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'Strong mayor' latest of multiple government system changes in Colorado Springs history

       Editor's note: Rioux Jordan is a Colorado State University political science student who grew up on the Westside and graduated from Coronado High School, The following essay, a Colorado Springs government history leading up to the city's adoption of the strong-mayor system in 2011, was extracted and adapted from his 2014 senior thesis titled “Colorado Springs' Strong Mayor: Why? And Is It Working?” Source citations have been removed for clarity; the information primarily comes from archives of newspapers in the Colorado Springs area. Full citations are available upon request.

       By Rioux Jordan

       In its extensive history, Colorado Springs has not consistently been governed by the same system. When it incorporated in 1876, it was a non-home-rule city, meaning it could only exercise powers granted to it by the state. As such, the city was governed by an elected board of aldermen from various wards and an elected mayor who oversaw the operations of the city alongside other city officials, some of whom were also elected.

       First home rule charter
       In 1906, Colorado Springs began to examine the idea of a home rule charter. This effort didn't come from a goal to improve how the city was run, or to create a system
Steve Bach, Colorado Springs' first "strong mayor," temporarily sits with the audience during his town hall in the Old Colorado City History Center Feb. 19, 2013. The term, "strong mayor," indicates a type of government system in which an elected mayor has the powers that a city manager used to have. Next to him in the front row (in this photo) are his wife Suzi, Police Chief Pete Carey, Parks Director Karen Paulus and Transportation Manager Kathleen Krager. Elected in 2011, Bach appointed all three of these administrators, as part of actions in his four-year term that led to his replacing every department head in the city. (This fact is pointed out in a portion of Rioux Jordan's thesis which is not part of this article.)
Westside Pioneer file photo
more representative or more responsive to the citizens; rather, it was initiated to solve problems with the Water Department. The city and the private Hydro-Electric company were having disagreements over what was known as the “Jackson franchise,” which laid the groundwork for how the Hydro-Electric company was to operate with the city. A committee formed to investigate this issue. Its membership consisted of three members each from the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, the Merchants Association, and the Real Estate Exchange.
       The committee determined the biggest problem with the Water Department was politics. It suggested that the department be reformed into a board of trustees made up of individuals with professional knowledge of the subject. There was just one catch: Such a board was not allowed under the Colorado Constitution. A home-rule charter would fix that.
       The petition to create the charter went out near the end of July 1906. In an article published by the Gazette, an (unnamed) member of the Colorado Springs bar explained additional advantages of having a home rule charter - being able to modify how offices are selected and terms of office, and no longer being subject to the piecemeal system prescribed by the state in which some offices were elected and some appointed, with no real rationale.
       Right before the election, what the newspaper called “prominent men” expressed their support for the idea, including city founder General William Palmer. The citizens were willing to change the whole system of government to solve one issue.
       A home-rule charter was eventually adopted on May 11, 1909. Under the new plan, each councilman would act as the commissioner of a city department, with the mayor acting as the head of the Water and Water Works Department.

       Adoption of council-manager system
       The commissioner charter only lasted 12 years. As early as 1912, an article was printed in the Gazette titled “The City Manager Plan.” The article discussed the use of the form in Galveston, Texas, and Staunton, Virginia, but offered this criticism: “The 'general manager' plan sounds attractive, but in actual practice the
Printed originally in a 1921 Gazette, the diagram presented what was then a new government system for the City of Colorado Springs - one in which a hired city manager ran city government, but answered to an elected City Council.
Courtesy of Pikes Peak Library District Archives
necessity of getting just the right man in each case is more imperative than under the commission form, for there are no associates to share the actual responsibility… There would be a very different story to tell if its affairs had been turned over to a self-seeking politician or an incompetent business man.”
       In 1914, a Gazette article states that the City Manager plan was “advanced by a number of prominent business and professional men in th[e] city.”
       In 1917, voters rejected a council-manager charter amendment, but they approved the idea when it came forward again in 1920. The amended charter called for a city manager who would run the executive branch at the pleasure of a nine-member city council. The councilmembers would select one of their number to be council president and mayor; they would also appoint all the city officials and the manager. (See diagram.)
       The implementation process moved fairly smoothly, the only real hitch being the selection of the manager. The council put an emphasis on the manager being a resident of Colorado Springs despite the charter specifying that “[h]e shall be appointed without regard to any consideration other than his fitness and competency.” The Gazette had a problem with that and expressed its concerns in an editorial directly aimed at the council. The editorial told the council not to focus on residency and simply find the best person for the job. A.M. Wilson (whose previous residency was not mentioned, though with the emphasis the Gazette put on open residency, he likely was not from Colorado Springs) became the first city manager in June 1921.

       Challenges to council-manager
       The next example of investigating the charter occurred in 1957. A group initially known as the charter revision group (and later the Colorado Springs' Charter Association) was formed by the City Council and the city manager. Operating over several years, the group made suggestions to council on improvements to the charter; however, its members agreed that the charter did not require major revisions. Among the changes the group looked at but did not propose were paying councilman, adding districts and altering the council-manager system.
       The next challenge came in 1974, when a Charter Review Commission (not the Charter Association discussed above) decided “it may want the basic form of local government explored before proceeding further in its study of the city's charter.” In meetings, many people told the commission they preferred a mayor-council system, partly to save the money spent paying a professional manager. This was the first visible support for this system change, 36 years before it actually happened. In the end, however, the Charter Review Commission “agreed unanimously” that the council-manager system worked and there was no “public ground swell of opinion favoring a change to mayor-council form.”
       The next year did lead to one change: The mayor was now directly elected by popular vote.
       In 1991, yet another commission was created to examine the city charter. Critics at this point thought the manager held too much power to make decisions after unpopular decisions resulted in two managers being released in the previous five years, but in the end the council-manager form again won the day. The article juxtaposes the quickly released managers with the surprising stability and longevity of their predecessors, because by this point there had only been nine city managers total since 1921.
       A charter amendment in 1995 finally (after years of discussion) gave pay to members of the City Council (including the mayor). The stipend was $6,250 a year.
       In 2004, another committee - the City Charter Review Committee - recommended that the city government continue to operate under the council-manager system. The committee agreed that a mayor-council system could put too much power in the hands of one person. One committee member said that it would become a “political machine” if the mayor could “hire and fire his staff.”

       Up to 2010, when the citizens of Colorado Springs approved the major charter change that we now live under, known as the mayor-council system or the “strong mayor” system, the city was governed under a fairly consistent, though evolving, system of government. Colorado Springs has always in its history looked to find new ways to solve problems and create more efficient governments.

(Posted 3/31/15; Opinion: Guest Columns)

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