On this year’s city ballot 14 candidates are vying for a seat in City Hall’s Pueblo City Council chamber. Four seats are up for grabs, and only one incumbent is running, Chris Nicoll (councilman at large).
The election has the potential to set council on a different path, just as the resignation of three council members did last fall when Sandy Daff, Chris Kaufman and Ami Nawrocki faced recalls over emails deemed secretive.
Prior to the resignations, the three former council members stood against moving forward with the expansion of the convention center. The council members that filled the vacant seats all voted in favor of the expansion. The three former members also questioned whether half-cent money would be better spent on improving city infrastructure.
No matter where the incoming members stand on issues, Pueblo City Manager Sam Azad has one request: He would like to see the focus of city council change with the next batch of elected officials from being involved in what he calls “day-to-day” matters to preparing a long term plan for the city.
“I would like the council members to develop that strategic vision for the community for at least next five to 10 years and direct me and the city staff to implement that vision,” Azad said in a recent interview.
The day-to-day matters Azad is referring to are mainly the topics that have dominated the headlines in recent months: trash, code enforcement, infrastructure issues and most recently, residents parking cars on their own lawns, for example.
“We’re the ones who can really do something,” Azad said, pointing to the buzzing office of city staff temporarily working from the new police station until renovations in City Hall are finished.
The city manager is tasked with helping council members make decisions that are within the city ordinance, are ethical and can be implemented.
“I try to stay away from politics. Ultimately, when it gets to the nitty-gritty on how (a council member) wants to accomplish those things then I get involved,” Azad said.
He also has a staff that works to help alleviate many of the problems council spends time at meetings and work sessions discussing such as repaving roads or upping code enforcement, Azad said.
“The community has a habit of going straight to their councilmember,” Azad said. “It’s good that the community is communicating with the council members, but at the same time it doesn’t allow the council members to remove themselves from the day-to-day operations and create that vision that we desperately need.”
He said he understands the reason why city council receives so many complaints related to ordinances such as overgrown lawns. People are comfortable talking with the district’s representative because they more than likely know them personally or feel they have a good understanding of the community’s needs by being a long-time resident. Or, it’s easier to contact a council member.
Councilman Bob Schilling, who has been a major voice on stronger ordinance enforcement and in favor of heftier penalties for violators said council needs to talk about those issues and act on them.
“It’s important that they (the constituents) feel like we (city council) are being responsive,” said Schilling.
Azad said solving problems such as potholes or police response time — two common complaints his office gets — are quantitative. You can count how many roads have been fixed or how police response time has improved, but there isn’t a long-term outcome like making a plan would provide.
Resource allocation is a big part of that, Azad said. And it’s a lot easier to talk about than it is to actually put it on paper.
Fine-tuning the ordinances is a duty of council, Schilling said. However, he believes many of the problems the city faces could be solved with money.
“I would like the council members to develop that strategic vision for the community for at least next five to 10 years and direct me and the city staff to implement that vision.” – Pueblo City Manager Sam Azad
Allocating more money is rarely ever a reality as the city has faced deficits in recent years due to the recession. While other departments may be able to fix problems, they still need to keep council in the know by presenting at work sessions.
“Would you want council to blindly make a decision?” Schilling said.
Azad said he would like to see the next council focus on five major areas: Innovative government, safer streets, a cleaner city, stronger neighborhoods and growing the economy.
Focusing on the future of the community and implementing a plan would probably prevent getting heavily involved in issues such as code enforcement, Azad said. For example, creating a plan for improving roads long-term rather than council members trying to keep track of each reported pothole.
“All of these five areas, in my opinion, are interrelated,” he said. “If you don’t have growth in your economy you can’t have any of the other four, but if you don’t have those four you can’t grow the economy.”
City council has done a better job at distancing itself from day-to-day tasks, Azad said. But
Councilman at large Chris Nicoll, also the work session chairman, said sometimes council’s involvement in the day-to-day issues are needed because council serves as an oversight to the city manager.
“Our job isn’t to micromanage,” Nicoll said. “It’s our role to oversee. (The issues the council has most recently taken on) were issues that we absolutely needed to weigh in on. (Sam Azad) does a good job of seeing if we’re overstepping our bounds. And that isn’t very often.”
But when it comes to a plan for the city, Schilling, who was granted after Ami Nawrocki resigned last year, said that it is the city manager’s job to make a plan for the city and council’s job to approve it.
“What we need is money, we don’t need a plan. There wouldn’t be a tin laying in the alley if we had money,” Schilling said. “I like plans. The reality is they don’t always work out.”
Within two elections a plan made by city council could completely change, Schilling pointed out. The reality of a five to 10 year plan may be far-fetched.