Apathy, Fear Or Satisfaction: What’s Up With Uncontested Elections?

A SINGLE CONTESTED RACE FOR WHEAT RIDGE CITY COUNCIL will be decided by city voters in the Tuesday, Nov.2, general election. It is the leanest local ballot in the last 10 years. PHOTO COURTESY CITY OF WHEAT RIDGE

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For the first time in a decade, Wheat Ridge voters have just one choice on their general election ballots this fall. A dearth of candidates extends to other communities as well. Edgewater has one more candidate than open city council seats. Three incumbent Mountain View council members and a write-in candidate will vie for three seats. (Author’s Note: In the print edition, we erroneously reported that the incumbent mayor is running unopposed – Emilie Mitcham is also running for that position.)

The Wheat Ridge ballot — which does not include any local initiatives — has Mayor Bud Starker, District 1 council member Janeece Hoppe and Leah Dozeman in District 4 unopposed. Amanda Weaver in District 3 faces challenger Ihor Figlus, and Scott Ohm is unopposed to fill the District 2 seat Zachary Urban must vacate due to term limits. Each of the city’s four districts has two members who serve four-year terms, alternating on the ballot in odd-numbered years.

Current Edgewater city council member John Beltrone — whose term ends this fall — is unopposed for mayor. Mayor Laura Keegan decided to not seek reelection. Four city council candidates are seeking three seats: Lilly Steirer, Bill Berg, Liam Donevan and incumbent Hannah Gay Keao. Councilmember Caleb Rountree is not seeking reelection. Edgewater’s mayor serves a two-year term and council members are elected to at-large, four-year terms.

The Neighborhood Gazette emailed all Wheat Ridge and Edgewater candidates for their thoughts on the scarcity of local candidates. Some did not respond and others did not directly answer the questions. Starker wrote he is unsure why he is unopposed but added, “a natural potential current candidate(s) from council decided not to run.” City Clerk Stephen Kirkpatrick said the only petitions to run for council or mayor were taken out by those on the ballot. City spokeswoman Sara Spaulding wrote via email that the city promoted the open seats via public notices and on the city website but she did not send out a news release. Starker also noted others may feel they “don’t want to change horses in the middle of the stream.”

Beltrone stated Edgewater’s city council created a sustainability board in 2019. Since then, 15 residents have served on that board and three have been city council candidates, he added. “It is possible that without the sustainability board, we wouldn’t have a contested city council election this year,” Beltrone wrote. “Understanding and addressing what prevents residents from civic participation … is a vital part of the city’s current diversity, equity, equality and inclusion work.”

“While an overwhelming majority of our residents are satisfied with their life in Edgewater,” Keao wrote, “there’s absolutely room for improvement in how well we as a city open doors and increase accessibility to civic engagement and leadership, especially in this continuing pandemic.”

Berg believed many in Edgewater are waiting for the pandemic to end. “I do believe many want to be involved,” he wrote. “However, it has become difficult to navigate the social rules of engagement needed to serve the community.”

The Gazette also emailed Wheat Ridge District 2 council member Rachel Hultin, whose seat is not on this year’s ballot. She noted the 2021 resident survey indicates citizens are generally very happy with their quality of life and the direction of the city.

Hultin also wrote of a lack of compelling reasons to run. “When I started reaching out to people earlier this year to ask if they had considered running, the response was almost always ‘Why would I?’” she stated. “The hostility and aggressive behavior towards elected officials is everywhere. People who are engaged and want to serve their community understandably don’t want to subject themselves and their families to such vitriolic behavior.”

Hultin also believed people are experiencing general political fatigue. “I don’t think it’s apathy but, unless there’s a specific issue affecting their lives, people aren’t engaging right now,” she wrote.

After discussing local elections with dozens of council members from other Colorado cities, Hultin found Wheat Ridge is “definitely not the norm.” “Other communities (have) multiple candidates for each seat and those candidates are running with very specific agendas tied to national platforms,” Hultin wrote. “Our council has focused on addressing local issues and solving local problems, not advancing the agendas of outside interests.”

A lack of municipal candidates is not new in Colorado, according to Rob Preuhs, professor and chair of political science at Metropolitan State University of Denver. The City of Sterling in northeastern Colorado canceled their election due to a lack of contested races, he noted. There can be several reasons municipal elections fail to attract candidates, Preuhs added. “They’re held in what are called ‘off-years,’ when there isn’t a presidential election that attracts attention,” he said. “The 2020 election was very contentious and that turns some people off. The pandemic could be something else ….”

Preuhs also noted low pay for elected municipal positions that often turn out to be “more than a full-time position.” Another factor could be the lack of direct involvement by political parties in municipal races, Preuhs stated. Most such elections are nonpartisan, compared to partisan county offices and state legislative seats, where parties are involved in recruiting and helping candidates. “City council races often rely on the business community and business groups to find candidates,” Preuhs said. “That’s where most of these candidates come from, they’re business owners in their communities.”

District 3 Candidates Differ On Development

Candidates in this year’s Wheat Ridge municipal election answered questions during a Jefferson County League of Women Voters and Wheat Ridge Chamber of Commerce forum on Sept. 30.

In the only contested race, incumbent District 3 city council member Amanda Weaver faces challenger Ihor Figlus. Figlus, who ran unsuccessfully for council in 2019, worked against several recent zoning issues and development projects. “Wheat Ridge is a great city, but there are those who want to profit at all costs and ruin our goodness with rampant development,” he said. “City council has not done enough to protect its residents.”

Figlus said city government usually knows what residents want, but doesn’t always take it into account. He pledged to help protect the city’s quality of life.

Weaver disagreed. “We have focused on making sure we have the right density in the right places,” she said. Weaver called government proposals “opportunities for input, not to benefit any predetermined positions.” Redevelopment of the 110-acre Lutheran Medical Center downtown campus was called a “rare opportunity” by Weaver. Lutheran will move to a new facility at the Clear Creek Crossing project in a few years. “It’s not about what the city council wants,” Weaver added. “The final vision will be what Wheat Ridge wants to see.”

Figlus said he was a little disappointed with the city’s process for the site’s redevelopment. He noted a consultant proposed some recommendations that “missed the ball.” “The city master plan says there has to be employment at that site and should be geared toward providing high paying jobs,” Figlus added. “I just don’t think the city has done a good job reaching out to its residents.”

The forum can be viewed on the city’s YouTube channel. Mail-in ballots for the Tuesday, Nov. 2, election were sent to all registered voters Oct. 8-15.

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