Littleton voters to decide how to choose mayor

Ballot measure 3A would allow direct election of mayor; currently chosen by council

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 10/5/20

Littleton voters will decide this fall whether to begin directly electing the city's mayor, rather than seeing the mayor selected by city councilmembers. Proponents say the measure, which will appear …

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Littleton voters to decide how to choose mayor

Ballot measure 3A would allow direct election of mayor; currently chosen by council

Posted

Littleton voters will decide this fall whether to begin directly electing the city's mayor, rather than seeing the mayor selected by city councilmembers.

Proponents say the measure, which will appear on ballots as Ballot Measure 3A, would give citizens a greater say in who will serve as the face of the city, and allow more robust participation in regional governmental bodies.

Read Littleton voters could decide on direct election of mayor, Aug. 31

Others, including current Littleton Mayor Jerry Valdes, say they're ambivalent about the measure and are concerned it was rushed to the ballot without sufficient discussion.

The measure was spearheaded by first-term City Councilmember Kelly Milliman, elected last year to represent Littleton's southwest quadrant. Milliman said she wants to give voters more direct control in the process of choosing a mayor.

“We owe it to citizens,” Milliman said. “We're growing as a city, and this gives the entire city the voice, the right and the chance to vote on their mayor.”

Mayor's job would stay the same

If approved, the measure would not change the mayor's duties, which include presiding over city meetings, ceremonial duties, and representing the city on regional boards and commissions.

If the measure passes, Littleton would retain its current “council-manager” form of government, with a seven-member council overseeing a city manager who oversees city staff and operations. The mayor holds an equal vote with all other councilmembers and does not wield veto power.

That's different from a “strong mayor” system typically found in larger cities like Denver, where the mayor functions like a chief executive, directly overseeing city staff and holding veto power over city council decisions.

Most sizable Colorado municipalities allow direct election of their mayor, according to the Colorado Municipal League. Exceptions include Englewood and Grand Junction, where city councilmembers select the mayor from among themselves.

Other municipalities have made the switch in recent years. Castle Rock voters approved direct mayoral elections by a 2-to-1 margin in 2017.

“This would allow Littleton to have a greater presence on regional boards,” Milliman said. “They can also establish better relationships with (city) staff, which is important. It would strengthen our visibility regionally.”

The idea to switch to direct mayoral election has been bandied about in Littleton politics for years — previous Mayor Debbie Brinkman was a proponent.

Milliman said the idea was discussed at this year's city council retreat in February, but it fell off council's radar amid the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. After a citizen-initiated ballot measure seeking approval of retail marijuana sales qualified for the ballot in August, putting Littleton on the hook to run a citywide election in a year that previously had no other ballot measures or races, Milliman pushed to include the mayoral election measure in the fall election ahead of the September deadline for ballot items.

City council approved sending the measure to voters at its Sept. 1 meeting by a vote of 5-2, with Mayor Jerry Valdes and councilmember Pam Grove voting against it.

Terms and conditions

If approved, the measure would take effect in 2021, and would lead to a slight reshuffling of city council terms: Currently, Littleton is represented by councilmembers representing four council districts, and three at-large members.

Of the at-large seats, two are up for grabs every two years, with the highest vote-earner given a four-year term and the runner-up given a two-year term. The framework means four city council seats are up for election every two years. The ballot measure would eliminate the two-year at-large term, replacing it with the mayor role.

Valdes said while he is not opposed to seeing Littleton's mayor directly elected, he is concerned the measure was placed on the ballot without sufficient study.

“We rushed it through in about a week,” Valdes said. “There could be unintended consequences to this we haven't thought of. If that happens, and we need to make further charter changes, we'd have to go back to the voters — and that would cost more money.”

Valdes said he's also not convinced a four-year mayoral term will have an impact on the city's regional clout.

“When I participate in the Metro Mayor's Caucus, it's not like I can tell who else there is directly elected and who's not,” Valdes said.

City Attorney Reid Betzing said the ballot measure could have a range of impacts on the council, including raising the bar to remove a mayor deemed unfit for office. Currently, council can remove a mayor by a majority vote among themselves, and select one of their own to replace the mayor. If the ballot measure passes, a mayor could only be unseated by going through a recall election.

There are other scenarios to think through. For instance, Valdes was elected to his third and final four-year term in 2019, and selected to a two-year term as mayor by a 4-3 vote of council. Under the current charter, Valdes could be selected to one more two-year mayoral term.

But though the terms limits clause in the city charter limits councilmembers to three consecutive four-year terms, Betzing said if the ballot measure passes, Valdes could theoretically drop out in 2021 and run for a four-year term as mayor, thus securing a total of 14 years in office.

The measure requires sitting councilmembers to inform the city clerk by July 1 of an election year if they wish to run for mayor, with their replacements to be chosen by election.

Valdes, asked if he would take the chance to run for mayor in 2021, said he “hadn't given it a lot of thought. I really haven't.”

'Mixed emotions'

Some city council watchers aren't sold on the idea. Paul Bingham, a longtime city council watchdog who writes an email newsletter about local government happenings, said he has “mixed emotions” on the measure.

“In general, I'm concerned that a lot of people in town don't know enough about the folks running for council to vote on a mayor,” Bingham said. “The people who know about it best are the compatriots on council.”

Still, Bingham said he's heard tales of the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing that sometimes goes into selecting Littleton's mayor, and feels direct election could put a stop to it.

“But it could be a mess either way,” Bingham said.

Milliman said she had confidence in the intelligence of Littleton's electorate.

“Sure, some people take for granted how important your local government is to your life,” Milliman said. “But people are paying attention to politics more than ever these days. This could draw some really amazing candiates. Now's the time — why not?”

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