John Simpson wants local government to be boring again – ironic for someone so infatuated with city finances.
He has spent countless hours poring over city budgets, navigating the complex documents with an engineer’s precision. He has stood before Durango City Council at least a dozen times to talk about city financial policies. And he started a political committee that campaigned against a tax increase city officials say was desperately needed.
Simpson says he had to do it.
“I don’t know if it’s my duty, but when you see something that’s going on that’s not right, I feel like I need to step up and help out,” he said. “It’s not really about right or wrong, but gosh. Is all the right information being presented? Is the city too powerful and overstepping and not really listening to people? Or if people do speak up, do you get blown away or shot down?”
He hasn’t always thought this way. As a civil engineer, Simpson has spent most of his career working with water systems. While attending Michigan Technological University, he had an opportunity to earn credit toward his master’s degree by working with the Peace Corps developing water systems in impoverished parts of Honduras.
Back in Durango, a neighbor approached him a few years ago about a water bill. His neighbor was confused about the billing, and Simpson thought his training in water management might help his neighbor understand the billing statement.
But one question led to another, and pretty soon, Simpson began sifting through more city finances.
“Some may call it boring topics – city finance and water rates. That’s what my training has been in, and I really think people do need help in Durango, and it’s a good thing to help people out.”
It appeared to Simpson that the municipality wasn’t in as bad of financial shape as city officials seemed to suggest, he said.
So he joined the water commission a few years ago and began asking questions. Then a city councilor told him he wasn’t a good fit for the board, Simpson said. So he left. In the past year, Simpson has stood before City Council and offered alternatives to city finance problems, only to be shot down, he said.
“You do need to surround yourself with people who don’t have the same ideas as you, and that’s just what I feel like the city is not doing right now,” Simpson said.
Mayor Sweetie Marbury, who has often been at odds with Simpson over his proposals to council, said Simpson has introduced incorrect information that has needed correcting by city staff.
On Aug. 21, 2018, Marbury laid into Simpson after he brought up an alternative proposal to a tax increase. The exchange was caught on camera during a regular City Council meeting. Near the end of the 7½-minute video, Marbury rejects Simpson’s proposal, takes offense to his presentation and makes a hissing noise in frustration. The video made the rounds on social media.
Simpson said he’s not discouraged. He has received phone calls, emails and visits to his home, all in support of what he has been arguing. He formed a political committee in 2018 called Citizens for Durango’s Future at the request of people who supported him. That committee campaigned against a ballot measure to raise sales and property taxes to pay for law enforcement, streets and city buildings.
“That just kind of organically formed; I wasn’t planning on making signs and sending out flyers, but they said, ‘Here, we need you to do this,’” Simpson said.
Simpson argued that the city already has enough money in its budget; it just isn’t using it appropriately. A similar political committee – called United for Durango’s Future – is rallying this year against another ballot measure to raise taxes – this time, sales taxes to pay for streets.
Some people have asked Simpson to run for City Council, but Simpson said he simply doesn’t have the time. His campaign against 2A was a test, and he found the support was there but his free time wasn’t.
“People may say I’m just fighting the city, but I’m really optimistic about the direction we’re going,” Simpson said. “We don’t have big problems. The water and finances are easily solvable. The others – the homeless, the affordable housing – those are the difficult ones. We’re not in as bad of shape as some people might think.”