When voters cast ballots in the April 4 election, they could reshape city policy or opt for more of the same.
That’s because four spots on the nine-member City Council are up for grabs — three at-large seats and the District 3 seat.
Given that two members — Nancy Henjum and Yolanda Avila — are viewed as progressive or moderate, if voters elect four others of like mind, “Not only a simple majority but a super majority is up for grabs,” says political consultant Daniel Cole.
Next up, voters will elect a new mayor, because Mayor John Suthers is term-limited from a third four-year term. Serving as a stabilizing force after four raucous years of political novice Steve Bach at the helm, Suthers has guided the city to economic prosperity but also unbridled development. At least eight people have said they want to succeed Suthers, most of them staunch conservatives with Republican political backgrounds.
Moreover, the city faces some crucial questions that will set its future course, perhaps for decades, including annexation practices, water use and development rules.
“It’s going to set the stage for how we develop over the next four years and probably beyond,” says outgoing at-large Councilor Bill Murray. “Do you want to be overcrowded and full of asphalt and concrete?”
Another big question is how parks will be funded. While Council will refer a measure to the April 2023 ballot to extend the Trails, Open Space and Parks sales tax, even that additional money won’t be adequate to fund maintenance and development of parks throughout the city. One study placed the need at $270 million.
“We don’t need to build on every inch of property.”
— Councilor Bill Murray
All of these issues coalesce at a time when voters have shown waning interest in city elections, giving rise to a lawsuit that seeks to force municipal elections onto the November general election ballots where turnout is greater. Thus, if that lawsuit is successful, the April 2023 election could be the city’s last held in springtime.
While voters do determine a majority on Council every four years when selecting six district representatives, this time they’ll be given that chance again when four slots are on the ballot.
That means, for example, that six progressives acting together could form a veto-proof bloc to, say, legalize recreational marijuana or take other steps that a conservative majority would shun.
The at-large seats are open due to term limits blocking Murray and Tom Strand from additional four-year terms and Wayne Williams’ decision to run for Colorado Springs mayor.
The District 3 seat is open due to Stephannie Fortune bowing out of the race for the remaining two years of that term due to health concerns after being appointed by Council to succeed Richard Skorman, who resigned in late 2021 to focus on his Downtown businesses.
While progressives could form a voting bloc, by the same token, if four conservatives are elected, they could work with seated members — conservatives Mike O’Malley, Dave Donelson and Randy Helms — to also create a veto-proof coalition that could block a progressive mayor’s agenda.
While all city seats are considered nonpartisan, it remains to be seen if Republicans will shovel dark money to conservative candidates, or if Democratic funders will do the same for progressives.
Historically, voters don’t turn out for city elections in April like they do in November general elections, giving conservatives an automatic edge.
In addition, there are more Republican voters in El Paso County than Democratic voters, while unaffiliated voters still constitute the largest group.
• In 2015, of the city’s 227,911 registered voters, 88,966 — or 39 percent — cast ballots.
• In 2017, 83,358 — or 31.71 percent — of the city’s 262,854 voters cast ballots.
• In 2019, 98,384 — or 37.11 percent — of the city’s pool of 265,084 registered voters cast ballots.
• And in the most recent city election, in 2021, 83,551 of the city’s 310,942 voters cast ballots. That’s only 26.87 percent.
That data, along with other figures showing the city’s April election schedule tends to disenfranchise people of color, gave rise to a lawsuit last June filed by Citizens Project, Colorado Latinos Vote, the League of Women Voters of the Pikes Peak Region and the Black/Latino Leadership Coalition.
The federal lawsuit, filed June 1 in U.S. District Court in Denver, alleges the spring election schedule causes an “enormous racial disparity,” and cited figures to demonstrate that.
The city’s last three elections — in April 2017, 2019 and 2021 — saw turnout of Hispanic registered voters at 17 percent, 19 percent and 12 percent, respectively, compared to white turnout of 34 percent, 36 percent and 26 percent, respectively. In contrast Hispanic turnout was 72 percent, 50 percent and 69 percent in November elections held in 2016, 2018 and 2020, respectively. Numbers for Black voter turnout are similar, the lawsuit says.
