Behind the Springs podcast: What's it like to be mayor?

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Jen and Ted have a great conversation with Mayor John Suthers about his job as Mayor, why he chose public service and public office and how he stays focused. He shares the importance of setting goals along with his favorite part of serving as the Mayor of COS. 

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Episode Transcripts

Intro: (00:00)
Behind the Springs. Thank you. Can I continue to get my, my uh, sound effects fix and an inside look at your local government. Okay, got it. All right, so next, can I interrupt you again? No. Okay. Colorado Springs nearly 500,000 people, Olympic city, USA, garden of the gods, Pikes peak. It's a growing city. Our local government has a lot of employees. What exactly do they do? How does it impact my life? This is where you find out behind the Springs and inside. Look at your local government.

Jen: (00:39)
Mayor John Suthers became the 41st mayor of Colorado Springs in 2015.

Ted: (00:44)
he was reelected this April to a second term by an overwhelming Mart, a majority.

Jen: (00:49)
And we're glad to have him with us for this episode. We're going to ask them a few questions about what it's like to be the mayor. So thank you for giving us some of your time, mayor Sathers.

Mayor: (00:57)
Glad to be with you.

Jen: (00:58)
Yeah. So we wanted to ask you some of the questions is that I think you probably get just in conversation with folks sometimes. I know you certainly get them when you visit some of the, um, school age children in our community who want to know more about your job. Um, do you get people asking you what your job is like very often? Are they curious?

Mayor: (01:15)
Well, I think older people are embarrassed to ask exactly what the mayor does cause I think they think they should know. Uh, but certainly young people are not the least bit embarrassed.

Jen: (01:25)
and have some good questions.

Mayor: (01:27)
A lot of them are always the same. How much money do you make? Uh, you know, do you have a drive around in a, uh, black Mercedes? And I always have to say not much money and I don't get to drive around in my conversations.

Jen: (01:39)
Kind of disappointing. Right?

Ted: (01:40)
Yeah. We got to get you like an entourage going around and the, and the big suburban SUV SUVs and everything. Can you, uh, we were talking about it a little bit before the episode that we don't know if a lot of people understand the branches of our local government. You did a really good job of putting it into terms of the federal government. So can you kind of explain where you fit in on the three branches here?

Mayor: (02:02)
You bet. Uh, all our branches of government in a Republican form of government, that's with a, uh, uh, not, that's not the designate a party, but a form of government Republican, uh, have three branches. There's a executive branch and the federal government's the president, uh, state, it's the governor, others, a legislative branch, federal government. It's Congress, a state. It's the general assembly. Uh, and then there's a, a court system, both the state and federal court system. Same is true, uh, in the city. The executive branch, uh, is, uh, headed by the mayor and we run the city on a day to day basis. The legislative branch is the council. Uh, they pass the laws and if, uh, I sign off on them, they become law. If of veto told them they can override my veto. And then we have our own court system, a city court system. So we have three branches of government, just like every other level of government in, uh, the United States.

Jen: (03:00)
If we can get personal for just a couple of questions. I know we do. We like that. Um, we know that you've held other elected positions and I think some people in our community are aware of that as well. When did you realize that your life path, so to speak, was, um, leading you toward public service?

Mayor: (03:18)
You know, that's an interesting question. When I look, reflect back [inaudible] on it and I've got a lot of years now to reflect back. Um, I think it all goes back, uh, interestingly enough to most traumatic event in my life and that was the death of my father when I was 15. And, uh, when you confront mortality at a young age and you have a recognition at that point in your life that life is short, uh, my father was only 59 when he died. Um, you start thinking about, uh, what gives meaning and purpose to your life. And I had some other experiences. I had, uh, uh, nun at st Mary's high school who, uh, told a story about, uh, Roman conquerors coming back from, uh, uh, their foreign conquests and, uh, a slave would whisper in their ear as they wrote along in the chariot down the Appian way in a, uh, celebration called a triumph. And their job was to whisper in their seek transit Gloria Monday, which means thus passes the glory of the world to remind them that life is short. Uh, in today's parlance, you'd say, today's headlines are tomorrow's fish wrapping, things like that. And so I think early on as a result of a variety of circumstances, uh, I got the notion that, uh, uh, got very serious early in life about finding meaning and purpose in life. And that led me, uh, as a, I became a lawyer. I always thought I had a skill set that would make, you know, make for a pretty good lawyer. And, uh, that kind of led me, uh, to public service as district attorney started out as a deputy da. Uh, I spent 10 years in private practice, uh, then got elected, da. And that just kind of from there, once you do a good job in one position, sometimes it leads to other opportunities. I wound up being asked by the governor to run the Colorado department of corrections. Uh, that same governor appointed me attorney general, uh, that same, uh, governor said, gee, I got a friend by the name of George W. Bush who needs to appoint a us attorney in Colorado and I think you'd be a great U S attorney. So those kinds of relationships lead to opportunities. And, uh, I found that I was pretty good at managing, uh, uh, government law offices and, and all my public service was in the law until, uh, I ran for mayor. And that was something that I didn't think about for a long time beforehand. It was only when Colorado Springs went to a strong mayor and had some kinda, uh, setbacks the first four years that I, you know, was convinced by some of my friends may be able to run for mayor.

