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Q&A w/Ken Jaray | Manitou mayor ushers in a ‘culture of engagement’

Author: Dan Njegomir - August 27, 2018 - Updated: September 11, 2018

Ken Jaray is mayor of Manitou Springs. (Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Being mayor of Manitou Springs, the charming and historic town nestled up against Pikes Peak just west of Colorado Springs, is about a lot more than wielding the gavel at City Council meetings — or the starter pistol at the annual Pikes Pikes Ascent and Marathon.

Ken Jaray has done both since he was elected to the post last November. But the retired attorney says his top priority is reconnecting his community to City Hall. He tells us in today’s Q&A, “Many in our community had experienced situations where we felt left out and marginalized by our government.”

After taking office, he launched a formal initiative to foster what he calls a “culture of engagement.” And he says it’s already paying off: “It is encouraging to hear from so many folks that they already feel better connected and included in the decision-making process.”

Jaray elaborates on that, on his town’s four-year experience thus far with legal recreational marijuana sales; about what he misses from his decades-long law practice, and more. Read on.

Colorado Politics: Before getting into what makes Manitou Springs so different, let’s first talk about something it has in common with a lot of other Colorado communities: It’s a small municipality wedged into a much larger area. How does a place like Manitou retain its identity — the distinct characteristics that draw tourists and new residents alike? Do its policy initiatives and priorities ever clash with those of Colorado Springs, and how do you deal with that?

Ken Jaray: We are very lucky in Manitou Springs to be able to showcase our unique history, culture and wonderful natural environment. Ever since the first native tribes discovered the effervescent mineral springs, our town has flourished on our clean air, natural mineral springs and rich history. We actively promote our history through bi-weekly mineral springs tours, our heritage center, and educational programs throughout the year. We are also a diverse community with a strong emphasis on the arts featuring many local artists.

While we may have a different culture than Colorado Springs, we share many similar values and goals. We both value our local residents as well as the tourists who flock to the area. We are working closely with Colorado Springs to help manage the increase in traffic and provide a high quality of life for our residents as well as exceptional experiences for our visitors.

CP: And now, to what makes Manitou different: Given its laid-back, almost mountain-town-like atmosphere, it’s quirky, bohemian image and its idyllic setting — more or less cradled between the foot of Pikes Peak and the Garden of the Gods — is it at risk of becoming too much of a draw to tourists or new residents? What impact is the Front Range’s overall growth boom having on your community, and how do you handle it? What do you personally like about living there?

Jaray: We are seeing an increase in the number of visitors each year, particularly with the popularity of the (Manitou) Incline (hiking trail). Unless we are thoughtful and proactive, we are at risk of losing some of the qualities that brought many of us to the area. We work hard to maintain our natural environment and preserve the tranquility that so many of us enjoy. We recently had a group from Ukraine visit and were so pleased to hear that, from the moment they arrived, they felt the calm and positive energy that pervades our town.

We are well aware that our community will be impacted by growth along the Front Range.  There are, of course, positive and negative aspects of that growth. Our challenge will be to accent the positive aspects, (including) economic stability, while maintaining the small community feel. Personally, I am glad that we do not have much room for more growth. Most of the land around Manitou Springs has already been developed, which will restrict growth but also means that we will be facing shortages in affordable housing.

I have lived in Manitou Springs for almost four decades and we have raised our family here. For me, Manitou Springs is such a special place because of the extraordinary people who live and work here.

Ken Jaray

  • Elected mayor of Manitou Springs in November 2018. The longtime community activist defeated incumbent Nicole Nicoletta with nearly 65 percent of the vote.
  • Retired personal-injury lawyer; previously also served as Manitou city attorney.
  • Facilitator/founder, Peak Living Community Foundation.
  • Facilitator/founder, Fountain Creek Restoration Project.
  • Mediator, Center for Conflict Resolution.
  • Holds a J.D. from the Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, and a B.S. in business from the University of Colorado Boulder.

CP: You have a lengthy history of civic involvement — you were even Manitou’s city attorney — but have only been mayor for about eight months. Any surprises, pleasant or otherwise — i.e., things you just didn’t anticipate before taking office?

Jaray: I thought that I was pretty prepared to become mayor. What I was not prepared for was all of the unforeseen events that have occurred in the first months. Initially we had a bridge reconstruction project that was not built properly and had to remain closed for months. We also had significant unexpected changes in top city staff. In addition, we have had to deal with numerous aging infrastructure issues along with the consequences associated with extreme weather.

