New Year’s has passed and the days are getting longer. Before you know it spring will have sprung and nature’s seasonal switch from the cold, dark, dying days of winter will once again give way to growth, green and the rebirth. It is a natural time of transition.
But the changes this spring will not be limited to Mother Nature. The city of Aspen also will see its fair share of switches and swaps. There could even be a shift in power that hasn’t been seen since last century, which has the potential to affect the most powerful person in all of Silver City. And if that happens it could create a rare opportunity for Aspen to make a much-needed transition as to how things are run.
Because of term limits, Mayor Mick Ireland will move on after six steady years serving as Aspen’s top elected official. Perhaps more importantly, we also recently learned that the most powerful person in Aspen could be moving on as well.
I think the announcement that Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick was in the final running for a job in Florida could be the biggest story of 2012, despite the fact that the announcement came during very last days of December. Mr. Barwick has held the position since 1999 and has worked with multiple mayors. Not only is he Aspen’s highest paid public employee, as city manager I also think he is the most powerful person in Aspen.
With a new mayor definitely on the way and the city manager possibly moving on, a unique opportunity is presenting itself for Aspen to smoothly transition its style of government. It is an opportunity to step into the big time by having a big-time mayor that wields big-time power and responsibility, as well as accountability.
Currently, Aspen’s mayor is weak. This is nothing against Ireland or any of Aspen’s previous mayors. It is by design. Some communities choose this form of governance and management but the biggest and best don’t. And Aspen shouldn’t either.
The biggest problem with having a city manager instead of a strong mayor is that they are not directly accountable to voters. Managers serve at the will of elected officials. This creates a deflection to democracy, and enables some to pass the buck and use the city manager as a scapegoat.
Just look at what has been happening in Basalt with the recent resignation of police chief Roderick O’Connor. His reason for leaving is some big secret. By all accounts, O’Connor was very popular and was happy with the job. According to reports, there was a complaint against him and an ensuing independent investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing. Then he turned in his resignation. The independent investigation cost around $9,000 and Mr. O’Connor received an $84,000 settlement. It was paid for with taxpayer dollars. But the people have been stonewalled as to the what and why surrounding the circumstances of the resignation. Lips have been tight. Quite frankly, I’m impressed.
Apparently elected officials in Basalt don’t even know what’s in the report. For legal reasons, they are staying away. No one is talking. It almost seems inconceivable that there is such secrecy surrounding the resignation of such an important public figure in such a small community. Even Wikileaks is in the dark.
To find out what happened, The Aspen Times is suing the town of Basalt. Guess who was named in the suit? The town manager. That tells you who is really in charge and who takes the heat.
This is what can happen with a system of shared responsibility. Unlike political appointees who get their jobs from politicians, elected officials are hired by the people directly and are more accountable to the people.
With Aspen bringing in a new mayor and the possibility of an opening at the city manager position, Aspen could find itself with a unique opportunity to smoothly transition to a city with a more powerful mayor. It could be time for Aspen to combine the office of mayor with the job of manager.
It is nothing against any of the current managers or mayors and in no way, shape or form should anyone see this as some sort of knock against Barwick. He has done a great job in Aspen through some of the most troubling times, especially for a tourist town. From 9/11 to the financial collapse, he has kept things tight. His leaving will be a great loss to Aspen and the folks in Florida will be real winners if they chose him.
I just don’t like the system. I never have. I could be prejudiced because I grew up in a city with a strong mayor and no manager, but I just think a weak mayor with a powerful manager can in certain circumstances create questions of culpability and is not the best way to run a city or town in a democracy.
I also don’t expect any of the candidates who do end up running for mayor to endorse a change to a stronger mayor. It would be political suicide. The addition in responsibility and accountability also would be accompanied by an increase in pay and any candidate that supported it would be seen as self-serving, wanting to line their own pockets.
If Barwick does move to another job at around the same time that Aspen chooses a new mayor this spring will be a unique opportunity for Aspen.
Contact Jeremy at firstname.lastname@example.org.