Polarizing Bennett seeks return to council
October 15, 2009
Steamboat Springs — Kevin Bennett’s previous City Council service ended eight years ago, but the impacts of his tenure still resonate today – in capital projects, open space expansions and lasting partnerships – as well as in lingering anger and questions about his value to the community in another term at Centennial Hall.
When it comes to Bennett, there is no shortage of disparity. What his supporters call a strong-minded personality rooted in building partnerships and a passion for the local community, his detractors call an overbearing assertiveness that stifles progress and collaboration.
Bennett’s past accomplishments and the pace of local development are at the heart of his candidacy for Steamboat Springs City Council’s four-year District 1 seat. Bennett served on the City Council from 1993 to 2001 and is running against incumbent Cari Hermacinski, who won the at-large seat against Towny Anderson in 2007. Hermacinski and Bennett are neighbors in Old Town’s Princeton Avenue neighborhood.
“First of all, I respect anybody who puts time and effort into this,” Bennett, 61, said in reference to Hermacinski’s council service. “But I have strong differences. : I have seen a council focused on this (Steamboat 700) development at a level I don’t think we’ve ever seen before for the last 18 months.”
The City Council voted 4-3 on Tuesday to annex Steamboat 700, a development that plans about 2,000 homes and 380,000 square feet of commercial space on what is now the western edge of the city. The annexation could be subject to a public vote if a citizen-led petition drive emerges. Hermacinski voted against the annexation, citing concerns that, as written, it wouldn’t satisfy all the goals of the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan.
Bennett has publicly and stridently questioned the annexation’s impacts on Steamboat Springs, primarily through increased traffic congestion and water use. He said the city’s allocation of $1.3 million for the New Victory Highway, which would connect Downhill Drive to the Overlook Park development and Steamboat 700, is unjustifiable amid an economic recession and resulting city budget cuts.
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“I have a strong concern about the priorities of this council, and those are personified by the $1.3 million being spent : to build a road to a private development at a time when the city can least afford this completely unnecessary expense,” he said.
Bennett became City Council president in February 1995, after Bill Martin left the position. Bennett became president on a 5-0 vote and held the seat through 2001, with affirmative votes from three councils in addition to the ’95 group.
Hits and misses
Bennett grew up in Edina, Minn., and moved to Steamboat Springs in 1970. He worked as an owner of several businesses for 25 years and now calls himself “semi-retired.”
His nearly seven years as Steamboat’s leading politician saw the construction of projects and amenities including Centennial Hall, Haymaker Golf Course, improved ski jumps at Howelsen Hill and an expanded Howelsen Ice Arena. Bennett helped preserve open space including a site that would become part of the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area, tracts on Emerald Mountain and the Legacy Ranch at U.S. Highway 40 and Colorado Highway 131.
Martin, a 40-year Steamboat resident who served on City Council from 1991 to 1995, said characterizing Bennett as a polarizing figure is “laughable.”
“Kevin has accomplished more than any other president that has ever been there,” Martin said. “Kevin didn’t build Centennial Hall by himself. Kevin didn’t build the new ski jumps by himself. He had to have the political skill, the talent, the intelligence to bring people together to explore the merits of those projects.”
Bennett’s tenure also included:
– An ultimately unsuccessful consolidation of city water services with the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District and a rocky relationship with some members of its board.
– The controversial City Council passage of impact fees on new development, which sparked a local petition drive and a visit from an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer. The impact fees eventually were replaced at the ballot in 2002 with an excise tax.
– No public vote on Centennial Hall, the ice rink expansion or the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan.
– Public votes on Haymaker Golf Course and the creation of a downtown development authority.
– An expansion of Fish Creek Reservoir.
Bennett cites the reservoir expansion in campaign ads, but Mount Werner Water officials say it was, first and foremost, executed by the Mount Werner Water District.
“In terms of who moved forward with the enlargement, we moved forward with the enlargement,” said Jay Gallagher, general manager of the district. “The district needed permission from the city to move forward with it. In that sense, the city participated, because they are the permittee. But the expansion was at our initiative.”
The city and the district agreed on the 2,280-acre-foot expansion in July 1994, after months of negotiation.
Janice Illian has been the Mount Werner district’s office manager for 37 years.
“Other than him being on the council when it all happened, I don’t see where he was instrumental in that,” she said about Bennett and the reservoir expansion. She declined to elaborate on Bennett’s relationship with the district and its board.
For every supporter of Bennett who praises his ability to build partnerships, there is a detractor who questions his ability to work with others.
Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said communication with the city suffered during Bennett’s tenure.
“I would characterize (communication) as not necessarily as good as it has been with other councils,” Stahoviak said, declining to elaborate.
Paula Cooper Black, a council member from 1987 to 1999, also chose her comments carefully when discussing Bennett’s leadership.
“I thought he was not the easiest to deal with. Oftentimes I felt the debate was stifled and cut off,” she said. “I think what one might view as passion, others might view as perhaps being more dictatorial than a representative government should be. : Council had always sort of had an unwritten rule that every two years, someone else would take over as president : I think that changed under Kevin’s tenure.”
Don Valentine sat on the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District’s board from 1967 to 2004. He did not hold back when talking about Bennett.
“He makes himself sound like somebody that he’s really not – that he’s a great facilitator and someone who can work well with other groups,” Valentine said. “It’s really the opposite as far as I’m concerned. : His approach to trying to work with the Mount Werner Water board has been a disaster forever.”
Bennett, sipping coffee earlier this month at Steaming Bean, took a long pause before responding with a reason for Valentine’s opinions about him.
“Because I took him on. Because I took on Mount Werner. Standing up to power will get you in trouble, and I have a history of standing up to power,” Bennett said. “If you look at my record, we put together a lot of partnerships in the ’90s that were very successful. Their success is seen in the river and the two miles of new access, the five miles of new (Yampa River) Core Trail, the 400 percent increase in parks, Haymaker, the ice rink, Centennial Hall. All of these major improvements were done through partnerships. I’ll let my record speak for itself.”
Bennett said if re-elected, he would not seek the council presidency. Nor would he take it if offered.
“I’m more interested in quietly working on traffic, rebuilding our grants capacity and seeing about some long-term solutions to our mobility, at 13th Street, for example,” he said. “I hope if I’m elected to be kind of the elder statesman working on some of (this) long-term, business of government stuff.”