Three people sit behind a podium while the person in the middle speaks.
Councilmember and mayoral candidate Julia Marvin, center, speaks as Ward 3 candidate Mark Gormley and Ward 4 candidate Chris Russell listen during the Sept. 20 candidate forum.

Audience responds to speakers, even as several potential leaders fail to attend

Candidate forums can often be dry, quiet affairs, but not in Thornton. A Wednesday event sponsored by the League of Women Voters drew an involved audience to the Thornton City Hall, many of whom applauded and cheered candidate responses.

Topics ranged from the perceived influence of the oil and gas industry, the division between north and south Thornton and the need for more citizen voices.

Current councilmember Julia Marvin, who is running for mayor, and new candidates Roberta Ayala, Mark Gormley, Justin Martinez and Chris Russell answered questions for about two hours.

Each candidate got ample time to share their views, in large part because several other candidates — including the current mayor and a sitting councilmember — didn’t show up for the event. Mayor Jan Kulmann, Councilmember David Acunto, and candidates Angie Bedolla, Eric Garcia and Nicole Matkowsky did not attend the forum.

Who’s on November’s ballot:

Mayor Jan Kulmann is seeking reelection. Councilmember Julia Marvin, who now represents Ward 2, is also running for mayor.  

Eric Garcia and Justin Martinez are seeking the Ward 1 seat.

Roberta Ayala and Angie Bedolla are running for the Ward 2 seat that Marvin is vacating.

Councilmember David Acunto is running for reelection to the Ward 3 post. Mark Gormley is also seeking that seat.  

Ward 4 Councilmember Adam Matkowsky is term-limited. His wife Nicole is running for his seat. Christopher Russell is also seeking the spot.

About 50 people came to city hall for the forum, which was also live-streamed.

A moderator asked several candidates to talk about fracking and other oil and gas activities within Thornton. All who answered said they feel the companies in charge need more municipal oversight, or simply should not be allowed.

“My position is very simple — these wells do not belong near households; they don’t belong in our neighborhoods,” said Martinez. “There is plenty of evidence that suggests they’re dangerous to the health of our community.

“What continues to baffle me about Thornton’s policy and in Colorado is that we make these exceptions for oil and gas. I don’t think that’s right.”

Marvin said Colorado Senate Bill 181, adopted in 2019, triggered changes in Thornton. The bill seeks to give local governments more authority to regulate oil and gas development, and in its wake, she said the city has seen “more oil and gas activity than we’ve had in a long time.”

That included the 2022 city council approval of a 10-well fracking site at E-470 and I-25.

“My belief is we have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of our residents,” she said. “We’re looking at regulations for how close oil and gas activity can be to our residents. I think we need to increase oversight on the industry and make sure … we are holding them accountable and responsible.” 

Ayala said fracking should eventually be eliminated, but meanwhile, it must be done safely. 

“It’s crucial we involve our community in these decisions,” she said. “I’ve been to those meetings and I didn’t feel we were as involved as we should have been. 

“Right now, we have handshake deals with these companies. We should include regular inspections, emissions tracking and have reporting requirements for oil and gas companies operating in the City of Thornton … so  we can make sure things are safe for our community and our people.”

Martinez also talked about ways to gain more citizen involvement in city decision-making.

“We need to bring back the old format of ward meetings,” he said. “The reason we have a lot of stress and concern from our residents at council meetings is because all the other avenues they have to express their concerns and complaints have been taken away from them. 

“Citizens are concerned they’re not being heard. The only opportunities they have are the biweekly city council meetings.”

North versus South

Candidates were also asked about ways to bridge the perceived division between north and south Thornton.

“By investing in the youth, and future generations of our city, I think we create opportunities to retain residents and also stop this barrier between north and south Thornton,” Russell said. “I do agree the southern portion of our city doesn’t receive the same resources, attention, funding and infrastructure as the north part of our city.”

In addition to new development and redevelopment, he said, “If we address the imbalance in the way we treat our residents, it can ripple throughout the community in a positive way.” 

Martinez noted that careful redevelopment of the Thornton shopping center is particularly important. 

Ayala also chimed in, saying infrastructure and zoning improvements could greatly help.  

“Residents would like to see less fast food and less gas stations next to gas stations,” she said. “We have to build a city that has mixed-use zoning, pedestrian-friendly areas. The south end of town was built a long time ago. I think we have the ability to change the trajectory but also keep the character.”

Marvin agreed with those sentiments.

“We are at a really critical point (in deciding) what kind of city are we going to be now and in the future,” she said. “To me, that means we need to be really thoughtful with what we’re planning and building. 

“I’ve seen residents and working families being ignored. That’s where we need change. We need everyone to have a seat at the table to be making these decisions. I think it’s important we repair those relationships and all find ways to work together to find common ground.” 

Candidates also had a few minutes at the forum’s end to voice final thoughts. 

Russell, an Air Force veteran and former firefighter, said he wants to give back to his city.

“Because of my time in the military and fire department, there is this innate desire for public servitude,” he said. “When I moved here … at 22, trying to afford housing, go to school and work, the residents of Thornton wrapped their arms around me. I want to ensure my daughter, current residents and future residents, all have the same things that were afforded to me.”

Gormley said he’d be a reliable representative. 

“I don’t have humongous signs along the roads,” he said. “I’m not financially supported by special interests. I’m not bought and paid for. 

“I’m responsive. I’m dependable. And I am of, by and for the people. I didn’t make the City of Thornton. But I will help make it better and will help make things right. We get the world we fight for. That’s why we’re all here. Please help me be the change for Thornton.”

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