Both the stakes and the buffoonery are sky high on the Aurora City Council, agonizing over how to fill a vacant council position — only until November.
Johnston announced earlier this year she would not run for re-election this November. She announced in May she was moving to Colorado Springs and would leave the seat in June. The timing of her departure from city council requires the remaining council to appoint someone to her seat, holding the post until the November election.
For the past few years, the city council has moved steadily left on the political spectrum, reflecting the electorate. Two years ago, two solidly progressive candidates were handily elected to the city council, in one case outing an entrenched Republican incumbent.
Regularly, the council is sharply split on partisan and philosophical lines, creating what has become a fractured, often churlish and dysfunctional arm of city government.
The split on replacing Johnston — a solid progressive who championed critical reforms like oil-and-gas regulation, police reform and campaign transparency — played out like a dismal, predictable meme on American politics two weeks ago.
The stakes are unusually high because a handful of prime issues are reaching critical mass: homelessness, campaign reform and police reform. Had Johnston remained on the council through critical votes on these issues, the politically left faction on city council would most likely have prevailed on fundamental reforms.
Without another swing vote or nod from the left, many issues may be stymied by ties.
Republicans and members from the political right want to appoint Steve Sundberg, a long-time local tavern owner and registered Republican. Members on the left want to appoint Ryan Ross, a top-level college administrator and registered Democrat. Ross has made clear he seeks only to fill the vacancy through the election, and he will not run for that position. Sundberg announced his candidacy for Ward II long before Johnston stepped down.
Without doubt, Ross would carry the liberal torch until November. Sundberg, in city council interviews, hints that he would align with the council’s right on hot-button issues such as homelessness and police reform. Also unarguable is that the residents of Ward II, living in essentially northeast Aurora, have reliably moved politically to the left, just as much if not more so than almost all the rest of Aurora. Voter registrations and past elections are indisputable there.
Mayor Mike Coffman, a lifelong Republican who’s held numerous state and federal offices as a registered Republican, and other pronounced conservatives are trying to seize an opportunity to thwart voters and swing city council votes their way.
It’s a political ploy that has come to exemplify the dispiriting and disingenuous nature of American politics.
Members on the left have been searching for any mechanism they, too, can deploy to keep the seat voting in their favor.
Now, some city council members are leaning on the city attorney to attempt a clear end-run on the city charter, which is the municipal equivalent of a constitution. The charter unequivocally requires the city council to appoint someone to vacancy — now.
Some members on the right hope to kick the quagmire to voters by contorting city charter provisions, creating a dubious election within a couple of weeks.
It’s wrong ethically. It’s wrong legally. It’s wrong practically.
Conservatives regularly argue policy in light of “the will of the voters” and other populist maxims. The will of voters was crystal clear when they elected Johnston, when they registered as independent and Democrat voters far above that of Republicans. The will of the voters has been clear as they have reliably elected Democrats to the state House and Senate, to Congress and to the White House.
If the goal is to “honor the will of the voters,” Ross is the honorable vote to cast for the vacancy.
If the goal is to usurp that clear voter will, then persuade one more member of the existing city council to change their vote to Sundberg, or take a chance in drawing straws.
Either way, law-and-order Republicans need to abide by the city laws as they are ordered to in the city charter. Anything else is illegal cheating.
City council needs to follow the law today and appoint a new member to fill the vacancy and then create needed policy on some of the most critical issues Aurora has faced in generations.