Four of the eight people running for city office in the upcoming March election have organized a series of “casual candidate conversation” events, to which everyone on the ballot is invited, as an antidote to what one candidate termed the “stale and impersonal” style of traditional candidate debates and forums.

Each of the three events focuses on a specific theme. The series kicks off Jan. 10 with a session on “city outreach,” taking place at the Aspen Police Department community room from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. “Local business” is up next on Jan. 24 at Bootsy Bellows and “community health” rounds out the series on Jan. 31.

John Sarpa, a hospital board member and hotel developer, will moderate the first forum. Steve Wickes, a former Aspen Institute staff member who has moderated countless community forums, will handle the final two. Skippy Mesirow, the planning and zoning commission chair who is running for city council, was a lead organizer on the concept. He said that he feels “underserved” as a voter by the current slate of forums, which is highlighted by Squirm Night, an event preceding each election season and hosted by the Aspen Daily News and Aspen Times, which is set this year for Feb. 7. Mesirow noted that he is still unsure how he will vote with his second council pick and for mayor.

“I believe the current group of campaign debates and forums is stale and impersonal,” he wrote in an email to the media announcing the forums. “People learn how we may vote, but rarely who we are, where we come from and how we think about things.

“A group of four of us (myself, Linda [Manning], Ann [Mullins], and Adam [Frisch]) have decided to try to solve this problem on our own. We put our heads together and as a result, we have created a series of candidate-produced roundtables around less talked about subjects. … Expect wide-ranging and loose conversation. We aim for connectivity and interactions, not q&a.”

Mesirow, a key figure behind last fall’s campaign to change the municipal election date from May to March, said he began working on the forum series in early December, wanting to get the ball rolling as soon as possible to meet the accelerated election schedule.

He was not trying to pick favorites among the other candidates in terms of who he contacted for help with the planning. Instead, Manning, the current city clerk who is running for council, and Frisch and Mullins, both current council members running for mayor, were the only other announced candidates at the time.

The rest of the field includes incumbent councilman Bert Myrin, who is seeking re-election; Rachel Richards, the term-limited Pitkin County commissioner who is running for council; Torre, who is running for mayor; and Cale Mitchell, who is running for mayor. They have all been invited to participate. Mesirow said he has received mainly positive responses from these other candidates.

“We very much hope everyone participates,” he said.

Mesirow said that the group of four have given some basic feedback and direction to the moderators and they are taking it from there. There has been little guidance on format, though it is likely that the four council candidates and four mayoral candidates will appear separate from each other.

“This is new to all of us,” Mesirow said. “We don’t have a tried and true formula.” Some aspects of the format may change from one event to the next.

Frisch wrote in an email that “given the condensed election cycle” and the busy time of year, “I am more focused on as much exposure to the community as possible.”

“With all due respect to Skippy, not sure what was stale and impersonal, compared to what these may be,” he added. That said, Frisch is enthusiastic about having forums that focus on one general theme “to get depth which I do think sometimes gets lost in the shuffle compared to general forums where the answers are not much more than literally two minutes.”

“I do think Skippy was trying to get not just what people support, but a deeper reasoning behind the ‘I am pro-environment/affordable housing/small town character,’” Frisch wrote. “What people have in mind for the future (all candidates), and what specific success/legislation have they helped implement (people that are serving or have served) is a valid goal in my mind.”

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.

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