AURORA | The Aurora City Council ran out the clock on appointing a person to fill the Ward II vacancy Thursday night at midnight.
Because of the council’s impasse between candidates Ryan Ross, a Democratic community college administrator, and Steve Sundberg, a Republican bar and grill owner, the body of lawmakers is now in violation of the city charter.
Thursday’s meeting was a continuation from Monday’s meeting. Some council members had requested a third party legal opinion about whether the impasse, which had spanned three meetings, would qualify as a charter violation if the lawmakers passed the deadline. While a tight turn around, the Aurora city attorney’s office assured council members they’d get a memo by the deadline.
The memo from Denver law firm Hoffmann Parker Wilson & Carberry confirmed that, yes, the city council’s stalemate would put the lawmakers in violation, but the “consequences would be largely political.”
The local elected officials won’t face jail time or fines, but the city attorney did warn failure to fill the vacancy could open up the city to legal action.
Attorney Corey Hoffmann told the council members Thursday the impasse doesn’t constitute criminal intent and a judge would have no way of compelling a member to change his or her vote, so the council shouldn’t worry about being forced to appoint a person to the seat. He added that the council could safely vote to table the measure before the midnight deadline, though the council didn’t.
“When one is litigating, you look at a record,” Hoffmann said. “And I understand here that the record is robust of the attempts to fill the city council decision (vacancy)…I would not see a court finding that the refusal to continue to vote until midnight will somehow compound the violation if based on what’s happened over the past several days.”
Overall, the city council has voted more than 150 rounds since July 12.
The body had 45 days to fill the position left by former member Nicole Johnston, who was elected in 2017 on a self-described progressive platform. She endorsed Ross for the seat, saying that he represented her values, which she was elected upon in 2017.
Conservative members who backed Sundberg for the appointment repeatedly said throughout the process that the decision should be up to voters, as they believed the electorate has changed since Johnston’s election. Council member Juan Marcano returned that the ward had actually become even more blue, with voters overwhelmingly supporting progressive values in state house and federal elections.
Marcano said he didn’t disagree with the spirit of letting voters decide, but that isn’t an option allowed by the charter in its current form. Earlier this month he said he was already looking at submitting a measure to voters to change the charter to allow it.
Ross supporters said beyond the candidate’s values, the members didn’t want to “put their foot on the scale” of this November’s election. Sundberg announced his bid for the Ward II seat in May, even before the vacancy. Ross isn’t running for the seat.
“We’d be giving an unearned advantage,” Council member Crystal Murillo said in her final comments before the body adjourned shortly after midnight.
Council member Coombs, who continuously asked her colleagues throughout the meeting why they wouldn’t support Ross, ended the meeting by saying she was disappointed that Ward II constituents won’t have equal representation until November.
Other members echoed disappointment about the gridlock, which lead to the charter violation.
“We’ve been lectured over and over and over and those of who were silent respect you enough not to lecture you over and over…. we all have chosen who we would prefer to get the seat,” Council member Marsha Berzins said. “Unfortunately it’s a 5-5 split. You’re entitled to your lecture and I’m entitled to not lecture you.”
A 5-5 ideological split on the council could lead to more tied votes over the next several months. Mayor Mike Coffman, by charter, can vote to create or break ties on items other than resolutions. He otherwise rarely has a vote during official city council meetings.
Aside from vacancy appointments, tied votes ultimately result in a measure failing.
Among major issues facing council in the coming months is Coffman’s proposed camping ban, which opponents say criminalizes homelessness in the city. Coffman said during the Thursday meeting he would release a new version of the proposal Friday.
During candidate interviews last month, Coffman asked each of the six people seeking the appointment whether they would vote to approve a camping ban. Ross said he would not, but Sundberg said he would if the city had adequate shelter for people experiencing homelessness.