New Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron has made at least one noticeable change from the Mick Ireland administration — he is no longer taking public comment during weekly council work sessions.
With about six weeks as mayor under Skadron’s belt, the policy has caused some confusion and tension in council chambers, with members of the public who expected the chance to be heard being told they would not have that opportunity during the meeting.
Last week, when council was debating whether to extend $380,000 in health and human services funding for another year, numerous references were made to disagreements with Pitkin County, which provides the lion’s share of public support for the social service nonprofits through a dedicated property tax. Commissioner Rachel Richards was in the audience, and said she found some council members’ characterizations of discussions with the county to be inaccurate. When she raised her hand to voice her objection, Skadron told her that council was not interested in taking public comment.
Richards managed to get her two cents in during the exchange. She said in an interview Thursday she understands the general concept of what Skadron is trying to do, which is lay the foundation for a more productive and focused meeting environment.
“You need to get control of the game in the first five minutes, otherwise you lose it for the whole game,” Richards said, likening Skadron’s position running the meetings as a new mayor to a hockey referee.
However, given that council members and city staff made numerous references to county policy, Richards said she thought it would have been fair to hear her out. She praised the council, however, for its decision to continue supporting local health and human services agencies, and said she is encouraged by what she sees as a refocused direction from the board, which has three new members since June.
Skadron said he is trying to avoid turning work sessions into “quasi public hearings,” which occasionally happened when Ireland was mayor. Work sessions, Skadron notes, are the only time all five city elected officials get to sit together and discuss policy, other than the twice-monthly regular meetings.
Ideally, work sessions are focused times when city staff presents information framing an issue, and the council debates the policy at hand, providing direction, Skadron said. Information overload in the form of lengthy public comment, usually coming from organized interest groups, is not always helpful, he said.
There are also official hearings on most issues during regular meetings, which are noticed to the public and where comment is encouraged.
Ireland, who changed standing policy from Helen Klanderud’s years as mayor to always take public comment at work sessions if someone was there to speak, said one reason to keep those discussions between council is that “you don’t want to have the same public hearing twice.”
Ireland noted that most jurisdictions limit public comment during work sessions. He said he encouraged public comment at work sessions in the hope that the council would hear something new, that it might want to be aware of in the formative stages of policy discussions.
Skadron, who emphasized that he wants to hear from the public, said if a citizen has input on a work session topic, the best thing to do is to send an email in advance of the meeting. (His email is Steve.Skadron@cityofaspen.com .) He also emphasized city staff’s role in reaching out to interested parties to get input, which could then be used in information presented to council.
In some cases, Skadron said he would invite a member of the public who is particularly affected by whatever is being discussed, or has some special expertise, to speak at the meeting. That’s what happened last week, when a staff member from The Buddy Program delivered comments on behalf of the numerous health and services agencies that receive city funding. Lindsay Lofaro, program director at The Buddy Program, had emailed Skadron before the meeting and made arrangements to speak.
In late June, during a discussion about creating new incentives for investment in lodges and condos, council chambers filled up with hoteliers and property owners interested in speaking. It was one of the first work sessions under Mayor Skadron, and lodge owners appeared surprised to learn the council would not take their comments. However, city staff set up a time for the lodging representatives to come in later and offer comments, and a survey was sent out to members of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.
In regards to Richards and the comments at the health and human services meeting, Skadron said he was hoping to avoid a high-level discussion about on-going city funding of social services agencies, and focus on the decision about next year’s allotment.
“This was about a 2014 line item,” Skadron said.
Richards’ voice will be valuable when the time comes to have those bigger-picture discussions, Skadron said.
Richards, who has run meetings as a pervious chair of the Board of County Commissioners, said everyone has their own way of refereeing a meeting. Her preference on work sessions when she was chair was to offer someone the chance to speak at the end of the meeting, after the discussion between staff and commissioners, she said.
“I think it is valuable, and part of open government, to allow tightly limited comment at the end of a [work session],” Richards said.
Skadron said his method of managing meetings in general, and taking public comment in work sessions in particular, is likely to evolve.
“If doesn’t serve community interest, we’ll change it,” Skadron said.