Aspen City Council and Pitkin County commissioners are looking for more input from the public and more deliberation on the finer points of a plan to place elected officials on the Aspen-Pitkin Housing Authority Board while giving it more power.
In a joint work session Tuesday, members of the two bodies were mostly in agreement that it would be a good thing to stack the APCHA board with more elected officials while giving that board the final sign-off authority on proposed policy changes. That would reform the current governance structure, where the decisions of the appointed APCHA board must then be approved by the commissioners and the council, with either body able to exercise a veto.
“That structure excels at creating a system of checks and balances and ensuring consensus before decisions are made but it does not excel in making hard decisions in a timely manner,” County Manager Jon Peacock said at the outset of the discussion.
A proposal crafted by a subcommittee of council members and commissioners would address that by comprising the APCHA board of two county commissioners, two city council members and three appointed members of the public. An alternate proposal would have one member from each elected board and three appointed citizens, though multiple elected officials expressed their preference for elected officials making up a majority of the board’s seats. The board would also have a final say on the policy matters it hears, removing the need to have the council and commissioners pick apart its decisions later.
The new structure would also take the board out of adjudicating compliance enforcement appeals, turning most of those duties over to a hearing officer.
Many details are still to be worked out, leading to some elected officials’ calls for more time at Tuesday’s meeting. For example, what should the protocol be for the elected APCHA members to get buy-in from the rest of their colleagues before casting votes? And there’s a concern that if an elected member votes on a land use application when it is reviewed by APCHA — which typically looks at unit mixes and other housing-specific details — that member might not be able to vote on the larger application when it comes up for final approval.
City and county staffs will look into those issues in the coming weeks. County Commissioner Patti Clapper added that she wanted the chance for her board to discuss the APCHA governance issue at their Aug. 21 retreat.
County Commissioner Rachel Richards raised the issue of time commitments. Elected officials have many meetings to attend, so how would APCHA, which currently meets twice per month, fit into the schedule? While commissioners are paid a state supported salary of over $80,000 per year, council members make what could almost be considered an “honorarium,” in Richards’ words, in the mid-20,000s range. She said she preferred the five-member board with two elected officials to ease the demand on elected officials’ time.
Councilman Adam Frisch countered that he saw housing as the community’s most important issue and therefore the elected boards should be able to carve out the time to send two members each to the meetings.
County Commissioner George Newman said he supports the general direction of the changes as a way to increase efficiency and accountability. When an elected official is on the board, there is a greater level of accountability, he said.
Richards added later that, with elected officials on the board, she believes that the meetings will get more press coverage, leading the public to be more informed on housing issues.
Numerous current APCHA board members attended the meeting. Chris Council, who was appointed to the board in the spring, noted that the board is already moving in the direction prescribed by the elected officials.
A proposal is currently on the table to bring in a hearing officer to hear appeals of compliance enforcement, so the board can spend more time on policy, Council said. There are a lot of policy discussions happening, he noted.
Much of the frustration on APCHA governance came to a head over the last few years as the city, county and APCHA board failed to gain consensus on a policy to deal with underfunded capital reserve accounts that plague many affordable housing homeowners’ associations. City officials proposed a policy that involved providing millions in cash to help HOAs shore up their reserve accounts, but county commissioners were skeptical. A subcommittee got together to hash out the issue and crafted two alternate proposals. Those proposals were delivered to the APCHA board, which after many meetings determined that it could not make a recommendation until more information was available from a data project that is underway.
“After almost a year and half there is still no clear path for a decision on capital reserves to be made,” says a memo to the joint board from city and county administrators.
The capital reserve issue highlights one chasm between the city and county’s ability to deal with housing issues. The city has a dedicated real estate transfer tax that generates $8 to $10 million per year to invest in housing, but Pitkin County has no such robust funding source. That puts the two bodies on uneven footing to fund not only new housing acquisition and development but also structural issues such as capital reserves. The discrepancy could lead to more governance dysfunction even with a newly empowered APCHA board, if the board approves policies that either government agency is unable or unwilling to fund.
To wade through these issues and more, city and county staffs were instructed to gather input on the proposed changes from the public, APCHA board and staff and their own elected officials before coming back with a formal proposal to amend APCHA’s governance structure. That structure is established by an “inter-governmental agreement” between the city and the county, to which both boards would have to approve any changes.