Thornton City Councilmember Kathy Henson tried to resolve what she says is a simmering issue, but was voted down. She moved to put a question on the 2024 ballot that would decide who fills future city council vacancies: the members of the council or voters.
Currently, it is the council that decides such matters. And, the council is against putting Henson’s idea to voters.
The issue is linked to the removal and appointment of council members last year.
In February 2022, five of Thornton’s council members voted to vacate the Ward 1 council seat held by Jacque Phillips, saying she no longer met residency requirements. Phillips, a special education attorney, accepted a job as executive director of the Alamosa’s San Luis Valley Board of Cooperative Educational Services. She owns homes in Thornton and Alamosa.
The council subsequently voted 5-3 to appoint Eric Garcia to fill the vacancy.
The city charter allows the council to appoint a person to fill a vacant seat, but Henson said citizens have told her they feel that needs to change.
“We have seen manipulation in actions that were taken by this council to remove a duly elected council member,” Henson said at the Sept. 26 council meeting where her proposal was voted down. “When there is a breach of public trust, it is incumbent upon the leaders of the community to remedy that in a way that is more democratic, and in a way that makes sure the voices of the people are heard.”
Mayor Jan Kulmann took issue with that characterization by cautioning Henson, reminding her that members of the council are not allowed to disparage a previous council vote.
“The residents have disparaged that vote and I am echoing their comments,” Henson said. “I am responding to the request of the people that their vote decides who sits up here on the dais, and not five councilmembers.”
Councilmembers Henson, Karen Bigelow and Julia Marvin voted in favor of putting the measure on the 2024 ballot. The remaining six members, including Kulmann, Garcia, David Acunto, Adam Matkowsky, Tony Unrein and Mayor Pro Tem Jessica Sandgren voted against it.
“I’m not comfortable with this at all,” Unrein said. “It’s been presented without discussion. We’ve had conversations in the past where we’d like to talk about this in planning session before we bring it to a vote in a council meeting. I cannot agree with doing this tonight until we have further discussion.”
Henson said she felt she had little choice in how she proposed her motion.
“We do not have an agenda item for new business,” she said. “Sometimes when things are brought up in planning sessions, it’s impossible to bring it forward. When residents are asking for something to be brought forward, this is the only remedy I have to bring new business to this committee. This was the path I was forced to take.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed a quote by Kathy Henson to the wrong person.