Non-partisan: Westminster openings highlight troubling trend

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 12/27/18

Political uneasiness and maneuvering have ratcheted up in Westminster more than I have seen it in many years. The city has been less than stellar in the past few months in its handling of sensitive …

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Non-partisan: Westminster openings highlight troubling trend

Posted

Political uneasiness and maneuvering have ratcheted up in Westminster more than I have seen it in many years. The city has been less than stellar in the past few months in its handling of sensitive and politically volatile issues and projects, causing residents to express their disdain.

Now, yet another political hot potato has developed over three city councilors leaving or planning to leave among the six councilor seats (not counting the mayor’s seat).

There are political winds blowing both left and right over this situation. Read on.

Three City Council seats being vacated

The three vacancies issue started with City Councilors Shannon Bird and Emma Pinter announcing their decisions to run for other elected offices. This happened early in 2018, which gave city leaders plenty of time to research the options assuming both councilors would win their elections — which they did. Both were strong favorites in their respective races. They will assume their new positions early in January, 2019.

Then, on December 3rd, Mayor Pro Tem Maria de Cambra comes off eight weeks of maternity leave and announced that she resigned effective immediately to pursue a new job with the Polis administration.

That makes three vacancies in the queue.

De Cambra’s vacancy is different, however, because the City Charter states in Section 5.7 that “any vacancy which occurs in the Council shall be filled within thirty (30) days by a majority vote of the remaining members of the Council.” However, the City Charter further states “If any vacancy ….is not filled within thirty (30) days after such vacancy occurs, or if three (3) vacancies exist simultaneously …., such vacancies shall be filled for the respective unexpired terms at a special election.”

City Council appointments versus special election

So, city council decided to fill de Cambra’s vacancy at the December 17th meeting, appointing Dr. Sheela Mahnke with plans to fill the other in January orFebruary after the resignations are submitted.

Sixty (yes, 60) applicants applied for the first vacancy, which was pared down to 49 interviews.

The question which had come up was should the city council have called a special election to fill all three seats. That would mean that de Cambra’s vacancy would exist more than 30 days as well as extending the timeline to fill Bird’s and Pinter’s vacant seats.

That is a judgement call. That is a political call. It would be legal to do so.

The argument that I have heard not to go the election route is that there are too many important, time-sensitive decisions which must be made before the two women leave the council and de Cambra’s seat needs to be filled now. Also, the cost of a special election is estimated to be $150,000-$200,000.

I am not privy to what all the council needs to act on before Bird and Pinter leave. However, given the political uneasiness and the elevated interest in council seats, I would have erred on the side of holding a special election on the three seats. It is better to let the public decide on the candidates than have the Democrat-controlled city council decide. This situation with three seated councilors leaving the council in less than 45 days apart is unprecedented in Westminster city history. It warrants taking the extra time, slowing business down to the extent needed and defusing political appointments.

Emerge Colorado has too much influence at local level

There is another part to this story. The two major political parties have become far too involved and influential in local government elected positions — especially city council and school board seats. The county governments have always been highly partisan.

The trend started with a national Democratic Party program initially called “The White House Project.” Later, the program was renamed “Emerge” and it exists in 25 states, including Colorado.

The mission of the program is to reach out to young Democratic Party women to train them in a six months program to be skilled in running for public office at the local level and to “provide a powerful network.”

And of course, the training favors philosophical and political beliefs espoused by the Democratic Party. State Senator-elect Faith Winter has played a leading role in Colorado in a paid position to recruit and train women for such elected positions. She started her political career as a Westminster City Councilor and brought Emerge graduates to the Westminster City Council. These include Anita Seitz, Maria de Cambra, Shannon Bird and Emma Pinter.

The Republican Party, one the other hand, does not have a comparable training program.

Republican Party attempts to seat their candidates

There has been grumbling that Emerge Colorado has too much influence on the Westminster City Council. Even some renegade local Dems have stated such an opinion.

With the unique opportunity to try to add three Republicans on City Council, the Adams County Republican Party Chairman, Anil Mathai, recently sent a recruiting message to the party faithful.

In part, he stated “Our school boards and city government races should be the most paramount elections we involve ourselves for ensuring our conservative, constitutional principles are enacted now and for the future.”

Furthermore, he added; “We are focused on getting word out about key local races for 2019 (he provides a listing of the school board elections for Adams County school districts and the various mayor and city council seats of all Adams County cities). Finally, Mathai states “And now an URGENT request: if you are resident of Westminster, please apply for our Westminster City Council vacancies.”

City Charter intent is non-partisan

With the voters’ adoption of the Westminster City Charter in January 1958, it established that candidates for the positions of mayor and city councilors were to be on a non-partisan basis.

In other words, candidates would not run for office as a Democrat, Republican or an affiliate of any other political party. The spirit and intent of the City Charter is for the mayor and city councilors to conduct themselves in a non-partisan manner as they carry out city business in the best interest of the citizenry.

Unfortunately, in the last 10-12 years, this high ideal has been compromised by political parties’ interest in increasing their influence on city councils and school boards. Thus, such partisan groups as Emerge Colorado have increased activity and gained strength in the Denver metro area.

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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