Ted: (05:59)
Well, and, uh, we didn't scare you off from after your first term. You, you decided that you really wanted to stick around. Uh, what are some of the, what would you say would be the most difficult part of your job or something that was different than what you expected coming into being mayor?

Mayor: (06:15)
I think I, I'm not sure there's things I didn't expect cause I, you know, I've been in public service for a long time. I've been heavily criticized and other jobs. I know what that's all about and you just got to, uh, decide what's important. Uh, and once you think you're doing the right thing, stick to it, uh, move down that road and, and not take the criticism too seriously. Um, I think the, if I was surprised by anything, I've always worked very, very hard. But I don't think I've ever put in as many hours as I do as mayor. It's pretty close to 80 hours a week. Uh, you know, 70 to 80, depending upon the week.

Jen: (06:54)
I think people would be surprised to know that.

Mayor: (06:57)
well and, and see, some of them would say, well Suthers you, if you go to three or four parties a night, that's not really work. Well it is. I'm here to tell you how hard is that,

Jen: (07:05)
but you're speaking at a lot of those.

Mayor: (07:07)
That's exactly right. And you know, you get up at, uh, five 30, you go, uh, if, if got time, you go to the gym. If not, you go directly to your morning breakfast, uh, and you roll in the house about, uh, 10 o'clock and fall in bed and get up the next day and do the, do the same thing there.

Jen: (07:26)
There isn't any downtime.

Mayor: (07:28)
There isn't. No, there isn't. And a Saturday's aren't much different than Fridays and Thursdays, uh, Sunday, uh, typically I don't work on a Sunday morning unless there's something I need to do. Uh, but, uh, it's, it's a lot of work. You don't get a lot of sleep. Um, uh, but I, you know, I was well prepared for it. I've been working hard all my life.

Jen: (07:49)
Do you have a favorite part?

Mayor: (07:51)
Uh, I think one of the favorite things is to get out, uh, once or twice a month, I go out typically with the chamber of commerce to a business in Colorado Springs and there are some, and get a tour of the business and find out what it's about. And there's some amazing businesses in this town, uh, that people you know, don't know. Uh, there's a little company downtown called Altea and they're in there, the interface for the, the, the software on your dashboard in your car and they're in like 15 20 million cars and, and another 5 million every year. Uh, and you know, it's all right based right downtown Colorado Springs. Uh, not a, not a private entity, but you go out to Schriever air force base and get a tour of the GPS in the, the world's entire GPS system is run from Colorado Springs. There's a bunch of 18, 19 year old, the airman out there controlling 23 satellites that your phone wouldn't work if they weren't doing the job out there and just, you know, all kinds of things. There's a company here called conceal fab, a talk about a hot business. Their job is covering up, uh, wireless antennas and all that kind of stuff will, you know, by making trees, by making, uh, you know, there's a, a barn up and teller County that looks like a beautiful barn off in the distance. It's really a pump station. Wow. See, you know, Colorado Springs utilities. It's a fabulous business. They're doing great. And it's, you know, all right here,

Jen: (09:25)
they all want to be here. Yeah. It was just talking to a friend, um, today who was saying, Hey, I've, I've, I've talked with, you know, several different young people who don't know each other, who've all said the Colorado Springs is one of like the top three places they're looking to move. Um, she said it, not negatively, but with a little bit of a surprise. Wow. Can you believe that? And I said, yes, I can, but I don't think that'll, that some people are aware of just how, how many folks were drawing here for, for various reasons.

Mayor: (09:52)
Oh, yeah. Uh, and right now of course, our, uh, job market's very good, uh, among the best in the country. And, uh, uh, there for the most part, pretty high paying jobs. We, we've got, you know, job demand across the board. But our most sought after job right now I think about, uh, close to 900 openings is, uh, a software engineer. Ah, for the last three years it's been registered nurse. But, uh, this last month software engineer became the most demanded job.

