Divided Aspen Metropolis Council sends Wheeler cash query to voters

After locating a member of Aspen City Council who was absent from Tuesday’s regular session to vote on a controversial election issue, the council voted 3-2 in favor of an ordinance asking voters to withdraw tax revenue from the Divert real estate transfer tax for the Wheeler Opera House.

Councilor Skippy Mesirow was reached by city director Sara Ott after an hour and a half discussion of his elected counterparts, who were stuck 2-2 in a vote, to send the question to the vote.

Mesirov attended the meeting at his Aspen apartment after a vacation trip through WebEx. The conversation among councilors continued for another 40 minutes, which ended in a swing vote by Mesirov after asking questions about the councilors’ positions that they had previously stated.

He voted because of his late arrival despite objections from two council members, Ward Hauenstein and Rachel Richards.

“I think this is a flawed process because Skippy comes at the last minute,” said Hauenstein.

Richards asked Mesirov to wait and listen to the entire conversation later before making a decision.

“If you get involved,” she said, “I would really appreciate it if you wait and watch until you see the previous discussion … and I don’t want to have to repeat 10 minutes of online comments to you about my concerns and assessments.”

The special session was called for Tuesday so Richards could be on the podium. since she was on vacation a week earlier when the rest of the council debated whether the question should be sent to the electorate.

Richards said she watched the August 24th meeting of the council and was ready to turn down the vote question for a myriad of reasons, including the fact that the city’s recent election results showed that the required 60% of voters are unlikely to support her.

Prior to Mesirov’s appearance, Councilor John Doyle said a decision to send a question to voters was important enough for all five members to vote.

“I just firmly believe that Skippy should be here so we can get a resounding yes or no,” he said. “I hate having another meeting, but he’s part of our board of directors, he should get involved.”

With the Friday deadline for submitting ballot language to the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, the council took a break to see Mesirov’s availability.

Richards said the council members’ conflicting views on diverting funds from the Wheeler Opera House did not send out a good signal to voters.

“Great, you have a 3-2 vote to put it on the ballot and try to win with it,” she said, arguing more than once Tuesday that it was still not entirely clear how the money was being spent and how much would be diverted and what would be left for the historic Wheeler Opera House.

“I think if the council puts a question together and publishes it and it fails, it is the council’s failure to ask a failed question … and I think that is not reflected well in the council,” she said.

Mayor Torre, who had voted with Doyle and Mesirov to put the question on the ballot, said the time had come.

“I think we should go ahead with November and give our community a chance to vote on it,” he said. “That doesn’t work structurally for us and we should fix it and we could fix it by putting it on the ballot and supporting it and getting it over the 60% threshold … and I also think that doesn’t tie our hands up, even to ask another question in the next year or two, or right now, when we are sitting in front of us and have the opportunity to make progress. “

The poll question is asking that some of Wheeler’s property transfer tax revenue be diverted to the Red Brick Center for the Arts, which is currently supported by the city’s general fund and the city’s wealth management plan fund.

The elimination of the general fund as a source of support for the Red Brick would allow the city to pay its remaining $ 2.1 million in outstanding certificates of attendance for the financially vulnerable Isis Theater.

The poll also calls for the cap on $ 100,000 annually allocated to arts and culture grants to local nonprofits to be lifted and opened up more widely to the visual and performing arts.

The Wheeler real estate transfer tax was first adopted by voters in 1979 and was specifically pledged as financial support for the Wheeler Opera House, plus the $ 100,000 annually allocated.

In 2016, voters extended the RETT to 2039 and reiterated the 1979 vote that any change in funding would require the support of 60% of voters.

The Wheeler Opera House currently has $ 40 million in funds.

Hauenstein said he wants to ensure other important community needs, particularly mental health and childcare, are adequately funded before asking voters to divert money from the Wheeler property transfer tax for more arts funding.

At the beginning of the council discussion on Tuesday before Mesirov’s appearance, Doyle said in the back of his mind that if the question fails, it could be asked again, but with questions from the Wheeler board of directors and other concerns, it would be a good idea to step down and assess it more closely, instead of rushing it.

He later changed his mind and voted yes to put it on the ballot after voting against Richards’ earlier motion to deny the ordinance that voters sent him.

Hauenstein and Richards voted yes to reject the motion, while Torre and Doyle voted no, which resulted in a 2-2 deadlock.

When asked again to approve the regulation, Richards and Hauenstein vote no and Mesirow, Torre and Doyle vote yes.

“I see valid arguments for both sides,” said Doyle when he was pushed to his position by Mesirov. “I’m struggling with this because we could get it back on the ballot right away; I like what Torre said about letting the voters decide, we have a smart electorate, and I also agree with the points Rachel made as she hasn’t even met the Wheeler board yet. It’s a difficult thing. “

Mesirov leaned over to Torre’s position.

“Let’s do it now and let the polling feedback guide us,” he said.

The council spent much less time discussing another vote question, which was passed 4-0, to be sent to Aspen voters this fall.

The council spent about 15 minutes at the beginning of the meeting approving two regulations and a decision that sends a basic exchange question to the voters.

If approved by voters, it would lay a 19 acre shelter easement over Shadow Mountain, preventing future development and guaranteeing public access and recreational opportunities.

The property is known as the Pride of Aspen Mining Claim, and if voters agree to the land swap, it will be owned permanently by the City Park Department and Pitkin County’s Open Space Program.

By approving the deal with homeowner Bob Olson who owns 501 W. Hopkins Ave. owned next to the Midland Trail, he will receive 4,000 square feet of public right of way on his 7,500 square foot property.

The additional square footage to Olson’s property would allow for better access and more landscaping around the home, along with setbacks that would create a buffer for the adjacent Midland Trail.

His company, RD Olson Investments II, LLC, headquartered in Newport Beach, California, bought the 19 acres on Shadow Mountain for $ 1 million in 2018 for prophylactic purposes to ensure no one would do or suggest anything right behind their home that he could contradict.

As part of the land swap, between 360 square meters and 780 square meters of additional floor space could be added to the existing 3,450 square meter house, depending on the proposal and land use regulations.

csackariason@aspentimes.com