District Court judge issues ruling that could impact municipal term limits

BY FREDA MIKLIN
GOVERNMENT REPORTER

On October 29, Adams County District Judge Teri Vasquez issued a ruling in the case of Salazar vs. Kulmann in which she found that, “The mayor’s seat and council seats are part of one elected body and constitute the same office for purposes of term limits under Article XVIII, Section 11, of the Colorado Constitution.” The case came from the city of Thornton.

The referenced section of the Colorado Constitution says that the purpose of term limits is to “broaden the opportunities for public service and to assure that elected officials of governments are responsive to the citizens of those governments, no nonjudicial elected official of any… city… shall serve more than two consecutive terms in office, except that with respect to terms of office which are two years or shorter in duration, no such elected official shall serve more than three consecutive terms in office…Terms are considered consecutive unless they are at least four years apart.”

It goes on to say that these provisions shall apply to every home rule county and every home rule city, but that the “voters of any political subdivision may lengthen, shorten, or eliminate (these) limitations on terms of office.” 

In this area, Centennial city council members and its mayor are each elected to four-year terms, limited to two consecutive terms. In Cherry Hills Village, city council members are limited to two four-year consecutive terms and the mayor is limited to four two-year consecutive terms. In Greenwood Village, city council members are limited to four two-year consecutive terms and the mayor is limited to two four-year consecutive terms. In other words, elected officials are generally allowed to serve eight consecutive years in their position in all three cities. In Thornton, city council and mayoral terms and term limits mirror those of Centennial.

There is varying language in municipal codes that can make a big difference. In Thornton, the code says that the mayor is a member of the city council. In Greenwood Village, the code says that the mayor is not a member of the city council. In Cherry Hills Village, the code doesn’t address that question directly but says that the mayor is to attend, preside over and participate in discussions at city council meetings. In Centennial, the code says that, “The mayor shall have all the powers, rights and privileges of a councilmember,” hence the mayor votes like any other member of the council.  

In GV and CHV, the mayor can only vote to break a tie, but in GV, the mayor has veto power over council-passed ordinances. In CHV, the code does not give the mayor that power and in Centennial, the code says specifically that the mayor has no veto power. 

Another factor that could matter is that virtually every city council picks one of its members to serve as Mayor Pro Tem, a role in which that person can act in the mayor’s stead if the mayor is not available so there can be crossover between a council member’s role and that of the mayor.

The case that Judge Vasquez ruled on came about when a member of the Thornton City Council, Jan Kulmann, ran for and was elected mayor in 2019 after serving one full four-year term and two years of a second term on the city council. A citizen of Thornton, Cherish Salazar, sued, contending that Kulmann would be violating the eight-year term-limit rule by serving four years as mayor right after serving six years on the city council. 

The judge found that Mayor Kulmann was not in violation of the term-limit rule, but only because she had not served out her second term on the city council, so that term didn’t count. The judge ruled that the eight consecutive years to which an elected municipal official of Thornton is limited should be counted by including the years of consecutive terms of elective service, whether as a city council member or mayor, thus Mayor Kulmann could serve one four-year term as mayor but not two.

Although the ruling from Adams County is not dispositive in Arapahoe County, the City of Thornton voted five to four to appeal the ruling on January 4, 2022. An appellate ruling has wider application and could affect cities beyond Adams County, depending on how the language in their individual charters and municipal codes is interpreted by the courts. In many Colorado cities, it has been common for city council members who have served up to eight years to then run for mayor immediately afterward, where they can serve up to another eight years on the same dais in a different role. 

Local elected officials will be watching this case carefully as it develops in the appellate court.

fmiklin.villager@gmail.com