Folks in Aspen vote on almost everything. Whether it’s hydropower, the hospital, affordable housing, strip clubs or anything else important, it is almost always left to the people to decide. And that’s the way it should be. It is democracy in action and Aspen’s penchant to take to the polls is one of the reasons I hold Silver City in such high esteem.
But somehow when a member of City Council steps down, moves up, or passes on, the people do not get to choose the successor. Because of Aspen’s Home Rule Charter, the choice is left in the hands of the remaining council members. For a town that votes on almost everything else under the sun, it seems quite out of character and even a bit ironic that the people do not get to vote for their local representation. It does not suit this shining city on a hill and it should be changed. The residents of Aspen — and anywhere else in the world for that matter — should always vote directly for their representatives.
At the very least, appointing people to council can create concerns about a lack of legitimacy. Appointed candidates have no mandate from the masses to promote their platform. They are unequal to their peers and are easily assailable in comparison. If someone disagrees with an opinion or a vote by an appointed councilman, they are easy targets and are put in a tough position. It’s not hard to imagine a critic complaining and saying, “Well I didn’t vote for you. And neither did anyone else.”
Appointing replacements also can create concerns over accountability. Appointees have no clear constituency. A majority of the people did not vote for them. Replacements owe their jobs to the other members of council and not the people they represent. It’s just not right.
Letting council choose the replacement also can lead to a lack of dissension and division on the board. Although I don’t think it has happened in the past, or the present council would do it, future councils might try and choose like-minded folks who believe in a similar agenda. I know I would. It would be nice to have at least one “yes” man on your side. While that might work well for some on council, it is not the best option for the people. I believe the people are best served by differing viewpoints and rigorous debate and dialogue by their representatives. That is less likely to happen when replacements are picked by peers.
In addition, appointing replacements dulls the democratic process. There should be public debates and a period for public vetting, even if it’s just a few weeks. Plus, it’s almost as if the replacements are getting off easy. There is minimal public scrutiny to endure. Politics is not for the faint of heart and in a small town like Aspen, which has two newspapers and a populous with enough money and time to fight City Hall, it can be incredibly challenging. You’ve got to be tough to be effective and elections have a way of weeding out the weak.
Furthermore, it puts the presiding council in a precarious position. It’s a small town and most people know each other. What if they are friends or enemies with one of the applicants? Following the outcome, some may say bias was shown. Whether it was positive or negative, it does not matter. It leaves them open to attack. By putting it to a vote, any concerns about bias can be put to rest and the sitting council can avoid criticism.
I’m not sure why the charter opted to have council choose replacements. There is no good reason for it. The replacement process is no quicker than an election. It took a month to have a mayoral run-off between Torre and Steve Skadron, and it will take about a month for council to choose a replacement. There’s no gain. Besides, in most cases the vacancy is foreseeable and things can be organized ahead of time. The only exception is in the case of death, like when J.E. DeVilbiss passed away while in office. But that is fairly rare.
The way I see it, there is only one reason to have council choose the candidate: money. Elections cost tens of thousands of dollars and some may see another election as a waste of taxpayer dollars. I do not. To me, democracy is priceless. In Aspen millions are spent on trails and tunnels. Hundreds of thousands are spent on studies and surveys. The last place anyone should scrimp on is the democratic process. People eat meals in Aspen that cost more than an election.
Finally, I would like to say that in no way am I denigrating past council members who were appointed or the elected officials who chose them. In fact, as far as I can remember the picks have been pretty solid. But you never know what the future may hold.
To reach Jeremy, email him at email@example.com.