Jen: (10:23)
Okay. So what, what would you say is the biggest, um, you know, in your job, you said you come across all these different companies and people and organizations. What's the biggest lesson you've learned? Um, you know, in your time as mayor so far, or one of the bigger lessons, something that you've learned that maybe, I don't know, surprised you?

Mayor: (10:42)
Um, as I say, I've been around the block, so there's not, I don't get surprised, uh, by a lot of things. Um, I think what, uh, kind of a management style that I've arrived at, uh, through the years and for the most part I was managing lawyers. Now I'm managing a lot more than just, uh, lawyers. But I think I've, I've gotten pretty good at managing very large organizations where you're not in face to face contact with all the employees every day. That can be tough. Uh, it is, it's a, it's a different thing. And, and number one have to understand that even if they're not, uh, in eyesight of you, they're still watching you. Uh, in other words, uh, you have to set an example, uh, and um, if you expect them to, uh, uh, you know, uh, stay on the straight and narrow, you got to stay on the straight and narrow and be a good example. You've got to, uh, be careful with your words. You've got to be, uh, uh, you don't, again, have to be a good example and you have to pass messages down. It's a little easier in this day and age with podcasts and, uh, social media and, uh, uh, email and all that sort of thing, uh, than it was, uh, years ago. Uh, but, uh, there's plenty of opportunity to let people know, uh, you know, what your concerns are, what your objectives and vision is. And uh, we work, uh, we work to do that. Uh, as best we can.

Ted: (12:14)
Well, we'll get to what some of your objectives are because I liked the way that you keep tabs on your objectives and that's a little bit of a tease for, we'll take a quick break and then come back and, and talk about a, uh, infamous list that you have here.

Break: (12:28)
Hope you're enjoying this episode of behind the Springs. Jen and Ted are just scratching the surface when it comes to all the things you need to know about your local government. Stay connected with us on social media at cityofcos and check out our website at coloradosprings.gov to stay up to date. Now, back to the show.

Jen: (12:48)
All right, we're here with mayor Southers and asking him some questions about just what those non-typical days, I should say. Not typical day, but days on the job or like for him. Um, and I think you were talking a lot about having your objectives and focus, keeping that focus while you're in office. How do you do that? Can you share with us some of your strategy?

Mayor: (13:09)
Well, uh, I'm a, I'm an old guy, right? Uh, so I predate, um, you know, handhelds and all that kind of stuff. And throughout my entire life I've been doing to do lists. Uh, when I was a young lawyer, um, I had a to do list that I updated every day, what cases I was going to pay attention to and things like that. Uh, when I was in the DA's office, I had a to do list. I still have a to do list. Um, and, uh, the department heads that we meet, uh, you know, uh, first Wednesday of every month, uh, mayor meets with all the department heads and I come in with a, you know, day, a couple of pages and, uh, I've got check the things I want to, uh, check up on. Uh, I always, uh, and they know, um, uh, you know, if you're got this one particular responsibility and it's something that I've asked you about the last three months, you better be at, uh, well, you know, uh, better be able to give an update about it. Uh, and then I keep kind of a annual a to do list. So at the beginning of January, uh, each year I've, uh, as mayor I've sat down and said, this is the big picture items I want to accomplish, uh, this year. And frankly, it's been a marvelous process I think because we've been so successful in checking off all the things. So [inaudible]

Jen: (14:33)
there's nothing quite as satisfying as checking off.

Mayor: (14:35)
That's exactly right. Yeah. I mean, I think I'm looking at my 2019 to do list. Uh, you know, we renewed a to C, uh, for roads. Uh, we've done a good job of implementing to a, the storm water, uh, measure, uh, we, uh, got off the ground on two of the more difficult, um, city for champions projects, the downtown stadium and indoor arena, and also the United States air force Academy. A couple of years ago, both of those were, you know, not certain, a lot of great work's gone in and they're both going to happen. Uh, they're all three, uh, really going to happen. So I feel very good about that. Uh, we, um, succeeded in doing a merger between the city and County office for emergency management this year. Something that I thought was way past to, uh, red light enforcement. Uh, I'm sure our citizens have mixed emotions about that. Uh, I think we needed to do it. We got way too many people running red lights in the city and, uh, uh, causing injury and death. Um, a park lands, uh, dedication ordinance. We're in the final stages of going to council, uh, made a lot of progress in summit house funding. Uh, airport business park continues to really go well. Uh, for me, uh, in 2019, it was a big objective to defeat collective bargaining. I did not want to see Colorado Springs go down that road and that, uh, we were very successful in that. The one thing on my list this year that we did not accomplish, uh, and it was on my list last year and we did not accomplish, uh, was resolving the case, a stormwater case, uh, with the EPA and the state of Colorado over alleged violations of our ms4 water quality permit. The state and federal governments alleged that we have not through the years been doing enough to clean up storm water before we put it into, uh, the fountain Creek basin, which of course goes into the Arkansas, the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. Uh, and that's a matter of detaining and retaining water. Uh, and, uh, we're making a lot of progress and I think they recognize that and I hope to get that case settled in the next six months or so.

