by Madeleine Osberger, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Private email server, developer alliance among the many Squirm Night topics
The six candidates for Aspen City Council kept civility in check during their portion of Squirm Night on Thursday in front of a modest-sized crowd in council chambers.
Challenger Ward Hauenstein, who has raised the most campaign funds to date, and incumbents Ann Mullins and Art Daily, fielded some of the toughest questions from a panel of local journalists, audience members and each other during the 80-minute session that preceded the mayoral debate. Also participating were candidates Torre, Skippy Mesirow and Sue Tatem.
Right out of the chute, Daily questioned Hauenstein about whether he wanted to see City Manager Steve Barwick “removed from office.” Hauenstein fired back that he’s never made such a statement but instead wants “rubrics or matrixes set up” to be used as evaluation tools.
“We should have measurements in place,” said Hauenstein, who cited Barwick’s long tenure as city manager and his role as chief communicator between council and staff, as some justifications for more review.
The next question, also targeted at Hauenstein, came from Skippy Mesirow.
“A big part of why I got involved in this year is I see rancor seeping into our politics. I’m wondering what we can do to push back against this?” he asked.
Hauenstein referenced a column by the “Red Ant,” Elizabeth Milias, where “pointed remarks” were made against Mesirow, 30, and the chairman of the city’s planning and zoning commission.
Hauenstein then agreed, “I take a pledge. I will revert to no negative campaigning.”
Both Hauenstein and candidate Torre found themselves defending a perceived alignment with councilman Bert Myrin, as expressed by Ann Mullins.
She said of five ordinances that council reviewed and voted on related to the Aspen Area Community Plan, Myrin had voted against four of them.
“If elected, would you join Bert in reversing the decisions of the last year?” Mullins asked. Both said no, with Torre adding “I do not plan to overturn them. I do intend to add to them.”
To Mullins’ earlier concern, Torre responded: “There is no coalition or alliance that is going on. I sit independently at this table.”
Councilman Daily’s use of a private server to receive emails was the most surprising reveal of the night and came after Hauenstein asked why Daily had not responded to “30 emails” he’d been sent over the past four years.
“Do you read the emails or do you reply to any emails?” he asked Daily.
The councilman suggested that the emails were being routed to the wrong address as he routinely uses his law office email address.
“When I began working at this table, I was using that email address. Everybody knows about it,” Daily said.
“Except the public,” replied moderator Carolyn Sackariason, news director at Aspen Public Radio. An audience member then chimed in: “That’s a private email!”
Daily concluded by saying, “I could certainly switch over” to the city address.
Sue Tatem opted out of asking an opponent a question early in Squirm Night, but didn’t hold back when it was suggested she didn’t have a clear opinion on whether the city should ever consider dams for the Castle and Maroon Creek valleys.
“I doubt I would ever vote to put dams on either of those creeks,” Tatem said unequivocally.
Skippy Mesirow was asked if there could be a potential conflict with reviewing land use applications given that prominent developer John Sarpa was among his supporters.
“I’m not the pro-development guy up here,” Mesirow said, adding, “My team of advisors was picked specifically as a team of rivals.”
Asked if he would recuse himself from voting if there was a potential conflict of interest, Mesirow said he would first consult city attorney Jim True if that situation arose.
Should the city be allowed to play by its own rules? That question arose when it was noted that the new city offices building will be able to reach 47 feet in height when other developers are limited to 28 feet.
Mullins said yes, in this case the city should be allowed a different standard for reasons that include: it’s lower than contiguous structures, there’s a certain number of staffers who need to be accommodated in the building and in the end, “It’ll benefit the citizens.”
Daily opined, “This has been the most closely studied issue we have confronted,” suggesting that an exhaustive study had supported the building’s girth.
The challengers all disagreed. Tatem said no and added that story poles and tape to mark size and dimensions would be helpful for the public to better grasp the size.
Torre was against it, in part because of the process. Hauenstein, another opponent, asked rhetorically: “If the city doesn’t obey the law, how can they expect everyone else to.”
Mesirow was in the same camp: “Leadership is leading by example and sticking to your own rules.”
The biggest blight is...
During the council candidates’ portion of Squirm Night, both Mullins and Daily found themselves having to defend past decisions, including support of the Base2 hotel project and the handling of the lease negotiations for the old Aspen Art Museum building, which were cancelled last year.
“From the very beginning, my recommendation was to clean the building up, get it functioning and return it to our community,” said Torre. “I was looking forward to community picnics, dances.”
Mullins said her support of Base2, which voters soundly defeated last November, was in part a response to a report that said Aspen was rapidly losing its bed base. But she agreed that voters found myriad issues, from height to a large number of variances to housing mitigation, with developer Mark Hunt’s proposal.
“There was some sticker shock,” Mullins said, suggesting the public also could have been reacting to new buildings in the downtown, including the “Core” building, a red structure located on the same block as the gondola.
In fact, what is the “biggest blight,” or ugliest building in downtown, was an area where some agreement among candidates was found. Mesirow and Daily also called out the Core building, which Daily said “is empty from the top down.”
Torre said “any of the empty retail spaces we have in town” is most unattractive, while Hauenstein called out the “Lego building” as his least favorite.
Mullins eschewed the Hyatt which she criticized as “way too massive” and also found fault with the “privatized street” that runs between the property and the ice rink.
Tatem didn’t find a building design to criticize: “It think it all looks pretty good,” she said.