The first day of summer is officially behind us which warns us of the ramping up of the political season as candidates seeking elected office for the November 2019 ballot shift into high gear. We are …
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The first day of summer is officially behind us which warns us of the ramping up of the political season as candidates seeking elected office for the November 2019 ballot shift into high gear.
We are talking about towns and cities which have their mayoral and/or city council positions expire this November. While the campaigns don’t hold a candle to state or federal candidate races, you will notice the campaign knocks on your door, the flyers, the fundraisers and probably a few robocalls close to when county clerks mail out the ballots in mid-October.
However, the start of summer signals another important timeline. It has to do with ballot issues.
How local governments change their city charters
The fundamental authority for home rule cities is its city charter. That is how such cities like Arvada, Broomfield, Northglenn, Thornton and Westminster are governed.
Changing or amending a provision in the city charter requires voter approval. Such changes are called charter amendments which can be placed on the ballot by either city council action or by valid petitions which have sufficient registered voters’ signatures.
Back in the day of the 1980s and 1990s, Westminster’s City Council regularly sought voter approval on a variety of charter amendments. Usually, there would be as many as six recommended changes each election. These were usually housekeeping in nature, reflecting changing times or new state or federal laws or court decisions. This practice of regular charter changes kept the city charter in tune with the times.
City Council appointments versus voter election
Early this year, the Westminster City Council decided to fill three council seat vacancies by appointing candidates of their choice. Without getting into the weeds about how this situation transpired or how it was handled, the city council usurped the opportunity for Westminster voters to select three candidates to fill these vacated seats.
Because of the timing of the appointments, members of the city council and the city attorney argued that the city charter called for such council appointments. Regardless of this conclusion, the outcome left a bad taste and a deteriorating level of trust among a portion of Westminster residents.
But there is an easy way to address this so that it is very clear in the future how the city council would have to proceed if a similar situation were to occur again.
Clarity on filling vacancies is warranted
A city charter amendment could be authorized by the city council to be put before Westminster voters this November to clear up any doubt on how vacancies are to be filled. The amendment could clearly state that whenever there are two or more vacancies created on city council within a 30-day period for whatever reasons, a special election must be held with the voters electing the new city council members.
If the city or general election is within 180 days of the date of the filed resignations of city council members, the council should not be allowed to make such interim appointments. It isn’t brain-surgery folks. It would take away the cozy way city council chose to fill the three vacant seats when Maria de Cambria, Shannon Bird and Emma Pinter resigned after they were elected to different positions.
Why would anyone be opposed to the idea of the electorate selecting their city council candidates rather than the city council? After all, it is a democracy.
1958 was back in the day
While we are at it there is another important change to the City Charter which is overdue. I have written about it a couple of times over the 18 years I have been writing this op-ed column.
As Westminster continues to grow and become more diverse, it becomes all the more important to change the framework of how City Council members are elected. As you know, all city council members are elected at-large. It has been that way since the city charter was adopted by voters in 1958.
To put things in perspective, in 1958 Westminster was a small agricultural community of fewer than 12,000 people encompassing less than four square miles. In 1958, it made a lot of sense to elect the city council members on a city-wide basis. The town was in one school district all in Adams County. There weren’t old parts of town and new parts of town. Kids went to Adams County School District 50 schools. There was one post office. The community was quite homogenous back then.
Today’s Westminster is far different
Today, Westminster is a thriving community of approximately 115,000 residents spread over 38 square miles. Westminster students live in three different school districts, but may attend any number of area schools outside Westminster. The city sits in two counties — Adams and Jefferson. There are multiple zip code districts with two post offices in Westminster proper.
The homogenous composition of the community has diluted over the years. Today, there is Historic Westminster part of the city along with the Jeffco side and the northern part of the city. There are feelings of inequity among some — especially in Historic Westminster neighborhoods. The northern part does not have a city recreation center. The Jeffco side has its own issues such as Rocky Flats and lack of affordable housing.
The point is there are different needs and issues residing in different part of Westminster. Having all city council members elected on an at-large basis is no longer the most effective way for citizens to be represented.
Seeking a way for connectivity
There are various ways to restructure the approach to electing council members with the objective to have more effective representation in each major segment of the city. As you may or may not know, there has not been an elected council member who resided south of 92nd Avenue for at least 15 years.
My suggestion would be to have one council member representing each of the 3 separate sectors/districts of the city (Historic, Jeffco side and north part of town ) with the council member required to reside within the district he or she represents. The three other council members would continue to be elected at-large. The mayor would continue to be elected at-large as well.
This configuration would achieve connectivity between the people in their part of town with a council member elected by them.
Any change in how city council members are to be elected would require a charter change which the city council could put on the ballot this fall with a future effective date. It’s really past time for a change.
Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.
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