Time for wards? We should see what the voters think

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 5/11/20

With changing times, doesn’t it make sense to consider changing the way we have been doing business for more than the past 60-plus years? I sure think so! What I am referring to is how city council …

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Time for wards? We should see what the voters think

Posted

With changing times, doesn’t it make sense to consider changing the way we have been doing business for more than the past 60-plus years? I sure think so!

What I am referring to is how city council candidates in Westminster are elected. Since 1958, when the City Charter was adopted by Westminster voters, all city council members are elected using an at-large approach. In other words, all candidates are elected by voters residing throughout the entire city. No council person represents a specified geographic area.

In 1958, with Westminster being a compact, rural-in-nature community of less than 14,000 people spread over three square miles, such an approach made a lot of sense and fit the situation.

However, as we know, Westminster has become a major, full-service suburban community of approximately 115,000 residents spread over 31 square miles in two counties and three school districts. I would say things have changed dramatically.

Better communications and accountability are priorities

For at least the last two city elections (2017 and 2019), one of the issues on the minds of a portion of Westminster residents has been how city council members are elected. People see the need and merit of changing the methodology on how they elect their city council members.

People living in the southern part of the city are especially vocal about this issue. Specifically, there is support to assure representation on city council on some type of a geographical basis. They want better communications with elected officials. They want “their own council member.” They want accountability.

There are different ways to modify the current “all at-large” methodology. For example, there could be three equally populated districts established where the candidates have to reside within their district to be elected.

There could be two council members elected from each of the three districts or one could be elected from each district and the other three could still be elected at-large.

The city can fairly easily be divided into three distinct districts—north, south and west with a few adjustment to assure the districts are equally balanced by population.

Advisory question would shed light on public’s thinking

Previously, city council members had voiced an interest in considering various City Charter amendments for November’s ballot. One topic had to do with modifying how city council members are elected. The council asked staff to come back with further information and recommendations.

The matter came to a head at the May 4 study session when staff recommended not pursuing the matter, saying it would take too much time and resources.

Staff had prepared an advisory question that could be on the November 2020 ballot simply asking if Westminster voters favored changing the way their elected council members would be elected. Pretty simple, right?

The idea was if voters were supportive of a change, a commission would be formed and evaluate different specific options. The successful model could then be decided by voters a year later, in the November 2021 election.

Implementation would need to be in place for the 2023 council campaign/election — plenty of time to work out the details by staff.

As far as process, you may recall city council used somewhat of a similar approach in deciding the firefighters’ collective bargaining issue.

Ultimately, the public decided; not the city council.

Going back to when I was city manager, the council placed an advisory question on the ballot about smoking restrictions in businesses and restaurants which was supported and then implemented.

A house divided with the majority not wanting the public’s input

The public may not know there are some strong opinions among city council members and the city manager on this fundamental matter of governance.

Both Mayor Herb Atchison and City Manager Don Tripp are ardently opposed to implementing any configuration that includes a geographic approach in electing some or all city council members. I know this because I have debated it with each of them. While I respect their right to their opinion, I don’t see it the same way.

Both carry a lot of influence among three council members. Mayor Pro Tem Anita Seitz and City Council members Kathryn Skulley and Jon Voelz stated reasons to drop the idea or postpone it.

On the other hand, the two newest elected council members, Rich Seymour and Lindsey Smith, along with council member Dave DeMott, have been supportive of seeking the voters input changing the approach.

Mayor Atchison and Mayor Pro Tem Seitz both thought it was a non-issue based on their constituents — which raises the question of who they talk to.

Ultimately, the council decided on a 4-3 vote to postpone or “kick the can down the road” to July.

It is likely that nothing will change on whether the public should have an opportunity to weigh in on something that directly affects people in their neighborhoods, their part of town and their ability to communicate with “their city council member.” The four votes to postpone the matter in essence are usurping the public’s right to express their opinion on a fundamental right of electing their council representatives.

Disheartened outcome

I am really disheartened with how this important matter played out.

First, the public did not have an opportunity to give their input. It might have made a difference with how one or two would have voted. Secondly, it would appear that Westminster voters will likely be denied an opportunity to voice their opinions on how they want to be represented on city council.

Oh, by the way, it is interesting if you check out how other Denver suburban municipalities of any size that functions under the Council/Manager form of local government. Boulder is the only city besides Westminster where all council members are still elected at-large. There must be a reason for that, don’t you think?

Congrats to Hyland Hills on extension of their mill levy

I want to express hearty congratulations to the Hyland Hills Park and Recreation District Board of Directors, Executive Director Yvonne Fischbach and the Friends of Hyland Hills campaign committee on the successful May 5 election results.

The ballot question regarding the extension of the 1.275 mills for needed capital improvements passed handily. The preliminary count at the time of writing this column showed 6,939 votes in favor and 3,525 opposed.

This 66% approval rate is most significant. It demonstrates the support for making needed improvements throughout the district, which in turn, enhances the overall community.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media. You can contact him at bcjayhawk68@gmail.com.

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