Friday, December 25, 2009

Short but sweet

Ketchum Councilman Charles Conn ends short but eventful term

Charles Conn is sworn into office by Mayor Randy Hall in 2008. Photo by Mountain Express

Come January, Ketchum City Councilman Charles Conn will just be Charles Conn. And it's a title Conn chose to drop.

Conn said he doesn't regret opting out of re-election in November, but the departure is nonetheless "bittersweet." Some weighty work, such as the annexation of 138 acres of Sun Valley Co. property into the city for a base village, is left undone.

"I would've liked to be a part of the discussion for River Run, a city square and a replacement airport," Conn said while sitting in his home office.

But he said he'll welcome reclusion from the public eye "for a little bit."

Conn first stepped into office about 17 months ago when former Councilman Ron Parsons left mid-term for health reasons. And, at the time, Conn said he was hesitant for one reason.

"I was reluctant, not because of the time commitment, but because of the level of acrimony and incivility in our public debate process," he said.

That seems to be the same reason he's now walking away from the council table at City Hall. But this isn't necessarily the end—it's just the end for now.

"I never minded the work," Conn said. "I think I will serve again. We'll see when. And the one thing I don't want to leave is an impression of sour grapes."

Conn said that despite the mud slung in the face of small-town politicians, he'd go so far to say that the city level is the "only level where democracy really works."

He said citizens can speak and feel that their voices are heard, that they can influence decisions. Democracy is, after all, defined as government by the people.

And, he said, city-level matters seem to directly affect the people.

"The core issues of politics are played out at the local level, and are critical for that reason," he said. "People spend 80 percent of their time and money within 10 to 15 miles of their own home. That's where it's important to get it right."

He said this intimacy of politics, life and government involvement is all too often lost in larger-scale politics, even at the state level.

"And you could argue something as big as the United States is ungovernable," Conn said.

He said he was fortunate enough to see the inner workings of politics and to sit through a "very eventful" period in the council's agenda.

Conn came into office with the goals of providing more affordable community housing and high-quality hotel rooms, as well as lowering the city's energy consumption.

Strides were made in all those areas. Construction of Northwood Place—a five-building, 32-unit, affordable rental housing development north of the Wood River Community YMCA—started in November.

As for four- and five-star hotels, Warm Springs Ranch Resort, Bald Mountain Lodge and a hotel at the River Run base village have all progressed through city negotiations, with some projects a little further along than others. And the city has also implemented a plan to cut annual carbon emissions by 91 tons by merely switching street and building lights to more efficient alternatives. This would also save the city about $11,000 a year in energy costs.

But Conn isn't one to credit the achievements as his doing.

"I'm not trying to lay claim to anything here," Conn said, adding that an open-minded council and mayor have made deliberations successful, as has a "competent" city staff doing the behind-the-scenes work.

He particularly credited City Administrator Gary Marks and Community and Economic Development Director Lisa Horowitz.

And, he said, those responsible extend beyond City Hall to include organizations such as Sustain Blaine, Wood River Economic Partnership, Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau, and Mountain Rides.

Still, everything that Conn worked for wasn't a success.

He and Sun Valley Councilman Dave Chase championed a merger between the two cities earlier this year to save an estimated $2 million annually by overhead savings of having only one administration and city hall and fewer vehicles. The effort fell through after much opposition, but Conn said it was educational for understanding the cities' finances and realizing the cities' identities.

"It's not important whether it eventually happens or not," he said.

Conn admits that he wasn't always right. He is only human.

"I certainly can tell you we've deliberated seriously," he said. "I can tell you we didn't do everything 100 percent right. But we did it with the right attitude, settling everything in the open air before the public."

Conn will be replaced on the council by Nina Jonas, a Ketchum restaurant co-owner, in early January.

Trevon Milliard:

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