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Posted: September 01, 2011

Colorado Springs is looking a lot more like Denver

Strong-mayor government ushers in a new era

By Robert D. Loevy

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Colorado Springs and Denver have a
unique relationship, although hardly anyone ever comments on it.

Ever since I moved to the Springs more than 40 years ago, I have been calling my hometown "a suburb in search of a central city." Colorado Springs has an unusually small downtown for the center city of a metro area of more than 640,000 people.

Most of the population growth in Colorado Springs occurred during and after World War II, when the U.S. government located a number of major military installations near the city, such as Fort Carson and the U.S. Air Force Academy. Most people in the Springs live in post-World War II sprawling suburbs, mainly in ranch houses and split-levels. They spend most of their time and money in regional shopping centers rather than downtown.

For many people in Colorado Springs, Denver is their downtown. Want to go to a really good art or science museum? You head 70 miles to Denver. Want to see a really good play or musical? Go to the Denver Performing Arts Center. Do you or a loved one have serious health concerns? Schedule a consultation at the University of Colorado medical center in Aurora. Need to fly somewhere quickly and cheaply? Drive to DIA.

This past year, Colorado Springs has started acting like a populous big city, changing from the city-manager form of government - almost universally used in small cities throughout Colorado - to the strong-mayor form, mainly found only in Denver.

City-manager government divides authority between an elected city council and a professional city manager, who has the day-to-day job of running the city. The strong-mayor form places all executive authority in the elected mayor, who is both a politician and the chief executive.

The drive for strong-mayor government in Colorado Springs came from one family, closely associated with the housing development industry and downtown interests, that provided virtually all of the leadership and most of the money.

Interestingly, most of the expertise to get the job done came from Denver:

A Denver law firm drew up the legal language of the city charter amendment that was presented to voters.

A Denver firm was hired to gather the required citizen signatures to put strong-mayor on the ballot. There was a small complication at this point when signature gathering lagged. College students from the Colorado Springs area were rushed in to get the final signatures needed.

A political consulting firm based in Denver designed the election campaign, complete with slick TV commercials in which elementary school students touted the "obvious" advantages of strong-mayor over city manager.

In short, where this election was concerned, Colorado Springs was Denverized.

There was no organized opposition to what amounted to a one-family drive to completely change the executive branch of Colorado Springs city government. The only visible critics were three former city managers, who wrote op-ed pieces for the local newspaper questioning the need to abandon the city-manager form of government.

Colorado Springs voters turned their backs on the city-manager form of government and handily voted in strong-mayor, electing businessman Steve Bach in May.

Three men, all of them former strong mayors of Denver, were the role models for the drive for strong-mayor government in Colorado Springs: Federico Pena, who campaigned on the inspiring slogan, "Imagine a great city;" Wellington Webb, who presided over a great increase in downtown facilities and services in Denver; and John Hickenlooper, now Colorado's governor, who brought unusual color and charisma to the job.

Colorado Springs voters have opted for a more dynamic and activist form of city government. Strong mayors combine in one office both the high visibility and the legal responsibility needed to guide a city in a forward direction, as Pena, Webb and Hickenlooper were all able to do in Denver.
Will the new strong-mayor of Colorado Springs be able to revive the downtown and bring to Colorado's second most populous city the kind of major civic projects only seen in Denver?

It worked that way in Denver with a strong mayor. Maybe it will work that way in Colorado Springs.
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