A local resident is asking for a change to the city’s term limit rules — a move that was prompted after Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland said he’s considering a run for City Council in the spring election.
Ward Hauenstein, during the public comment section of Monday’s council meeting, asked the city’s elected leaders to consider a charter amendment that would cap consecutive years of service as either a council member or mayor at eight. Ireland is forced to step down as mayor because of term limits.
The Colorado Constitution requires council members to step down after two four-year terms, and the mayor to step down after three two-year terms. Hauenstein argued that the document is ambiguous in its language, and that hopping into a council seat after being term-limited as mayor goes against the intent of the law.
Ireland has been mayor since 2007, so if elected and reelected to council, he could be on the board for 14 consecutive years.
In a letter to the editor published in the Aspen Daily News on Jan. 10, Hauenstein wrote that “The era of suppression of expression of divergent views through tactics of belittlement and scorn must end.” He also invoked former President Richard Nixon, writing that “No man is above the law. Nixon learned it. It is time Mick Ireland learns it.”
“Term-limit laws apply to all. A desperate and pathetic attempt to circumvent term-limit laws should be seen for what it is,” wrote Hauenstein, whose name has been mentioned as a potential mayoral or council candidate in the May 7 municipal vote. He said that while he has been asked to run by some, he has “no intention” of throwing his hat in the ring.
Aspen City Attorney Jim True said Aspen’s Home Rule Charter defines council and mayoral positions as being “separate and distinct,” with different responsibilities, terms and pay. An individual may run for one after having to step down from the other, True said.
“I don’t believe the constitution language is ambiguous, I believe it is quite clear,” True said, adding that city governments across the state and the Colorado Municipal League have come to the same conclusion.
True wrote a memo last week explaining his legal reasoning and shared it with council under attorney-client privilege, meaning it is considered confidential. Council members voted on Monday to release the memo to the public, and copies of the four-page document were handed out in council chambers.
Hauenstein’s position that politicos should be prevented from staying in office potentially for decades by moving from mayor to council appears to have some support from Councilman Adam Frisch.
“I’m supportive of some kind of term limits,” Frisch said. “ ... I guess I’ve seen it a little here, as well as in Washington, D.C., that the power of the incumbency is so strong.”
Frisch referenced the squishy but universally desired concept of “small-town character,” saying that, “To me, small-town character is about turnover of fresh faces and new ideas.”
The intent of the term limits law, said Frisch, who also is considering a mayoral run, is that “if you are sitting up at this table, there should be some amount of rotation because of the power of incumbency.”
Councilman Torre said he found the concept “interesting,” and wondered why anyone would be in support of preventing the public from having the option to vote for candidates they think represent them well. He also pointed out the difficulty in placing a hard cap on years of service in elected city office. As someone who is nearing the end of a four-year council term and is considering a run for mayor himself, Torre pointed out that what Hauenstein is proposing would prevent him from having the chance to serve six years as mayor.
Ireland weighed in, chastising the notion of the power of incumbency in local politics. He claimed he had never outspent any of his political opponents in the nine times his name has been on a local ballot (Ireland served three-and-a-half terms on the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners before being elected mayor).
The concept of term limits was “foisted” on the state and the nation — Colorado voters passed constitutional amendments implementing term limits in the 1990s — by a “pre-Tea Party” movement, Ireland said. The impetus was to weaken government by increasing the proportion of “weak office holders” who aren’t knowledgeable and can’t contend with the professional lobbyist corps, Ireland said.
“I’m just not buying into the idea that inexperience is somehow an asset,” he said, especially in Aspen, where elected officials are often faced with holding the line against big-money development interests that seek to “bamboozle the council.”
“People ought to have a choice,” he said.
Ireland noted that he has not yet officially decided whether he will run for council, but that he would make up his mind soon. The mayor’s job pays around $28,000 a year, while council members are paid $20,400 annually. Both jobs involve taking “a significant amount of public abuse,” Ireland said.
Councilman Steve Skadron, also a potential mayoral candidate, just returned from a month-long trip in Asia. He said he logged onto the Aspen Daily News’ website just before returning home, “only to find out that everyone on council is running for mayor and the mayor is running for council.”
“It’s just like the Nepalese government,” Skadron snarked.