BY FREDA MIKLIN
On September 29, the eight candidates for four positions on Aurora City Council appeared in three separate question-and-answer sessions at Aurora’s City Hall. The evening was sponsored by the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, 9News, the Sentinel, Aurora Women’s Club, and the League of Women Voters of Arapahoe and Douglas Counties (LWV). Moderators were from LWV and Aurora Women’s Club.
Panelists for all three forums were 9News’ Marshall Zelinger, Denver Gazette’s Luige Del Puerto, and Sentinel’s Max Levy.
Race for two at-large positions
Candidates for Aurora City Council at-large are Alison Coombs, who works with adults with developmental disabilities and is currently completing her first term on the city council representing Ward V, Curtis Gardner, an incumbent in the at-large position who holds degrees in business and finance, Thomas Mayes, a Vietnam veteran who has degrees in biblical studies, business, and urban ministries, and Jono Scott, a father of four, Christian pastor, and director of the Woodside Baptist Kingdom Building Food Bank Ministry, a partner agency of Food Bank of the Rockies.
Each candidate gave an opening statement.
Coombs said, “I believe that every person in our city deserves dignified housing, dignified wages, and the ability to be safe.” She pointed to her endorsement by the Aurora Firefighters “and numerous other labor organizations.”
Gardner said, “I’ve lived in five of Aurora’s six wards so I understand the challenges that face our community (including) public safety, economic growth…affordability.” He pointed to his endorsement by the Aurora Federation of Police.
Thomas Mayes described himself as a pastor, father, husband, and grandfather who is running for city council “because we don’t have affordable housing, we don’t have accessible housing, and public safety is an important issue, as well as safety for our officers.”
Scott said he is running to “help Aurora become the safest, most affordable place to live, work, and raise a family…We must reduce crime, tackle homelessness, and address affordability. I grew up here, I’ve lived here for over 35 years, and my wife and I are raising our four children here.”
Asked what policies they would advocate to address rising crime, including motor vehicle theft and property crime, Gardner said, “I’ve already passed a motor vehicle theft tracking program in my first term…I hope that will act as a deterrent to would-be criminals…I also passed an ordinance to deter theft of catalytic converters.”
Mayes said, “Crime is inextricably connected to accessible housing, minimum wage, and affordability. The economic situation we’re in promotes much of the crime. We need to look at it more holistically and understand why the crime is being committed.” He would “have officers visible to prevent crime rather than just enforce the law.”
Scott said that crime “is the number one issue. I’ll be a champion for enforcing our laws that empower the victim and expand punishments for crime. Criminals need to know that Aurora is open for business but closed to crime.”
Coombs responded, “We have to diversify our public safety work force…We need to civilianize where appropriate…People do not feel comfortable calling the police when they don’t know that they’re going to be safe as a result of doing so. We need to address issues with excessive use of force so that our community trusts our public safety officers.”
Levy asked candidates if they thought the policy Aurora had adopted of stepping up criminal penalties and sentencing at the municipal level as a response to increased crime is a good strategy to reduce crime.
Mayes responded, “I don’t believe we can arrest or penalize our way out of this problem. We have to get to the root of it. We don’t put enough emphasis on preventative law enforcement.”
Scott said that crime is out of control, adding, “People do not feel safe in our neighborhoods. We should enforce our laws and expand the penalties for crime.”
Coombs referenced the 1990s, saying, “Mandatory minimums did not work then and they are not going to work now. The only thing they do is exacerbate existing inequalities and lead folks to be stuck in a life of crime.” She believes punishment for crime should be tied to the harm that was done by providing community service and restorative action.
Gardner said that crime is the number one issue for Aurora residents. He doesn’t believe mandatory minimum punishments are the answer but he does believe “increased penalties for crime are a good idea.” He would like to see “a fully staffed police force that can do pro-active policing.”
Race for Ward IV
Candidates for Ward IV are 17-year resident Jonathan Gray, who holds a master’s degree in public administration from CU Denver and works in the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services, and 25-year resident Stephanie Hancock, a military veteran who is president of the Aurora Cultural Arts District.
In his opening statement, Gray talked about his work “with children and families in our most vulnerable communities,” adding that he “is confident I will bring a fresh approach to policy and challenge the status quo.”
Hancock described herself as “a wife, a mom, a grandmom, and a U.S. Air Force veteran who has owned a small business.” She named “crime, affordability, and the access to wealth through business” as the three major challenges facing the community.
Asked what they would do to attract businesses and well-paid jobs to Aurora, Hancock said she would, “advocate advertising for our city through Visit Aurora, through AEOC…but the thing that holds us back is crime and affordability—we have to address these things first…to attract businesses.”
Gray said he would emphasize Aurora’s tourism industry and the aerospace industry, adding that, “Our military families are gonna need to be paid more attention to,” and, “Expanding the economic production and promotion on our arterial corridors is critical…to expand our economic involvement and to make sure that all of our people are invested in our children, as well, to make sure our education system stays affluent and provides a space to continue to thrive.”
