VAIL — Sam Mamet has been to every hall of power in every corner of Colorado, advising local leaders on how best to support their communities. And they’re always glad he came.
Since 1979, Mamet has championed local governance for the Colorado Municipal League. As the executive director of the 96-year-old nonpartisan group representing Colorado’s local policymakers, Mamet has traversed every corner of the state, visiting all 272 cities and towns many times over.
After a prolonged swing across the state in recent months — a victory lap that has seen him feted and heralded at every turn, including in Congress and at the Colorado Capitol — Mamet is stepping down, making room for Kevin Bommer to take the league’s reins.
Few share Mamet’s intimate perspective of local governance. His counsel has guided thousands of Colorado leaders, many navigating their first steps as elected officials. He recently visited with the Vail Town Council, where he was toasted with champagne and a proclamation similar to those he has received in more than two dozen towns in recent months.
Friday is Mamet’s last day in the office. The Colorado Sun caught up with Mamet during the Vail shindig, where he talked about his 40-year love affair with Colorado and what he has learned about the good intentions of municipal leaders throughout the state.
The following interview was edited for clarity and length.
Colorado Sun: You’ve spent the last several months visiting with towns and cities across the state. Every stop — like this one in Vail — yields a chorus of accolades. Quite the victory lap.
Sam Mamet: I just want to give out some hugs. Throughout my tenure with the league, I have been to every town in this state several times over. I joke I’ve been to every fire station, sewer plant, town hall, coffee shop. I’ve been through every speed trap in the state.
CS: I’m thinking … there is no one else in Colorado — maybe even in the history of the state — who can say that.
SM: I’ve been around. It’s important for me to visit all our members. Being in Dove Creek two or three weeks ago is just as important to me as hobnobbing with the mayor of Denver and everybody in between, you know? There is no square inch of this state I’m not in love with.
CS: So, no favorite spots?
SM: There isn’t any place that is not a favorite spot for me. I can be just as happy driving out in the Eastern Plains and staring out at the wheatfields on a fall day as I can be driving up here in the mountains or driving down in the San Luis Valley. There is always a town to stop in and say hello and ask what’s the gossip. I love doing that.
CS: What are a couple few things you are most proud of during your 40 years at the CML?
SM: One of the things I take a great deal of pride in is the lottery. Our organization was involved in the drafting of the original lottery legislation and getting the voters to approve it back in 1980. Of course, our state lottery is one of the few, if not the only, in the country with revenues dedicated to parks and open space. Every time I go past some small-town park or a trail somewhere in this state and it says paid for with lottery funds, I get a big kick out of that.
But mostly, working directly with people who serve in local government has been a thrill for me. Thousands of people. They all want to do good in their community and we get a chance to help them. You know people who run for office at the local level often have no clue what they’re getting into, and so they call us and ask for advice, and it’s fun to spend time with them, helping them.
Another thing I’m personally proud of is that I have always preached partnership — that we serve the same people: the taxpayers. Whether it’s across local government boundary lines or interacting with our counties or working with the state or national government, it’s about a partnership and we have to work together. That doesn’t mean we should always be in agreement, but the disagreements shouldn’t be disagreeable. We have got to work things out together.
CS: When you go to national rallies of local government advocates like yourself, what kind of differences do you notice in Colorado’s local leaders? How does the fact that so many Colorado residents came from a different state make them stand out as leaders?
SM: People are here by choice. People are here because they love what the state offers, from the mountains to the high plains to the San Luis Valley. And when they are here, they want to stay here. And we have an independent streak here. People feel very strongly about their own communities and want to protect their communities, and they have a great pride in that. The structure of government in Colorado also helps as well.
CS: What do you mean?
SM: Four things. First, the people who serve in municipal office — by state law — serve in a nonpartisan capacity so you don’t run with a party.
And second, the council-manager system is very strong in Colorado. So there’s a level of professionalism. The elected officials set policy, and most of our towns then have a professional staff who carries that out.
Third is home rule. We have 101 out of 272 cities and towns in this state that operate under their own local constitution. It’s the essence of local governance. It’s something the people write; they write their own charter. It’s adopted by the voters, and it can only be changed by the voters. It affords each community a great deal of legal independence from state oversight.
And fourth, in Colorado — and I don’t want to get too wonkish here — cities and towns rely far less on state-shared revenues and rely far more on closely raised revenues, primarily at the municipal level through the sales tax. So, when we are at the state Capitol as local governments, we may ask for a hand up, but not a handout.
CS: Give us a good example of citizens supporting local government over state control.
