote, and then shut up." I whole-heartedly disagree. The local government works for me. And I'm here today to remind you that they work for you too. All of their activities and decisions and emails, etc ----- this is public information.
To all of my Red Ant readers, I truly appreciate your feedback. I respond to 100% of what I receive, including: directives to leave town, questions that I try my best to answer, and suggestions which often become the subject of future Red Ants. However, my most difficult feedback is the "you should" comments. I can't do this alone. I've been working hard to create a drumbeat and establish a community of citizens who feel the same way I do. I need your help and your involvement
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The Red Ant says, sometimes someone just has to call it as she sees it. I'm sick of the BS. I'm sick of the secrecy. And I think you are too. Let's stick together. Thank you for reading The Red Ant and thank you for sending it to your friends. We're making a difference every day." ((END))
....AND THEN THE CITY PANICKED!
In the Q & A portion of the event, city community relations officer Sally Spaulding came unhinged. Event organizers had to ask her to sit down and perhaps come back another day to make her own presentation. But in the true demonstration of exactly the theme of my speech, Sally promptly sent out a hilariously defensive and untruthful email to a select (secret?) list of recipients, The Red Ant not included. The lies - oh my! I couldn't have asked for a better and more predictable action by the city to prove my point!
The following are examples of Sally's crazy-talk city spin, followed by the facts. It is good to know that The Red Ant has the city on the run. (That's the idea.) But it is unbelievable how far the city will go in order to try to defend its secrets! They never let the facts get in the way of their story!!
1. On my statement "There was no budget for Phase 1 of Burlingame"
- City Sally: "This is simply wrong. There was a budget...." She continues, "The city of Aspen signed a contract with Shaw Construction to deliver Burlingame Phase 1 at a fixed contract price of $36.4 million."
- The Truth: A construction contract is not a budget.
According to the publicly available spreadsheet titled "BG Reconciliation" which served as the basis for and was included in the McMahon and Associates (CPA) audit, through July 2008, $52 million had been spent on Burlingame Phase 1. And this is a conservative number. To-date, Burlingame Phase 1 continues to incur ongoing costs (2 years later) as the punch-list is still not complete. The same document shows that millions of dollars more have been spent at Burlingame, but allocated to Phases 2 & 3. Should these phases not be built, the actual Phase 1 expenditures will skyrocket! On July 28, 2008, in a city press conference, city manager Steve Barwick stated that there was "no comprehensive budget" for Burlingame Phase 1. In addition, according to the Aspen Daily News, July 31, 2008, "A city of Aspen press release issued Monday afternoon that described the audits as confirming that Burlingame Phase 1 was delivered 'on budget' also appears dubious. A second version of the press release issued Tuesday omitted the phrase. The McMahan and Associates audit appears to confirm what critics of Burlingame have been saying, i.e., that Burlingame had no comprehensive budget." NOTE: The Red Ant will gladly retract this statement if/when the city presents its comprehensive Burlingame Phase 1 budget. Numerous official "open records" requests have yet to produce this elusive document.
2. On my alleged statement that "Meetings on Phase 2 of Burlingame are being held in secret"
- The Truth: I never said that. (See speech text above.) But I do indeed intend to vociferously oppose ANY and ALL bond measures for future Burlingame development, and I encourage all citizens to do the same.
3. On my alleged statement that "IRV pre-election software was fixed by Assistant City Attorney Jim True"
- City Sally: "Another ridiculous accusation.... Elizabeth knows this accusation is incorrect but continues to repeat it."
- The Truth: (Hint... take better notes and quote me accurately!) I said that "Jim True tested this software alone, in secret, in his office." (See speech text above.) There is a BIG DIFFERENCE.....
According to an email from city clerk Kathryn Koch on election day, May 5, 2009, at 4:54pm, regarding her plans for the pre-ballot-counting logic and accuracy test of the vote-counting machines and software, she wrote, "We have the tape from the Accuvote machine; we have Jim True's hand tally which is consistent with True Ballot's tabulation" (from the prior evening). Jim True's "hand tally" was done overnight on May 4, 2009, alone, in secret, in his office, after the public Logic and Accuracy Test did not initially yield correct outcomes. He did not notify the election commission nor any candidates of this test, despite the fact that this test was to have been conducted in public according to election law. (There is a chance that the city clerk may have been involved with True's late-night test, so he may not have been entirely "alone," but it was certainly still not conducted in public or with public notification.)
4. On my statement that the city broke the law on the 2009 election:
- City Sally: "The district attorney has confirmed that no laws were broken."
