The 2020 elections are still months away and despite COVID-19, a group is collecting signatures with the goal of changing the way Boulder selects its mayor. If successful, KGNU’s Roz Brown says the question would ask voters to decide if the top elected official should be elected directly through a ranked-choice ballot, instead of being appointed by a majority of City Council.
Listen to the report below:
When the dust settled after last November’s Boulder City Council election many were unhappy with how the mayor was selected. But not because Sam Weaver was chosen by fellow councilmembers to lead them.
“This is not a referendum on Sam Weaver,” sais Matt Benjamin, representing “Our Mayor, Our Choice,” a group collecting signatures to place a measure on the November ballot that would allow voters to choose the mayor.
“This has nothing to do with our current mayor or his performance,” said Benjamin. “It’s a governmental structure that exists for small towns,” adds Benjamin. “It’s a holdover from when Boulder was a small mountain town – there isn’t anything functionally wrong with it but perhaps we should evolve to be more up-to-date for a city our size.”
Gala Orba is also with the Our Mayor, Our Choice campaign.
“We’re the largest municipal area in Colorado that doesn’t directly elect its own mayor, and it doesn’t seem that person really represents the people if they’re not directly elected by the people,” said Gala.
After last November’s election, it turned out only Weaver – who was already on the council – had submitted the proper paperwork to be considered for the role of mayor. New councilmembers seemed caught off guard about how the process worked and several citizens were upset, believing the top voter-getters should be mayor and deputy mayor. Orba explains that Boulder’s municipal government has operated under a strong-City Manager, weak-City Council system for more than 100 years.
“Where it stands right now, the city manager has a lot of power in our council/governmental structure and we want to shift that so the mayor will be more responsible to people who elected them,” said Orba.
Both Orba and Benjamin have made unsuccessful bids for city council. They have firsthand experience that when elections are held in odd years, turnout is low. Only about a third of Boulder’s registered voters go to the polls. Orba believes ranked choice could create better representation.
“The way it works now, a person who only gets 35% of the vote can end up the leader,” said Orba. “But it happens all the time and is not reflective of people’s wishes.”
Not everyone, however, supports the way the current ballot measure is written. Steve Pomerance was a city councilmember for 10 years.
“As to having a direct election of mayor – Fort Collins does it, Denver does it,” said Pomerance. “I prefer the way Boulder does it now but other people have different opinions – but the way this measure is written is flawed every which way from Sunday.”
Flawed, Pomerance believes because the complicated ballot measure could result in only eight instead of nine councilmembers being seated – creating the possibility of a deadlock on controversial issues. He’s also worried ranked choice would mean someone with no previous governing experience could end up as the leader.
“I would like the mayor to be someone with experience and immediate experience,” said Pomerance. “I would like them to be someone who is on the council, knows the issues, and says they want to be the person who runs the meeting and sets the agenda and that kind of stuff.”
Historically groups with different agendas – for example, pro-growth versus slow-growth – endorse Boulder council candidates. Pomerance worries ranked-choice voting could make money a larger factor in local elections.
“Under current financial restraints, an individual can only contribute $100,” said Pomerance. “Under this situation – if one side is against the other – let’s say a pro-development group runs five people for council – now they can contribute $500 and drown out the other side.”
Meanwhile Benjamin, who served on the city’s Campaign Finance and Election Reform working group says if Our Mayor, Our Choice is approved, more election reform will be sought.
“The way we see it, electing the mayor through ranked-choice voting is phase one of election reform,” said Benjamin. “Phase two would be fair pay for council and phase three would evolve our council from the current election system to proportional representation.”
The Our Mayor, Our Choice campaign has until August 5 to gather enough signatures for the fall ballot, even while there is still some ambiguity whether city rules or state rules will be followed to determine its validity.