Before the Lumberyard housing project team was able to present preliminary survey results to the Aspen City Council Monday night, the feedback was dismissed as unreliable and skewed.
Without naming him, Councilmember Rachel Richards alleged that her colleague, Skippy Mesirow, had used email and social media to direct constituents to fill out the survey — and to specifically ask the project team to increase density on the site.
“I personally have become very concerned that there has been a kind of ballot box stuffing and promoting the idea of simply maximizing density. It has totally invalidated whatever results we are seeing right now,” Richards said.
The email sent out by Mesirow was written from a collective “we” and encouraged recipients to fill out the community survey as well as send it along to other members of the local workforce.
“The Lumberyard may represent the last best opportunity in a generation to put a meaningful dent in Aspen’s employee housing shortage. We believe maximizing density at the Lumberyard is the most responsible use for this unique parcel of land,” the email reads.
There were then step-by-step instructions for those who were in agreement to follow, including copying and pasting the phrase, “I don’t know, but I support maximizing density,” into all open-ended comment sections of the survey.
Mesirow also linked to a petition on Change.org asking council to maximize density on the Lumberyard site. The petition — which has 192 signatures — is addressed to Aspen City Council and signed by “Aspen Community Businesses, Workers, Healthcare, NextGen, AYPA, and Locals.”
Richards said that the language of the mailing unfairly characterized the majority opinion on council and was sent from Mesirow’s personal Gmail account, behind the backs of his colleagues on both city council and the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority board.
“It tried to portray our council, other than the one individual, as being against density,” she said during Monday’s meeting. “I think this has been corrupted, and I think it was duplicitous.”
Further, Richards implied that because Mesirow's message went out to his larger social networks, people who do not live in the community could be taking the survey, which is meant to narrow options for the type of affordable housing that will be built on the city-owned site.
“I have no idea if the survey was filled out by people from Chicago or from anywhere else,” she said. “I have no faith in these sorts of outcomes.”
Mesirow, a first-term councilmember who ran for his seat on a strong housing-first platform, defended his actions as a way of supporting his constituents.
“I am absolutely within my right to be able to push for more housing in this town. It is why I ran; it is why I work hard every day,” he said. “Maybe my network is different than yours… but I have tens of people every day coming to me because of our housing shortage. It is our single biggest existential threat as a community, and it is my job to push for more housing.”
Mesirow said the community outreach should be directed to the demographic that would potentially move into the completed homes.
“The idea that what has corrupted this process is people who live here — who are in need of housing — telling the council they need housing is crazy. That is exactly who we should want to hear from,” he said.
Councilmembers Ward Hauenstein and Ann Mullins echoed Richard’s concerns, calling the outreach corrupt and inappropriate.
“You do have your constituents, but once you are elected to a council seat, you are representing everyone in town — unless you want council to become a very partisan body,” Mullins said. “In terms of pushing so hard for your own agenda, to me, that was inappropriate.”
Mullins cut the discussion short as Mesirow began to address her concerns.
“Skippy, you do not have to respond. We’ve heard from you plenty of times,” she said.
Chris Everson, affordable housing development senior project manager, told council that he was aware of the concerns regarding Mesirow’s push for the community’s feedback on the Lumberyard. He said a minority of the 550 responses collected so far have the suggested “maximize the density” phrase copied and pasted in the comments.
“[It’s] less than 2.5% to 3%,” he said. “If you remove those, it wont move the needle.”
Reached by phone Tuesday, Richards said Everson’s response helped quell her concerns regarding the survey data but that she believes there are remaining wounds on the council from the outreach campaign.
“To me, it broke trust. Trust is hard to earn,” she said.
The outreach surveyremains open until Nov. 6. The project team gave a recap of the results thus far — which show the community wants a nearly even split between rental and ownership units. Those results also indicate respondents are generally supportive of underground parking and have some appetite for four-story buildings in the lower grade of the property.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Mesirow said the night was ultimately a win for affordable housing in the community.
“Despite all of the sour grapes and chastising, at the end of the meeting, I think we opened the door to maybe 150 more units,” Mesirow said. “I will be happy to get yelled at by four [fellow councilmembers] to serve several hundred [constituents].”