Littleton voters could decide on direct election of mayor

Ballot measure would change mayor’s term from 2 years to 4

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Littleton voters could decide this fall whether they want to begin directly electing the city’s mayor.

At a special meeting on Aug. 25, city council unanimously decided to send a draft ballot measure to a public hearing that, if ratified by council, would ask citizens if they would like to directly elect their mayor to a four-year term. Currently, Littleton’s mayor is selected to a two-year term by the seven-member city council from among their members.

Making the change would give citizens greater impact on their city council, and would boost the city’s influence in regional decision-making, said councilmember Kelly Milliman, who championed the ballot measure.

“We owe it to our citizens to allow them the choice,” Milliman said.

If approved, the measure would not change the mayor’s duties, which include presiding over city meetings, ceremonial duties, and representing the city on regional boards and commissions.

If the measure passes, Littleton would retain its current “council-manager” form of government, with a seven-member council overseeing a city manager who oversees city staff and operations. The mayor holds an equal vote with all other councilmembers and does not wield veto power.

That’s different from a “strong mayor” system typically found in larger cities like Denver, where the mayor functions like a chief executive, who directly oversees city staff and holds veto power over city council decisions.

Making the change would also give Littleton greater sway on regional boards and commissions like the Metro Mayor’s Caucus and the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), Milliman said.

“As we become a bigger city, having someone in position to serve on regional boards for four years instead of two gives Littleton more clout, and more opportunity to develop important relationships,” Milliman said.

The idea has been bandied about in Littleton politics for years, with many discussions hinging on making the change after the results of the 2020 United States Census are in. But Milliman said there’s no need to wait.

“Why push it off?” she said. “The opportunity is here and now.”

Milliman said the idea came up at city council’s annual retreat early this year, but the momentum fell off amid council’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. As the deadline for ballot measures drew near, Milliman  said she wanted to push ahead with the idea.

Littleton was on track to not send any ballot measures to citizens this fall, until a citizen initiative seeking approval of recreational marijuana sales qualified for the fall ballot in August. Littleton city government must pay tens of thousands of dollars to add the marijuana question to voters’ ballots, but Milliman said that means adding additional ballot questions becomes much cheaper.

If approved, the measure would take effect in 2021, and would lead to a slight reshuffling of city council terms: Currently, Littleton is represented by councilmembers representing four council districts, and three at-large members. Of the at-large seats, two are up for grabs every two years, with the highest vote-earner given a four-year term and the runner-up given a two-year term. The framework means four city council seats are up for election every two years.

The ballot measure would eliminate the two-year at-large term, replacing it with the mayor role.

Littleton’s current mayor, Jerry Valdes, was elected to a third four-year term on the council in 2019. Littleton councilmembers are term limited to no more than 12 years.

Valdes was elected to a two-year term as mayor last fall, by a council vote of 4-3, with councilmembers Milliman, Karina Elrod and Scott Melin voting for Melin as mayor. Melin was chosen as mayor pro tem instead. Melin currently holds the two-year at-large seat, and is up for reelection in 2021.

If the measure passes, it would preclude Valdes from continuing as mayor for the final two years of his final term.

Valdes did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but told council at the Aug. 25 meeting that he backs the measure.

“It will be helpful for someone to stay there (in the mayor role) for a longer term,” Valdes said. “I support this.”

City Manager Mark Relph said the measure could help the city achieve larger goals.

“It would help build consensus with neighboring cities,” Relph said. “It’s going to take some political leadership and continuity to tackle some of the bigger issues we’re facing, like securing funding to fix our highway congestion issues. I can see the advantage.”

Most sizable Colorado municipalities allow for direct election of the mayor, said Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides services and resources to local governments.

A four-year mayoral term can make a difference for cities, Bommer said.

“Not having that role change over as frequently could be beneficial,” Bommer said. “The key is you have twice as much time to gain expertise and influence representing your municipality in regional venues.”

Littleton’s ballot measure is a “significant opportunity for citizens,” Bommer said.

“Citizens can have a direct impact on the governance structure that’s closest to them,” he said. “There are no other elected offices in the land where you get to change what the office holder’s responsibilities look like.”

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