After I took office, I was disappointed to learn that the (Pikes Peak) Cog Railway might not re-open. Since then, I have been part of a team negotiating with the owners of the Cog on behalf of Manitou Springs to develop an agreement which supports the repair and reopening of the railway that is mutually beneficial.  It has not been without controversy, and the Cog owners have not made a final decision on whether to move forward.  I believe it will be in the best interest of Manitou Springs if they do.

Something else I was not prepared for was the overwhelming support and encouragement of our community. Just this morning, I had a neighbor tell me that she often prays that I am doing well and that I am able to maintain a balance between my responsibilities as mayor and my personal life. It is truly heartwarming to hear such positive affirmations from so many people.

CP: You champion a distinct approach to civic engagement in inspiring a community’s citizens to get involved. Give us details and tell us how you are putting it to work in Manitou.

Jaray: Manitou Springs is extremely fortunate to have so many people who care deeply for our town and want to help make it better. The challenge for most communities is how to manage civic engagement. Shortly after taking office, the City Council appointed a Culture of Engagement work group. The purpose of this group was to develop a framework for community engagement based on our community vision that states: “We are a diverse city that celebrates, supports, protects and fosters a creative and interconnected community and provides multiple opportunities that allow residents of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to uniquely contribute to the well-being and enhancement of our community.”

The basic principles of our work involve respectful, facilitated dialogue and consensus-driven decision-making where all have an opportunity to be heard, respected and valued. We have developed a 10-step engagement process that will be utilized on various community projects. Typically, it will start with the creation of a planning team including city staff and volunteers who will design a specific engagement and communication process unique to the project.

We have determined that the greater the community impact, the more robust the engagement/communication process will need to be.  We sincerely believe that this effort will allow our residents to develop a deeper sense of belonging and purpose. Ultimately, that should lead to increased trust and a stronger bond between our community and city governmental. Not a bad thing to strive for.

CP: Last November, you won the mayor’s post by a 2-to-1 margin, arguably handing you a mandate of some sort. If you had to identify a single, top priority for your first term, what would it be? Was there a particular public concern that you tapped into en route to winning office?

Jaray: First and foremost, it was to develop and commit to a robust community engagement process. Many in our community had experienced situations where we felt left out and marginalized by our government.  I was urged by lots of folks to run for this office and was determined to reconnect our government to the people we represent. It is encouraging to hear from so many folks that they already feel better connected and included in the decision-making process.

Just this morning, I had a neighbor tell me that she often prays that I am doing well and that I am able to maintain a balance between my responsibilities as mayor and my personal life. It is truly heartwarming to hear such positive affirmations from so many people.

CP: Unlike its reputedly conservative neighbor to the immediate east, Colorado Springs, Manitou permits retail recreational marijuana sales. That’s its prerogative under the 2012 statewide ballot issue that legalized recreational marijuana use, production and sales in Colorado. Manitou voters even turned back an attempt to end local retail sales. You’re on record saying you think the current policy has, overall, been a good thing. Has there been any downside? What effect has pot sales had the city image? On kids?

Jaray: There are generally positive and negative outcomes for most situations. Allowing recreational marijuana is no different. We are fortunate to have the economic benefits of these businesses but do understand that there are social implications, particularly for youth. We are working closely with our school district to help mitigate any negative aspects and more particularly educate our youth about the dangers of marijuana use at a young age.

It’s been four years since the first of two retail medical marijuana shops opened in Manitou Springs. The shops are not located in the downtown area and whatever initial negative impact there may have been seems to have diminished. We work hard to promote the fact that we are very family-friendly with lots of great attractions and experiences for kids and adults of all ages.

CP: You retired as a personal-injury lawyer and sold your longtime law practice several years ago. Do you miss it? Is there a common thread to what you did for a living for so long and what you do now?

Jaray: I don’t miss the practice of law, but I do miss my colleagues. It’s something I didn’t think too much of before retiring but learned afterwards how important it was for me to be part of my “legal tribe.” I do try hard to keep in touch with longtime colleagues even though I no longer practice.

There are lots of common treads to my law and mediation practice and my role as mayor. Both involve helping people solve problems. Now, the problems are related to streets, traffic, noise, zoning, regulations, etc. In almost all cases, at the heart of these problems is someone who wants to be heard, valued and respected. No different from the person who hires a lawyer. I now spend much of my time working with groups to help solve community issues or take advantage of opportunities. In both cases, I listen, offer guidance, and often connect folks to someone who can really address the issue. Both endeavors are remarkably satisfying.

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is the opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.