Jen: (16:46)
Oh, that's great. And it's good for people to know, I think, um, number one that you're not able to check off everything sometimes just like everyone else. And then what do you do when you don't? You carry it over, right?

Mayor: (16:57)
Unless it's less, it's dead in the water. And I haven't had any of those yet. Uh, this of course has to, has to take place. Um, it's just not happening as quickly. Yeah. We, you know, we went to trial on a couple of issues and did not farewell. So the writing's on the wall. We needed to settle this case and we're doing the best job we can to settle it.

Jen: (17:16)
So when do you typically make your new list? You said earlier?

Mayor: (17:19)
Yeah, probably January 1st couple of days of January. And I can tell you what it'd be a top of it. Settle the EPA state of Colorado a lawsuit.

Ted: (17:29)
Well, and we're a audio medium, so to kind of give people the visual, this is about a three by three. Uh, a note. It's an index card. An index card. Okay. We can put a picture up. Even ripped in half I think. Right?

Mayor: (17:42)
Well I trimmed it off cause I had some other notes there that I didn't want you guys to see. Okay. So, so on an index card, where does this sit on your desk too? I'm hitting you with the hard question.

Mayor: (17:52)
under the glass, just to my right on my desk. It's under the glass. And by the way, the two 18 and two 17 list are under it.

Ted: (18:00)
Oh, nice. And did you nail all of the things on those lists? Except for I know EPA,

Mayor: (18:05)
yeah, we've really, I mean I have to pinch myself sometimes. Uh, I did not really think that in four years we could accomplish all the things we've accomplished. It's a great tribute to the citizens of Colorado Springs, the employees of the city, Colorado Springs. Uh, we've really made a lot of progress.

Jen: (18:21)
So have you thought, can you share a couple thoughts about what might be on your 2020 list?

Mayor: (18:26)
Well, settling the EPA case, uh, number two, uh, I, I, I, I'm, I want to keep, uh, making the progress, uh, on homelessness and people say, what do you mean progress, mr Southern? The fact of the matter is we had a consistent increases in our homeless population until 2017 to 2018 we were stable. And from 2018, 2019, we actually had a 13% decrease in the unsheltered. Uh, and I want to continue that trend. Um, I feel very good about the campus that we've got going at a rescue mission. Uh, we're moving a lot of, uh, um, support services in there. I think we're going to have a healthcare facility. We're going to have drug treatment. We're going to have, uh, a mental health, uh, treatment. And the bottom line for me is I want to be able to help those that want help. Uh, and legally we need to be able to, uh, offer shelter bed to those that want a shelter bed because we're, uh, we need to do that in order to aggressively enforce our, no camping bands for those that don't want to be helped. Uh, it's, it's a little bit of a tough love situation, but I think that's the best way to do it. Uh, when I look around at some other cities that have very, very serious problems, I think the city's gotten to accommodating, letting you know, camps develop and things like that. Uh, and we're in legally good, uh, position is as long as we have enough shelter beds to take care of those that, that want to be sheltered. So, uh, ho, uh, that of course, affordable housing. Uh, we're coming. Uh, we'll be introducing a affordable housing plan. I set a goal a couple of years ago to go from 500 units a year to a thousand. I think we're well on pace to do that. Um, and uh, uh, we, you know, once again, the city's not in the housing business, but we want to facilitate that through some of the federal dollars and state dollars we have available to us and encourage our developers to take advantage of some tax incentives and things like that. Uh, so those are a couple of things. Uh, I, uh, looks to me like I'll be going to an awful lot of ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings, which is very, very exciting. Uh, we're going to open the Olympic museum in April. Uh, we're going to maybe be, uh, uh, opening the new summit house late fall. Uh, uh, and then, you know, all these other, we did a big groundbreaking for the downtown stadium. I think we'll do groundbreaking pretty quickly for, uh, the arena on the city. Uh, the curl college campus. I think we'll see. Have some really good announcements out at the airport. So a lot of fun things.

Jen: (21:07)
I mean, that's the gratifying part is to see some of these things.

Mayor: (21:10)
It really is. It really is. I have to tell you, well, I've been in and around public service for over 30 years. I think the last couple of years from a political leadership standpoint have been the most satisfying. And there's obviously more opportunity for political leadership in a position like mayor than, uh, than, uh, you know, us attorney or attorney general district attorney, things like that.