The plaintiffs, represented by the Election Law Clinic at Harvard Law School, seek a declaration that the city’s election timing violates the Voting Rights Act, for an order mandating November elections and for attorney fees and lawsuit costs.
In its answer filed July 29, the city states, “Holding April municipal elections does not result in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”
An Aug. 31 scheduling order cited a June 2023 cut-off for discovery, which would be followed by motions, so no decision is expected until well after the April 4 election, but a ruling could come prior to the April 2025 election.
City Council is expected to take action on RetoolCOS (see p. 9), an overhaul of development rules, prior to new Council members being seated in April.
But those rules could be revisited by new members.
As Murray says, he wants to see people elected who “will demonstrate a community interest.”
Too many Council members prevail in elections after developers flood their campaigns with cash, he says. Yet, members rarely, if ever, disclose that a certain developer contributed a certain amount of money to get them elected prior to taking action on subdivisions proposed by those very developers, Murray says.
“The citizens say [to Council], ‘Did you consider this, this and this?’ and it’s ignored,” he says. “We won’t look at the overall picture of quality of life” and how new development impacts that.
He says he’s “absolutely stunned” by the increase in apartments shooting up all over the city by the thousands. “To me, that’s not a good sign. We don’t need to build on every inch of property,” says Murray, who plans to endorse candidates.
On the other hand, the city is short thousands of affordable housing units, a data point that was taken into account when Colorado Springs was considered as the permanent home for Space Command and lost out to Huntsville, Alabama, in 2021. (Local leaders have been urging reconsideration ever since.)
But how those housing units get added lies at the heart of a roiling controversy. While some developers want to annex thousands of acres that do not lie contiguous to the city, Norwood Development Group, the region’s largest developer, opposes such moves. Norwood owns some 20,000 acres on the city’s eastern side, much of which remains undeveloped, giving the company a monopoly on large swaths of developable land within city limits.
Whether to provide water to not only new homes and businesses within the city but, more notably, those tracts that lie some distance away, will fall to Council, which also serves as the Colorado Springs Utilities Board.
The last day Council can adopt a charter amendment or other type of ballot measure for the April 4 election is Jan. 24, for first reading. The second reading would take place two weeks later.
After a proposal to extend and double the TOPS 0.1 percent sales tax failed last November, Council is poised to refer a measure containing no increase, but rather an extension of 20 years beyond its expiration date of 2025. It was first approved by voters in 1997 and has been extended since.
“Why can’t we leave TOPS as TOPS for open space, and do a separate tax for the maintenance...?”
— Dana Duggan
Dana Duggan, who helped found Westside Watch, a community organization, opposed the November measure that failed, and she isn’t wild about the new measure, which allows more money to be used for maintenance.
“The concern is exactly what Richard Skorman said before City Council the last time when they rushed it through at the last minute,” she says. “That is, while they say this is the formula, the truth of the matter is it’s all administratively changeable in the future. We’re being told the only way to lock in those numbers is to do a charter change or a state constitutional amendment.
“Why can’t we leave TOPS as TOPS for open space, and do a separate tax for the maintenance, which is what [officials are] after?” she asks.
But the jury is out on whether those who opposed TOPS last fall will again work against an extension on the April ballot.
Meantime, a robust “vote yes” effort is in the planning stages.
But, as Mayor Suthers says, the tax won’t tackle all of the city’s huge backlog of parks needs. One answer could be increasing the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax, from the current 2 percent on hotel rooms and 1 percent on auto rentals. The increase could be funneled to parks that have become overrun with tourists, such as Garden of the Gods and North Cheyenne Cañon Park, Suthers suggests.
It’s unlikely, though, that a LART measure will appear on the April ballot, and at least one mayoral candidate, Longinos Gonzalez Jr., has pledged to not ask voters for more money in the future.
Regardless, Duggan says city voters should wake up and cast their votes this spring.
“The April 2023 election is critical for the future of Colorado Springs,” she says, “because in addition to the CEO of the city being open, which is an incredibly powerful position, we also have four Council member seats open on a Council that could dramatically improve or worsen the future of our beautiful city.”