The April 6 city election installed three new City Council members, along with handing three incumbents a second term.
But regarding policies, those new members seem to be cut from the same cloth as those they’re replacing, suggesting voters sought to maintain the status quo.
For example, Dave Donelson won the northwest District 1 seat. The retired Army officer and physician assistant will replace Don Knight, who’s also a retired military officer. Knight endorsed Donelson as did Mayor John Suthers, who called him a “solid conservative.”
The other newcomers include leadership consultant Nancy Henjum in central District 5, a moderate progressive who replaces Jill Gaebler, herself a moderate progressive who endorsed Henjum.
In northern District 2, Randy Helms, a retired Air Force Officer endorsed by conservative and Republican operative Wayne Williams, who holds an at-large City Council seat, replaces Dave Geislinger, a hospital chaplain. Geislinger was the sole District 2 candidate when elected four years ago.
Incumbents snagging second terms were Richard Skorman in southwest District 3, Yolanda Avila in southeast District 4, and newcomer Mike O’Malley in eastern District 6, who was appointed to fill an unexpired term in January after living here about a year.
The newly elected members will be sworn into office for four-year terms on April 20, and will join at-large members Williams, Bill Murray and Tom Strand.
While seven of the 21 candidates running for the six seats were younger than 40, none prevailed. Some say that signals a need to, again, ask voters to raise Council pay from $6,250 a year to a living wage to encourage more young people to run and win seats, which can demand full-time commitments.
When the new members take office, Donelson will be the youngest member, at 57. Williams is 58.
As one of Henjum’s opponents, Matt Zelenok, observes, “Young people don’t vote in the same numbers that the older population does,” and Henjum campaigning as “the only Democrat” in the race might have helped her over the top in one of the city’s most moderate districts.
Karlie Van Arnam, another District 5 candidate, notes that 63 percent of voters in her district chose a candidate younger than Henjum. “However,” she says in an email, “the number of candidates created a split so no one candidate garnered enough votes to be successful in the election.”
Van Arnam also laments Council will be composed of “seven white males,” most of them conservative, and all 57 or older.
“We deserve a City Council that reflects the diversity of Colorado Springs,” she says. “But unfortunately, that was not the result of [the April 6] election.”
Skorman, too, was disappointed that younger candidates lost, leading him to want to revive efforts to submit a measure to voters to raise Council pay.
Jan Martin, who served from 2007 to 2015, agreed. “I still feel that increasing Council pay and getting people to choose this as a job has potential to change the landscape and to allow for a more diverse council that reflects the community we live in,” she says in a phone interview.
But city voters have refused to increase Council pay in the past, unlike in some other cities. Denver’s 12 councilors are paid $94,236 a year and the Council president, $105,527. By July 2023 councilor pay increases to $101,167, and council president’s to $113,288 under a pay measure adopted in 2019, according to thecentersquare.com.
The National League of Cities reports councilors are typically low paid, because the jobs are viewed as part-time, though many Springs councilors will attest it’s a full-time undertaking.
That said, the League reports that 75 percent of council members serving in cities with populations greater than 200,000 are paid $20,000 a year or more.
The election ex-panded the presence of ex-military members on Council. Currently, four of nine Council members have served in the armed forces; the election increased that to five.
As Martin says, “Every time we have an election, I’m hopeful we’ll break out of this mode we’ve been in for the last decade of electing the same type of people over and over again. We did not see that this time where the voters are ready to move beyond the traditional.”
Council will remain dominated by conservative thinkers, which could impact efforts to tackle the city’s affordable housing problem. Right-leaning politicians generally don’t support government intervention into areas normally dominated by private enterprise, including incentives to spur affordable housing development, Martin says.
Skorman identifies this as his top issue, saying he wants “to try to tackle affordable housing in a way that makes a difference, really significantly increase the inventory of housing that people can afford.”
He acknowledged that the city’s tight housing market, skyrocketing housing costs and lack of affordable housing could have played a role in the city losing out on becoming the permanent headquarters for U.S. Space Command. Rather, the Pentagon chose Huntsville, Alabama, which has a median home price that’s roughly $100,000 lower than that in Colorado Springs.
“You can hear from the economic development people we lose other businesses that want to locate here [because of a lack of affordable housing],” he said. “And we don’t have the wages that pay enough to live with what’s available. It’s not a good combination and we can be a lot more aggressive.”
Henjum, too, labeled affordable housing as a priority, noting Council faces a multitude of issues as it ponders its second 150 years.
Van Arnam blamed lack of diversity on low voter turnout, which tends to help older, more conservative candidates. The election had the lowest turnout, 26.7 percent, in at least a decade.
“Denying the ability to vote online is just another form of voter suppression targeting the younger demographic,” she says, adding that citizens are able to file tax returns, pay taxes, renew drivers licenses and license plates and register to vote online. “If we can perform these most confidential tasks online, why in the world can we not cast our votes online?”
Martin blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for the low participation. “It was difficult [for candidates] to get the word out,” she says, noting there were no in-person public forums like in the past.
The lone ballot measure, the city’s desire to lift the 30-word limit for ballot language, passed with 65.9 percent of the vote.