Council finishes 1st year | SteamboatToday.com

Council finishes 1st year

Members of city government reflect on work at Centennial Hall

Brandon Gee

City Council members, from left, Scott Myller, Walter Magill, Cari Hermacinski, Meg Bentley and Jon Quinn take the oath of office on Nov. 13, 2007, after an election that brought sweeping change to the group. The council members now have a year of experience - with steps forward and back - in Centennial Hall.

— Pride, frustration, satisfaction and apprehension are among the sentiments felt by Steamboat Springs City Council members a year after a 2007 election that brought five new faces to the seven-member body.

In its first year, the current City Council made progress and found consensus on some issues, but they stalled and were sharply divided on others. They reversed some work of the previous council and took up initiatives of their own. A city manager was lost, and the economy forced tough budget decisions.

“It’s been good,” Councilman Walter Magill said. “It’s been a learning experience, but I think we’ve made good strides.”

Magill, Cari Hermacinski, Scott Myller, Jon Quinn and Meg Bentley were elected in November 2007, when three incumbents were defeated.

“With this economy and the loss of our city manager, it’s been a real challenge,” Councilman Steve Ivancie said. “But I think this group has shown it’s up to the challenge.”

Ivancie and City Council President Loui Antonucci were not up for re-election last year. Their terms are up next year.

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Although he mostly was upbeat about the past year, Ivancie said he has not been thrilled with the amount of time new council members spent rehashing and sometimes reversing the work of the previous City Council. Ivancie also was disappointed with the loss of former City Manager Alan Lanning, who reached a severance agreement with City Council in July after other council members raised questions about Lanning’s performance – specifically, customer service and interaction with the community and council.

“Obviously, I wasn’t really in favor of changing city managers, but that was the rest of City Council’s decision,” Ivancie said. “Unfortunately, I think it really put us behind the eight ball in dealing with this economy.”

Although they disagree about the loss of Lanning, council members agree that the hiring of Steamboat’s next city manager is one of the most important things they will do in their second year together. And although the balancing of the 2009 budget through tough cuts in a down economy was counted as one of council’s major accomplishments in its first year, fiscal matters still loom large.

Early in 2009, council members will prioritize every service the city provides. Should revenue projections fall short, they plan to use their ranked list of services and cover the losses by cutting from the bottom up.

Ivancie said he is looking forward to the exercise. He said it will allow him to view the economic downturn in a positive light.

“Never let a crisis go to waste,” Ivancie joked. “If nothing else, it might help us to actually prioritize things and help the community understand what the city can and cannot do.”

The economy also has helped Myller with his goal of reducing the role of government in Steamboat Springs, an effort he said he had been unsuccessful addressing himself.

“If I’m inclined to have a smaller government – a more efficient one – a down economy only helps that,” Myller said.

But the economy is not likely to help another of Myller’s goals. One of his campaign issues was making Steamboat an affordable place for the middle class. Myller thinks the best way to do that is to see the West Steamboat Springs Area Plan and its vision for high density, transit-oriented neighborhoods realized. Proposed developments such as Steamboat 700 and 360 Village are moving through the city’s entitlement process slower than Myller would like.

“The economy of late kind of wrecked it for everybody,” Myller said. “Honestly, it feels like now is just the time to hang on and survive until it passes.”

‘Culture shock’

The slow speed of government also has frustrated Myller and other council members. All five newly elected council members own a business.

“I think it’s a little bit of a culture shock going from private business to government,” Hermacinski said.

Myller cited the time it took for the city to mend its rift with the Routt County Regional Building Department. In its very first meeting Nov. 13, City Council took steps toward reversing the previous council’s plan to leave the county building department and set up one of their own. But only recently has the city renegotiated its contract with the county. And the city still is working to establish its own building permit fee before the new intergovernmental agreement takes affect in January.

“I’m shocked that it took this long to get the Building Department reinstated,” Myller said.

Still, there’s more to be said about the building department than about some other issues. Discussions about historic preservation and a social host ordinance, which would provide penalties for parents and other adults who allow minors to drink alcohol in their homes, have dramatically slowed in recent months.

Meetings

Hermacinski campaigned heavily last year against the number of times City Council met in executive, or secret, session. Colorado public bodies have the right to go into executive session to discuss sensitive matters such as real estate transactions and personnel issues.

“The Sunshine Laws of this state allow you to go into secret session; they don’t mandate it,” Hermacinski said at a candidates forum before the 2007 election.

In its first year, Hermacinski and the rest of council successfully have reduced the number of sessions. They met in an executive session at 13 of their 54 meetings, or about 24 percent. In its final two years, the previous City Council met in executive session at 52 of its 106 meetings, or about 49 percent.

But meetings of a different type drew fire for the current council. After-meeting gatherings at Harwigs Grill became the norm for most council members early in their tenures.

Under Colorado’s open meetings laws, most gatherings of three or more City Council members must be advertised and open to the public. There are exceptions, though, and open meetings laws do not apply to social gatherings and chance meetings if discussion of public business is not the central purpose.

Those who attend the Harwigs gatherings say they are operating within the law and do not discuss public business. Others, including Ivancie, have called for an end to the weekly ritual. Ivancie said he thinks the gatherings are illegal.

When it comes to their official meetings, Hermacinski and Magill said efficiency has been one of the major accomplishments of this council.

Although the current City Council held more meetings in its first year than other councils in recent years, the length of meetings has decreased, and one regular meeting a month has been eliminated.

“I think we have been efficient,” Magill said. “We made decisions, which is what I think people wanted us to do.”

A year in Centennial Hall

Notable actions and events in the first year of an overhauled City Council:

– In a 4-2 vote Sept. 2, council approved a contract with Triple Crown Sports that will bring the sports tourism company’s baseball tournaments back to Steamboat in 2009 and, potentially, in 2010.

– In April, council members unanimously expressed their support for the Steamboat Springs Airport after hearing a consultants’ study showed that redeveloping the airport for other uses would require a subsidy of between $6.7 million and $9.5 million.

– David Engle died June 15, 2008, of smoke inhalation when a fire broke out in his converted garage apartment in Old Town. His death led to an immediate call from some council members to revise the city’s regulations for secondary residential units or to ramp up the enforcement of the current regulations. Engle’s apartment was not registered as a secondary unit with the city and did not have smoke detectors. In the end, city staff told council members that their ideas would be ineffective or frustratingly difficult to implement. No changes have been made.

– Following a prolonged controversy regarding liquor licenses for Kevin and Kathy Nerney, owners of the former Jade Summit restaurant and Pirate’s Pub in Ski Time Square, City Council removed itself from liquor license compliance issues – and the risk of personal liability – by hiring a hearing officer.