- The Truth: According to the DA's published opinion on the election "irregularities" surrounding the May 5, 2009, election, there were (and I quote):
- "Ordinance violations... prosecutable in the Aspen municipal court" (p. 1 -- Jurisdiction)
- Numerous "rule violations" (pp. 6 and 8 -- Claims 1, 3 and 11)
- "Violation(s) of duty" by the city clerk (p. 7 -- Claims 5 and 8)
- A "technical violation of the law" (p. 10 -- Claim 21)
- A "violation of charter or municipal code by misinforming or not informing its own electorate" (p. 9 -- Claim 16)
- A "violation of the state constitution" (p. 9 -- Claim 14)
- "Violations of the city's charter" (p. 7 -- Claim 9)
- "Violations of the Secretary of State's rule" (p. 11 -- Claim 25)
- "Violations of the city's election rules" (p. 7 -- Claim 7)
- "Breach of contract or fraud" (p.11 -- Claim 24)
While the DA found "no prosecutable state crimes," he listed several of these infractions as best addressed by "the election commission or the city itself," and suggested that some be brought before the municipal court. Again, while the DA noted that he felt these problems and violations "do not belong in the criminal justice system," he in no way "confirmed that no laws were broken" as the city would have you believe!
5. On my alleged statement that "the city won't release the 2009 ballots because it has something to hide"
- City Sally: "The city won't release the ballots because it is against the law to do so. A judge has confirmed this."
- The Truth: (Once again, check the facts and quote me accurately.) I said, "Why won't the city show the same ballot images that they showed on television screens the night of the election? What are they hiding?" (See speech text above.)
There is a BIG DIFFERENCE between "releasing ballots" (which nobody has requested) and "showing ballot images" (which the city has already done, not once but twice: on election night and again on May 7, 2009, when a "random" group of 260 ballots were shown to the public as part of the "public audit"). It is NOT against the law to show the ballot images. Obviously. Or the city couldn't have done it two different times. And the city knows this. They just don't want anyone to see the ballot images up close and individually, so they continually misrepresent the request. And yes, The Red Ant firmly believes that the city is hiding something.
6. On my statement that "there is a terrible mold problem at Centennial that will cost tens of millions to fix"
- City Sally: "... more to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. It would/will be the Homeowner Association that would foot the bill for any repairs."
- The Truth: According to Housing Frontiers Group member Adam Frisch, "In true Aspen form, the Frontiers group has been shut out of anything to do with Centennial - it's mostly been closed-door sessions." He goes on to mention, "It is interesting that the rental buildings and the ownership buildings were built at the same time by the same people in the same way. The professionally managed, rental building is doing just fine, but the self-governed ownership building is in shambles."
Housing Frontiers Group member Andrew Kole adds, "Rumor is, they (Centennial) want the city to pay. I am against that. If they had been collecting proper capital reserve fees and done maintenance, the money would be there and the problem would be smaller."
Furthermore, the Centennial HOA commissioned a study to fix the damage. The estimate was $1.5 million per building, and there are 7 affected buildings. This comes to $10.5 million, and that does not include the myriad costs associated with relocating the residents of the 92 affected units on a tbd basis while repairs are addressed at the 25-year-old subsidized housing project.
7. On my statement that "There's a culture of secrecy at city hall"
- City Sally: "If you think there is a culture of secrecy, come to one of our hundreds of public and noticed meetings each year...."
- The Truth: With the facts, the truth is abundantly clear. All of these facts are a matter of public record. The city is deceptive, sneaky, dishonest and scared. And they will go to great lengths to maintain their culture of secrecy, including trying anything to discredit their detractors.
A CONSTANT CHALLENGE
This is indicative of the continual nonsense The Red Ant deals with every day. The culture of secrecy at city hall keeps me busy! It's a daily chore to check the facts and do all I can to correct them in the public record. Aspen deserves the truth, and the community is not going to get that from city hall. In The Red Ant, the opinions are mine, but the facts are the facts.
**NOTE: TO ASPEN AND PITKIN COUNTY NON-VOTING TAXPAYERS
I would like to facilitate the formation of a group for non-voting taxpayers in the city and the county. The idea is to create an organization to give a voice to this large community of taxpayers who are experiencing "taxation without representation." This includes second-homeowners and local business owners who cannot vote here. Please click here and let me know if you are interested in becoming part of such a group. Would you like to help lead it? Would you like to receive emails? Please indicate whether you are in the city of Aspen and/or in Pitkin County. I welcome your thoughts. And please tell your friends. Let's make something happen!