Lives are filled with intersections; physical, emotional, professional and personal places where we each must choose for ourselves which way to turn. Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland faces an intersection that he must be considering with great gravity. After serving three consecutive two-year terms as mayor, the maximum under Colorado’s constitutional term limits provision, Mick is considering a run for City Council. If elected he could potentially serve another eight years in City Hall. If he goes the distance, Mick will have served continuously as an elected official in Aspen and Pitkin County for a total of 28 years; the first 14 as a county commissioner and the last 14 as mayor and council member for the city of Aspen.
The question is not can he run. He can. The right question is should he.
The city itself fanned the “can he run?” flames by having attorney Jim True draft a confidential memorandum, feigning objectivity and positing that the mayor’s seat and those of the council are sufficiently different, such that state constitutional term limits for one do not apply to the other. By doing so council deftly framed the question as a legal one. This tactic impelled Aspenites to engage in a favorite pastime — taking sides and sniping across the divide at those with an opposing view.
Of course the city attorney’s official role is far from objective. Section 7.1 of the Aspen city charter defines the city attorney’s job as advising council on “ ... matters relating to [its] official powers and duties ... ” The attorney can do other things, if so prescribed “by ordinance or resolution,” but fundamentally, the role is very narrowly focused, as it should be — to protect the council in matters pertaining to its legal responsibilities.
The council has no power to decide if Mick or anyone else is legally qualified to run for office, or to keep his or anyone else’s name off of the ballot should they decide to run. So why did the city attorney write a confidential memo on whether Mick can run for one of the seats?
I’m not an attorney and I don’t play one on television, but even I can figure this one out. Think about it. Imagine a City Council empowered to decide who is qualified to run for the positions its members currently hold. How absurd would that be? But only in this context could the city attorney’s advice on the matter be considered within his charter-defined responsibility to advise the council on its “official powers and duties.”
Mick’s decision to run for City Council is entirely personal, and completely unrelated to the “official powers and duties” of the council. Therefore, council’s seeking confidential legal advice on the matter from the city attorney — whose job is solely to advise on matters pertaining to official powers and duties — is entirely improper. Voting to make the memo public gives the impression of transparency, but in reality mostly serves to further the public perception of the city attorney as a kind of quasi-independent legal expert who is charged with presenting “fair and balanced” legal opinions to the community. This is unfair to True, who unfortunately may have reinforced this perception on Jan. 21 in a letter to The Aspen Times in which he chose to debate the matter with a with citizen exercising his free speech rights.
But I digress. Where were we? Oh yes. Should Mick Ireland run for a seat on Aspen’s City Council? The answer is part personal, and ultimately deals with Ireland’s gravitational pull.
First the personal: Put simply, if Mick feels as though he stands to contribute positively, and he wants to, he should run. Those who oppose his views are free to find a candidate of their own who can duke it out in the election process, then Aspen’s voters will decide who they want representing them.
Somewhat more complicated is the gravitational: You see, long serving politicians are a lot like gravity. The longer they serve, the heavier their gravitational force can become. After a while, it’s advisable for their own well-being, and the well-being of those they serve, that they step aside. Otherwise the organization and the community might start to pivot around the gravitational force of a headstrong leader as opposed to a more equitably shared vision of well balanced, thoughtfully considered and prudently implemented public policy.
In the solar system of Aspen, Mick Ireland is akin to Jupiter. He is not at the center of every Aspen issue but his considerable gravitational force stands to impact every issue’s trajectory, whether it’s a city matter or not. Those who appreciate his force vote for him with extraordinary loyalty. Those that do not appreciate his force are oft disappointed, as Mick rarely loses.
Like Jupiter, among his many satellites Mick has four large moons, the remainder of the City Council — all surviving in his orbit and all, at some level, coveting his mayoral title. One of them may succeed Mick as mayor, but so long as Aspen’s equivalent to our solar system’s gas giant remains at the council table, it won’t matter who is running the meetings. Mick’s gravity will influence all.