SM: I would say broadband. This is a fascinating experiment in local governance if there ever was one. In 2005, the law passed over our objections that prohibited local government cities and towns from providing broadband service because it would pose unfair competition to private providers. We said at the time to the telecom lobbyists, “You know, at least let’s allow the voters in a community some say in this, and if they want to see their municipality provide it or explore options for the provision of broadband, we ought to have that right.” They laughed at us and said, “Fine. Go ahead. Nobody will ever approve those questions.”
That was then, and today we have well over 150 jurisdictions across the state — counties and municipalities from one end of the state to the other — with voters who have overwhelmingly approved these questions allowing for local control of broadband. Never once have these questions been approved with less than 70 percent approval. It’s an example of citizens expecting their local governments to solve an issue.
Now, actually getting questions like these passed and making sure you have adequate service, well, there’s a lot in between. But it’s an example of the strong support that local governments have in the state.”
CS: What do you see as the biggest challenges Colorado is facing right now?
SM: I like to always look at challenges as opportunities. Throughout this state, whether it’s in the high country or anywhere else, affordable housing is huge and the related issue of homelessness is equally significant as a challenge to cities across the state and that’s a complicated one.
So many of our challenges, these are problems that have a face with them. You can’t simply pass an ordinance to make the problem go away. Like prescription drug abuse, opioid abuse and all the related issues of mental health. I have spoken out with our mayors on this a number of times. You need to embrace this in your community and be an advocate and acknowledge that this exists and you have to be a leader to work with other groups, whether it’s in the public-safety community the health care industry, nonprofits. We need to think globally on an issue like this. It’s a serious epidemic. And our mayors, especially our mayors, really need to lead by example on this.
And finally, water. We need to look very hard at our state’s plumbing infrastructure. I think one of the most significant issues facing Colorado is (Nevada’s) Lake Mead. If Lake Mead continues to be drawn down, that will create a call on the (seven-state Colorado River) compact, and if that ever happens, every citizen in the state will feel that. Water is our lifeblood, and it’s precious. We need to do more to fund water quality, water quantity and water conservation projects, and we are not doing a good enough job on that. Gov. (John) Hickenlooper identified it as an issue several years ago. Gov. Jared Polis embraced it in the State of the State message. But it’s going to take significant investment to fund, and I don’t know where it’s going to come from.
CS: And it requires difficult cooperation between all seven states that rely on the Colorado River.
SM: Let’s forget about cooperation with neighboring states for a moment. It’s going to take a lot of cooperation with hands across the divide. When it comes to water policy, it’s not partisan. Where you sit is where you stand. Depending on what side of the hill you are on, you view the world very differently. If you are a municipal user, you are going to view the world very differently than if you are an agricultural user. If you are a conservationist, you are going to view the world differently perhaps than if you are a developer. But we are all in it together and there is a commonality around the issue of water that is there, but it’s hard to find sometimes.
CS: Name a few towns or cities who you think are having the greatest beneficial impact on their residents? What pops into your head when you think about a town that is setting a model for the rest of the state?
SM: Gosh, there’s so many of them. If I start down this path, I’m going to get myself in trouble. I think there’s a secret sauce in so many of our communities. So, rather than cite one, I’ll say this: I think the communities that have an elected leadership that’s got a vision, it’s got a citizenry that is engaged and not afraid to speak its mind, and it’s got professional staff that carries out the day-to-day policies, those are the communities that are doing it right. Vail is a great example of that. This is a town that is not a place, it’s a community. People have great pride in this community with deep roots, and they all have strong passions about how this community should grow — and that’s what makes a great town.
OK, I will tell you two favorite places of mine are Trinidad and Ridgway. They both have this project called Space to Create where they are trying to attract artists into their community, and Ridgway and Trinidad have done incredible stuff with that program. I think that John Suthers has been an incredible leader in Colorado Springs and is focusing on bringing in millennials to his city. He and I had dinner last week, and he said, “I want to attract high tech into the city, and I’ve got to have adequate housing and a nice downtown, and I’ve got to have amenities like trails and bike lanes for young people to want to come to Colorado Springs and work in these industries.” And it’s having some payoff.
CS: Last one before the Vail Town Council reads its proclamation heralding your work: What’s an example of local governance you’ve seen in Colorado that can be scaled up to have a national impact? How can Colorado’s local government lead us on a national level?
SM: This one is easy: climate change. This is one where cities are leading by example. We are far ahead of the states and certainly far ahead of the national government in so many different ways that cities and towns across the state have embraced the issues of sustainability, and we really have led by example. Community after community, large and small, they understand this and they have been leading by example. I think that’s a great illustration of where we lead in Colorado and others follow.