Aspen’s current City Council should get an “A” for the way it has handled taxes and budgeting issues, and a “D” for the false-start emergency ordinance that it introduced but did not pass last year lowering downtown building heights.
That’s the report-card assessment of Councilman Derek Johnson, who announced his intentions to run for mayor over the weekend, making it official that all four elected council members will be running for the top job being vacated by Mick Ireland in the May 7 election.
Johnson’s main objectives in seeking to become mayor include giving City Hall a more business-friendly posture. A co-founder of the D&E ski and snowboard shop that he sold to the Aspen Skiing Co., where he is now the manager of rental and retail operations, Johnson said it can be difficult to run a business in Aspen.
“I have the scars to prove it,” said Johnson, 43, comparing city bureaucracy to “flaming hoops” one must jump through.
Johnson was referring to difficulties he has encountered securing building permits for his ski shops, and receiving different directions from various city officials when he needed clarity.
“We need to be in the customer service business a little more,” Johnson said, suggesting that the city bring on someone who could help guide aspiring and current business owners through the process. He also pointed to efforts he has helped lead on council to clean up confusing sections of the land-use code.
Johnson, who was elected to City Council without the need for a runoff in the 2009 vote, said in a press release announcing his run that he knows how to “balance the realities of smart development with a concern for overdevelopment.”
Overdevelopment, to him, is exemplified by some of the building one sees in other Colorado resorts, with their seven- and eight-story buildings. Here in Aspen, three- and four-story buildings should be OK in some instances, particularly if new lodging is part of the program, he said.
While he said he was “willing to have the conversation,” Johnson voted against lowering new building heights in downtown to 28 feet, a zoning change council passed in April. What he really didn’t like, however, was an effort, led by Councilman Torre, to lower building heights two months prior via an emergency ordinance.
While Councilman Skadron and Mayor Mick Ireland voted in favor, the measure fell short of the four votes needed to pass the new policy as an emergency ordinance, which would have become effective immediately. The downzoning plan was brought back through the normal channels, but many land owners saw the writing on the wall; six applications for three-story development that wouldn’t fly under the more restrictive code came forward before the new law was passed and took effect. All of those applications are working their way through the approval process and none have made it to the council table yet.
The whole process was unfortunate, Johnson said, noting that the city now has applications for buildings it doesn’t want, and there was little public input on the land-use code changes that were eventually enacted.
Johnson said he shares concern with other council members that high-end residential uses may at times be a hindrance to having vital businesses on the ground floor. He suggested that perhaps the city could pass a policy which would require any building with a free-market residential component — not allowed under the codes this council has approved — to have an occupied ground floor.
“There has got to be a mechanism,” Johnson said.
A resident of affordable housing — Johnson and his family own a place in the Juan Street neighborhood — he said he understands the needs of the program and its residents. He pointed to his effort in making new units planned at Burlingame and in the now-scuttled Aspen Walk development more livable.
Johnson brushed off concerns about his SkiCo employment perhaps making him too close to the town’s largest employer to be mayor. He’s been on council for nearly four years, and the issue has not created any problems, he said. He has never given SkiCo any favoritism, he said, and that would not change should he become mayor.
Johnson moved to Aspen in 1991. He is originally from Minnesota. He attended the University of Minnesota, where he majored in business management, speech communications and computer science, and played football for the Golden Gophers. He has been active in youth football and hockey in Aspen.
Two council seats are open in this election cycle — those held by Johnson and Torre.