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Is there any way to avoid having a mayor?

Brief by Martha & Ed Quillen

Salida Politics – November 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

JUDGING BY OUR INFORMAL yard-sign survey, Dick Heitman leads the other two candidates for mayor of Salida to replace Ralph Taylor, who’s stepping down after only one term.

The major issue appears to be a performance audit of the police department, which the city council approved on a 4-2 vote.

Heitman opposed it, which got him an endorsement from Mike Sanchez, assistant police chief, who wrote a letter to Salida’s Mountain Mail newspaper:

“With the exception of two members of the city council, Dick Heitman and Glen Saari [the other vote against the audit], members of the city council have had employees busier covering their backside than concentrating on the job at hand … For this reason, I will be supporting Mr. Heitman in his bid to become Salida’s next mayor.”

That endorsement troubles us. Our police officers, as civil servants, should be publicly neutral in municipal elections. As private citizens, they have every right to support or oppose candidates and policies. But Sanchez identified himself as a policeman.

Opposition to the audit is part of Heitman’s platform. It has already been approved by the city council. If elected, will he try to stop it after taking office? Or will he just ignore it? He hasn’t said.

Heitman, who has served as mayor pro-tem for the past two years, does a good job of running meetings.

But on the other hand, he voted to defend the city’s efforts to conduct illegal secret meetings in the spring of 1998. So did one of his opponents for the mayor’s job, Jaime Lewis, who also serves on the city council.

The third candidate for mayor, Don Fickle, is a city employee — and no matter how hard he tried, there would always be questions about conflicts of interest and lines of authority.

So we get to choose among an opponent of police accountability, another supporter of governmental secrecy, and a municipal employee whose priorities would always be suspect.

Is there any chance we could get by without a mayor in Salida?

Sadly, we suppose not, and so we support Jaime Lewis.

As for Heitman’s position, we oppose it because we think it is a part of the council’s job to make city departments “cover their backsides” — especially in Salida where expenditures often significantly exceed equivalent expenditures in other, similarly sized Colorado cities.

Two years ago, a new council swept into office almost entirely because they promised reforms, particularly budget reforms. But the going has been rough. The new council has been accused of being hostile, of micro-managing, of having personal agendas, and even — at times — of actually sabotaging city business. Consequently, the council has folded, again and again.

The situation, however, remains the same. Salida’s departments have grown, its budget has expanded significantly, and last year the city ran in the red. This is not a crisis situation — according to our auditors, our city administrator, or from anything we’ve been able to determine, but it does seem like a good time to review city expenditures and accounting procedures — and to try to curb Salida’s tendency toward escalating expenditures.

But it could be a crisis for many Salidans. Housing and utility costs are rising, while their incomes and wages still lag well behind the national average.

All attempts to curtail costs, however, have typically been met with fierce resistence, indignity, anger, and even accusations by city employees. And the situation has gotten out of control. The wrangling has been non-productive and the arguments personal.

At this point, both community trust and employee confidence has been seriously eroded; everybody seems to think everyone else is out to get them. Yet it should be remembered that none of the candidates in ’97 promised either employee firings or massive cutbacks. They merely promised to try to curtail budgetary increases and to try to limit hikes in the citizens’ out-of-pocket expenses. And that strikes us as a very good idea — not just for the taxpayers, but also for the departments, the city employees, and Salida’s future.

Though rising costs may be unavoidable, persistent increases should be questioned, reviewed, haggled over, and most of all, explained to the public. It may be painful, but it’s necessary if Salida is to have any meaningful kind of democratic government whatsoever, (and if local taxpayer representation is really a sham, then by all means, let’s eliminate this council all together).

As we see it, this election is about government accountability. And right now, Lewis is for it, and Heitman is against it.

As for the performance audit of the police department, we don’t see how it can hurt, and if — as we fully expect — the audit fails to show any ignominious defects in our department, it may go a long way toward restoring community relations. If, on the other hand, an audit shows police malfeasance, Salida is in far worse shape than we ever suspected, and we figure it would be best to know that, too.

–Martha and Ed Quillen