Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the Vail Homeowners Association monthly report. We publish weekly excerpts from the association, which keeps a close eye on economic and political trends in and outside of the town. The newsletter electronic version with links to supporting documents is available at www.vailhomeowners.com.
The town of Vail was once viewed as a fair-minded arbitrator between commercial and residential interests. Not so much any longer; since the recession, it has taken a decidedly factional business centric perspective, becoming, as some see it, an instigator of conflict rather than an arbitrator of compromise. The town, to some observers, is spending more of its energies and resources on the business of doing business. Each year, it escalates spending on economic development related operations and less on quality-of-life capital improvements. Some critics ask, where are the improvements that benefit the entire community?
Reliance upon Vail’s electoral process to shift the balance of power back toward a centrist position will not happen quickly. As the ratio of the town’s population of property owners tilts steadily toward an increase in non-resident owners, there has been greater polarization among commercial, resident and non-resident factions as played out through the town of Vail economic development initiatives. Vail’s non-resident property owners are the most vulnerable and are frequently given the short shrift in politically resolved confrontations, because non-residents have a marginal voice in the town’s electoral process.
A Colorado court decision gives the authority to local voters to confer voting privileges upon non-resident property owners through an amendment to the town home rule charter. This scenario is not likely to occur. It is in the hands of the Town Council to shape compromise and build bridges of communication that will instill trust and collaboration among the community’s competing factions.
Incongruously, Vail has seen a steady decline in voter turnout and a steady rise in registered voters for much of the past decade. Disturbingly, the town may have inadvertently spawned the suppression of voter turnout. The trend to vote absentee had been on a steady increase for much of the past decade. The Town Council, prior to the last election, decided to not maintain a mailing list from election to election for those wanting to automatically be sent an absentee ballot. Vail voters now have to apply each election to receive an absentee ballot. The consequence in the recent Town Council election was a decrease in voter turnout both by absentees and at the polls. Importantly, there has also been a steady decline in voter turnout for all but one of the seven Town Council elections held since 2001.
When comparing Vail’s voter registration (4,257) and the 2012 U.S. census population estimation of persons above the age of 18 (4,707), all but 450 local residents above the age of 18 are registered to vote, better than 90 percent, an unusually high percentage. However, once registered, registered voters don’t vote. Only 19.5 percent saw fit to vote in the November election. The outcome of low voter turnout is that public policy for the entire community, a majority of which are non-resident property owners, is being determined by an extraordinary small and steadily shrinking segment of the local population. This level of disengagement by both registered voters and non-resident property owners with the political process, particularly in a small town, rife with lively rumor and gossip, is a signal that something may be seriously wrong with the governing institution’s ability to encourage public participation and the education of its citizenry in the governing of the community. Some see this as a recipe for escalating trouble ahead.
To counter this prospect, the town of Vail needs to become more transparent. As a step to motivate registered voters to become voting voters, the Homeowners Association suggests that all meetings of the town’s boards, commissions and advisory committees should be live streamed and archived on the Internet as the Town Council is currently doing. People need to be able to view firsthand how their government works. Perhaps they will see the value of putting their votes and their financial support to work on behalf of those who best represent their interests. Not knowing how local government works is a deterrent to those who want to participate, but don’t know how to go about it. Residents and property owners need to be given the opportunity both to learn and participate. Opening opportunities for participation and leaning via the Internet may be a good place to start reconciliation among the community’s competing factions.