Ted: (21:33)
Well, to bring this episode full circle, like the great hosts that we are, you started this off talking about life is short. Uh, we're looking at the accomplishments that you've already had over the first term, what you're looking forward to, even this upcoming year in the next three and a half years. What's the legacy that you want to leave behind as mayor?

Mayor: (21:52)
You know, I don't, uh, I stay away from the word legacy because I think that, um, is something that other people decide for you. Um, yeah. Um, but having said that, uh, my goal, uh, I took over a city that, and the reason I ran for mayor it was things were pretty stagnant. Uh, we needed to create a much better atmosphere, a collaborative atmosphere between the legislative and the, uh, executive branch. Uh, then we needed to use that collaboration to address, uh, immense infrastructure problems. We had about a one and a half billion dollar infrastructure deficit. Uh, and also, uh, get going on job creation cause we'd been stagnant for 10 years. Uh, I think, uh, what we've accomplished is those three things and those of us that, uh, you know, attracted tremendous private investment and we're in the process of moving Colorado Springs, uh, into becoming a big city. It was going to become a big city no matter what. But I think we've done it in a way that's going to ensure that, uh, it's going to be a dynamic, uh, city and it's going to be, um, one that people want to live in. Um, uh, I, I, I sound like a broken record, but I S I say it all the time. A general Palmer, you know, he, he looked at that mountain and said, what a place to build a city. Uh, I'm going to build a city that matches the scenery and that's what's gonna make it so attractive. And here we are, 500,000 people later, 148 and a half years later. That's still our job, uh, to continue to build a city that takes advantage of the, uh, immense, uh, natural beauty that we have around us. Uh, and to build that city in a way that matches our scenery. And I think, uh, hopefully I've done a pretty good job of it. And, uh, uh, 30 years from now I still want to be the most desirable city in America believe.

Jen: (23:51)
Absolutely. And can just contribute to that. That's wonderful. And I want to mention too, just for folks who aren't aware, um, of course of your personal connection to Colorado Springs and that you are, grew up here.

Mayor: (24:03)
I did. I've been here since I was three weeks old. I was, uh, uh, born in Denver and adopted, uh, uh, by my mom and dad had moved here after world war two. My dad had, uh, uh, they were in Detroit. He got, uh, he enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, uh, got sent out to camp Carson, Colorado. First time he'd ever been West of the Mississippi. Get out here to prepare for the invasion of North Africa, which was several months of training. And my mom came out and stayed at the Buffalo lodge in Manitou Springs, which by the way is still there. And uh, they said, my gosh, this is a beautiful place. And they made a deal with my dad, survived the war. They'd move here. Uh, they did 1946, still got the phone book that were listed in, in 1946. They adopted me in 1951. And it's a wonderful place to grow up and it's been a tremendous, tremendous honor and privilege to serve as the mayor.

Jen: (24:58)
and an amazing tr, you know, transformation that you've witnessed personally.

Mayor: (25:02)
Yeah, it's a, I like to say when I was born, there's about 40,000 people now. There's more than 40,000 college students, which kind of growth we've seen, you know, just awesome.

Jen: (25:13)
Well thank you. I know that not many people thank you for your service or maybe they do. I hope they some do. Some do, some don't. Well, we'd like to thank you. Yes, we'd like to be a positive place, but I think it's really interesting for people to hear kind of what it's like. And my only last question I would have would just be, you know, you talked about how you don't have a whole lot of free time. Um, but when you do, do you have anything specific that you like to do or any places that you liked? What are your favorite places of Colorado Springs? How do you kind of unwind or.

Mayor: (25:41)
I walk, um, I walk in bear Creek park. I walk in a Stratton preserve, uh, trying to do that, uh, on a Saturday or Sunday, get up real early. Do that. Uh, I do a little bit of exercise during the week at a gym. Um, I liked to play golf, um, in the summer, uh, typically on a Sunday. My wife's gotten so good that she humiliated me every Sunday. Um, we're still married. We're still married after 44 years. Uh, and, uh, uh, we, we do, uh, you know, I, I like to do a little traveling. Uh, some of the job presents an opportunity to do a little traveling, but we also, uh, try and get off on some, you know, true vacations every once in a while.

Jen: (26:25)
Yeah. That's nice. Okay. Well, thanks for sharing so much with us. You.

Mayor: (26:28)
glad to be here. Yeah.

ted: (26:29)
We'll, uh, if you don't hate us yet, we'll have you back on for another episode.

Jen: (26:34)
and everyone else, please rate like, and subscribe the podcast when you can. We'll thank you for listening to another edition of behind the scenes.

 

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