Asked how they think Aurora might support victims of vehicle theft, Gray said he believes, “It’s our responsibility to work with police…to maintain…vigilance in our communities…A solution would be to work with our power team to start a program where we have grant funds for neighborhood watch programs…If we can have programs that come together…and allow our communities to…connect and become more vigilant, then we will thrive as a community and mitigate crime.”
Hancock suggested reducing fees to crime victims whose stolen vehicles have been impounded or seeking grant funding to avoid victims of vehicle theft having to pay impound fees.
Del Puerto asked the candidates where they stood on a city law passed last year that requires anyone convicted of stealing goods valued at $300 or more to serve at least three days in jail.
Gray responded, “I believe mandatory minimums exacerbate the problem.” He said he also believes that many car thefts are committed by teenagers 13-15 years old who “do not need to be a victim of this system…that diminishes their future,” so counseling and probation might be a better answer.
Hancock said she, “wholeheartedly supports accountability and responsibility,” and those who commit crimes, “are taking the risk and will pay the cost for that.”
Race for Ward V
Ward V candidate Angela Lawson has served on the Aurora City Council for the past eight years as an at-large member and has three advanced degrees in the fields of social science, public administration, and public policy.
Ward V candidate Chris Rhodes has a background in union advocacy, including fighting for fair wages and better working conditions.
Rhodes introduced himself as one who has spent time “organizing among our most vulnerable citizens,” noting these citizens’ concerns include “the lack of affordable housing, increasing homeless population, public safety, and mistrust of the police in our community.”
In her introduction, Lawson pointed to her experience on the city council, as well as 14 years in the Secretary of State’s office. She identified a goal of hers as “making a difference on public safety and transportation issues in Ward V.”
Asked how Aurora Police could “rebuild accountability and transparency,” Rhodes recommended “ramping up the PAR (Police Area Representative) program” to add additional officers to it. The PAR program is one in which “officers have the flexibility to gather citizen input, alter work hours, develop and implement new policing strategies, and bring additional resources to bear on problems that have been identified by the community,” according to the city’s website.
Lawson was asked to explain what she meant by “a new era of public safety” noted on her campaign website. She said, “We have new challenges in our community…more youth violence…people are driving crazy…homelessness…people not being able to feel totally safe in their neighborhoods.” She continued, “We’ve always lived in these times but the landscape is changing.”
Asked how they would use money allocated to Aurora by Proposition 123 for affordable housing, Rhodes said he would look at “changing some of our zoning to mixed development zoning,” adding, “We need to start building more multi-family housing…(and) spread density equally across our city.”
Lawson said, “In Prop 123, we are going to have to make sure it’s sustainable over time…We have to make sure it doesn’t go back to market rate…Looking at affordability, one issue that has come up over and over is making sure we have housing for older adults.”
Race for Ward VI
Francoise Bergan, current Mayor ProTem, is running for a third and final term. She is being challenged by Brian Matise, a retired physicist, teacher, and attorney.
Bergan said she is a 21-year resident of southeast Aurora with a proven record of accomplishments, including a southeast recreation center and field house, better parks and trails, and improved safety devices.
Matise said he is running “because Aurora needs smarter ideas to have a better, brighter future.” He believes his experience has taught him how to “solve problems creatively and with hard work,” which he has demonstrated in his 17 years of serving on the Tollgate Crossing Metro Board.
Asked what actions they would take in their first few months in office, if elected, “to make sure Aurora remains a high-quality community to live in, work in, and raise a family,” Matise talked about “implementing newer…force-multiplier approaches to policing, including high technology (like) license plate reader systems…and a stronger neighborhood-based response to public safety.”
Bergan said, “Public safety is the priority…Also taking care of our infrastructure needs, including roads…(and) open space, parks, and trails.” She also mentioned retail, “because of the revenue we derive from that.”
Asked how much they think Aurora should spend on homelessness from its budget, Bergan said the city has already spent tens of millions of dollars, and the best solution is to work with other cities in the county to identify and act on the root causes of homelessness, including mental illness and alcohol and drug addiction.
Matise pointed to the Point in Time report that says homelessness has “about a dozen different causes, including domestic violence and disabilities,” in addition to mental illness and substance abuse. He went on, “My belief is that if we design the plans properly, we save money because it costs about $19,000 a year per homeless person for additional policing services, additional emergency response services, etc. If we house them instead and provide for housing, it can reduce the cost.
Asked if they support reducing the sales tax on legal marijuana in Aurora, which is higher than the regular sales tax, Matise said no, because the city has borrowed against future marijuana tax revenues so they are committed. He also pointed out that there are no studies that show reducing the rate would result in increased revenue to the city.
Bergan said, “There’s a proposal for a 1% reduction. We could do that if we look at what we are funding from the marijuana tax money. For example, the recreation center (in Ward VI) was funded by marijuana tax money; there was no increase to taxpayers. We pledged (marijuana tax) revenues against that…I lean toward reducing it 1%…if we can make it work financially… because I think we have put an extra burden on our businesses…with higher taxes.”