On the first wintry night of the season, in a room filled with the tantalizing smell of barbecue, candidates for Englewood City Council appeared before voters in a Sept. 27 forum at Moe’s Original Bar B Que on South Broadway.
The forum was hosted by Englewood Citizens for Open Government, a pro-transparency group, and drew a few dozen attendees. At-large council candidates Scott Gorsky and Steve Yates fielded questions submitted by audience members, as did District 2 council candidate Rita Russell.
Russell’s opponent, incumbent Councilwoman Linda Olson, did not attend.
Matthew Crabtree of ECOG joined the council contenders before the crowd, representing the “Save Our Parks” ballot measure. The citizen initiative was prompted by the city’s controversial sale of the Englewood Depot, which fetched $30,000.
District 4 Councilmember Rick Gillit, seeking re-election with no opponent on the ballot, spoke briefly, following a schedule giving the bulk of the time to voters’ questions in contested matters.
“To run unopposed means they didn’t send somebody after you,” said Gillit, who voted against the depot sale.
Incoming Englewood School Board members Tena Prange and Jason Sakry kept their appearances limited to introductory remarks. The school board election was called off because no race was contested, and the subsequent death of incumbent candidate Gene Turnbull created a vacancy that the current board is moving to fill.
Also giving brief presentations were Brian Ewert, the school superintendent; Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder Matt Crane, the county’s chief elections official; and ECOG activist Laurett Barrentine, a former member of city council.
The forum quickly moved to the main event. Gorsky, the term-limited president of Englewood’s school board, reminisced about the old days at Sport Bowl, the smoky pool hall that long stood at the site where Moe’s is now located. “When the voters speak, I will listen,” he said.
When Yates’ turn came, he rapidly focused on the current council’s actions in selling the century-old Englewood Depot, clearly a sore point with many in the audience.
“It was a park and our city charter states the people are supposed to vote on that particular issue,” he said.
Russell said she had no interest in public office until “things changed about two years ago.”
She said there is a lack of fiscal responsibility and leadership on the current council, and said that when she called three councilmembers about city matters, “they dismissed my concerns.”
Crabtree, who nearly gained a council seat in a six-way race in 2011, didn’t mince words in blasting the mechanism the council used to sell the depot. The “Save Our Parks” ballot issue, if successful, will give official designation to a list of public areas now treated as parks, clarifying the requirement for a citywide vote on any proposed sale.
The recent 5-2 council vote to sell the depot “violated the Englewood city charter” and “exploited a loophole,” Crabtree said.
Russell joined Yates in condemning the depot sale, and Gorsky said, “I would have heard from the people more.”
City finances discussed
Gorsky, “a big believer in lean practice,” stressed his experience in making difficult budget decisions for Englewood schools, on a night when troubling pictures of the city’s financial condition were a frequent topic.
Yates questioned whether the city’s shift toward apartments was financially responsible. He said he’s neither for nor against the apartment plans, but said: “We need to listen to the people, not just some banker.”
Russell pointed to the dangers of deficit spending and the need for a balanced budget. “We need to encourage policies that will be business-friendly,” she said, adding that business owners are “really dissed” by the current council.
“We need to protect our reserves rather than spend them,” she said.
When questioned about the schools’ decision to provide Englewood schoolchildren with tablet computers as part of a literacy program, Gorsky said: “I am not happy with the achievement our school district is currently showing” and “I have been a good steward of your money.” He said he is “already prudent with tax dollars” in his attempts to add value to the schools.
Shortfall in spotlight
The city’s projected shortfall in next year’s budget, with expenditures outrunning revenues by $1.2 million, came up frequently.
Yates said “we’re not in a good situation,” and raised the specter of what could happen if the city’s finances went belly-up. He said the city’s valuable water rights would be at risk: “If we become a ward of the court, they’re gone.”
Russell also cut to the chase in her take on city finances. “If we have to fund the pension fund,” she said, “we will be broke in one year. We need to take care of that immediately.”
In his closing, Yates, who has a business background, said rival Gorsky “has never had to build a business” and ran a school budget of money “given to him.” Gorsky didn’t take the bait, saying that in his service he has learned the value of “the three R’s: relationships, results and being respectful in dialogue and discourse.”
Crabtree said the council’s power to sell the depot without a public vote was finagled by the winning side on the grounds that the site was not a “dedicated” park. Several parks aren’t dedicated, Crabtree said, urging citizens to vote yes on Ballot Question 300 because it “will dedicate every park.”
“Let’s not let this happen again,” he said.