Thornton City Council voted 5-4 to appeal a court’s decision that the mayor’s seat and councilors’ seats adhere to the same term limits.
“The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, indicating that the court believed the mayor’s seat and the councils’ seats are part of one elected body and constitute the same office for purposes of term limits under the Colorado Constitution,” Tami Yellico, Thornton’s city attorney said.
The court’s decision comes a bit in favor of both sides. Since Kulmann did not finish her full term as a city councilor, the judge granted her to serve as mayor until 2023. However, that will be her final year.
The suit alleged that it was illegal for Kulmann to seek reelection, and the city argued council positions and the mayor position are different. However, the court ruled they are not.
Denver-based attorney Robert McGuire filed the complaint in Adams County district court on behalf of plaintiff Cherish Salazar. When she filed the suit, Salazar said the issue is something she has spoken up about for two years now. It specifically names Kulmann but includes the entire city council and the city.
“Before her (Kulmann’s) name went on the ballot, I tried to present my argument at that point,” Salazar said, referring to the 2019 election when voters elected Kulmann as mayor.
Ward 4 voters first elected Kulmann to a four-year councilor term in 2013. She won a re-election bid in 2017 and then ran for mayor in 2019 and won.
According to an interpretation of the Colorado Constitution and the Thornton City Charter, the complaint argues that a councilor and the mayor are legally one and the same, pertaining to term limits.
“All nine seats on the Thornton City Council (mayor plus the eight Ward council members) constitute a single ‘office,’” the suit states.
The suit also says the Colorado Constitution only allows city councilors to serve two four-year terms.
The City argued that since the mayor and the councilors have different duties, they are two different seats, Yellico told councilors.
“Having sat in both seats, it is very clear to me that they are two different seats,” Kulmann said during city council’s discussion.
Yellico confirmed that the ruling means Kulmann cannot run for a third term in 2023, or anybody who has had two terms in council or as mayor. Yellico also estimates the appeal will cost taxpayers between $20,000 and $30,000. To date, more than $35,000 has been spent on this case.
What’s at stake with the appeal, Yellico said, is whether council and the mayor are the same for term limit purposes. The ruling says they are, but the city will challenge it.
Councilor Julia Marvin asked what the benefit of spending more money on the appeal would be, given a court already ruled on the case, to which Yellico said it is council’s decision to ask a higher court to make a decision.
Marvin also asked if anyone named in the case should be voting on the matter, citing conflicts of interest.
“The conflict provision, as I understand it and as our code interprets it, goes towards a vote where a council member has a direct financial interest,” Yellico said.
Though, Councilor Jacque Phillips said that if the mayor can run for reelection, she would benefit financially.
Yellico said it’s a matter of common interest for anyone who may want to run for council or mayor, as it sets a precedent for the future.
“It’s not only everyone sitting here on this dias, but also future elected officials,” Yellico said. “This is a City of Thornton decision.”
Councilor Jessica Sandgren said she wants more clarification on the issue for Thornton and Colorado.
“This is an issue for the state as a whole,” she said.
Councilor David Acunto noted that on the ballot, councilors and the mayor are separate.
“Any reasonable voter would assume that this position is separate and different than any other council (position),” he said.
Councilor Marvin said the court made a decision and does not think more taxpayer money should be spent on the issue. If councilors wants to change the charter, they should ask the voters, she said.