Colorado Supreme Court rules that mayor and city council member term limits don’t overlap in Thornton

BY FREDA MIKLIN
GOVERNMENTAL REPORTER

The Colorado Constitution prohibits local elected officials from serving more than two consecutive (four-year) terms in any office. Thornton, like many cities in Colorado, considers its mayor to be a member of the city council. When current Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann was elected to that position in November 2019, she had just served six consecutive years on the city council. 

Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann

On the theory that serving as mayor for more than two years (which would make eight consecutive years sitting on the same dais) would violate the state constitution’s term-limit language, a Thornton resident, Cherish Salazar, filed a suit in Adams County District Court to get clarification as to whether Kulmann was lawfully entitled to serve as mayor past November 2021, since that would be eight years since she took her seat on that city council. 

On December 19, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that Thornton mayor and city council member are different offices “elected in different ways and by different constituencies, and they represent different groups of people,” hence the words “in office” contained in Thornton’s City Charter “plainly and unambiguously refers to a specific office, and not an institution or governing body.” 

Although that settled the issue for the City of Thornton, the state Supreme Court’s ruling left open questions about how the term-limit rule in the Colorado Constitution is impacted by the language in a city’s individual charter, whether a mayor is selected by the city council or the voters, and how it conducts its elections, e.g., at large or by district. In Cherry Hills Village, for instance, all city council candidates and the mayor run at-large, not by district.

It could also matter whether the mayor regularly votes as a member of the city council. In the City of Centennial, the mayor is a regular voting member of the city council. In Cherry Hills Village and Greenwood Village, the mayor only votes to break a tie. In Aurora, the mayor can vote to create a tie, as well as break one. 

The two dissenting Colorado Supreme Court justices expressed concern that the decision could result in a person participating in the same local government voting body indefinitely, saying, “I fear that this Thornton-specific analysis may map poorly onto the state’s other jurisdictions and destabilize varying municipal structures… By alternating between eight-year stints as a ward-elected and an at-large council member/mayor, an individual could hold the same legislative position in the city of Thornton forever.”

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