Denver City Council debates new term limits for themselves, mayor

Term limits — both at the federal and local level — have been in the spotlight this year but most Denver City Councilmembers are skeptical of asking voters if they want to adjust the amount of time elected officials are allowed to serve. At least for now.

The City Council’s fledgling charter review committee took up term limit reform as part of its first official meeting Monday. The discussion hinged on the possibility of drafting a ballot question to send to city voters in 2024 that could change those limits.

The charter caps service time for the elected offices — mayor, councilmembers, city auditor and clerk and recorder — at three consecutive four-year terms for a total of 12 years.

Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who is heading up the charter committee, noted that changing limits doesn’t necessarily mean going down from three terms to two, the current limit for U.S. presidents. Eliminating term limits, which were only enacted in Denver in 1995 following a state law change, was also up for debate.

In a study of 39 cities across the county, city staff found that 19 of them had no limits on city council service time and 14 had no limits for mayors. That said, 14 cities capped council service at two terms and 21 capped the mayor’s tenure at two.

The last time Denver amended its term limits was 2000, according to Sawyer’s research.

“The advent of social media, the 24/7 time clock that we work on… things were very different from the way our government worked in the year 2000, which is the last time we have had this conversation,” Sawyer noted.

Earlier this summer, 686 Denver residents responded to a survey about term limits. Of those, 69.4% supported capping officials’ time in office at two, four-year terms. The survey has a 3.75% margin of error.

Because the survey was circulated through councilmembers’ offices and personal newsletters, participation was spotty. Sawyer’s District 5 along with Districts 1 and 10 accounted for more than half of the responses. Sawyer emphasized that the survey sample also did not adequately represent Denver’s demographics. More than 81% of respondents were white, 38% were over the age of 65 and more than 34% made $150,000 per year or more in income.

District 8 Councilwoman Shontel Lewis noted just 30 people from her district filled out the survey making her weary of making any decisions without first gathering more input. District 7 Councilwoman Flor Alvidrez said she was concerned shortening term limits now could hurt the council’s diversity as Denver’s population has gotten whiter and more affluent over the last decade.

Term limits were scrutinized during the city’s 2023 municipal campaign cycle including by some of the people running for office. Anti-gang activist and mayoral candidate Terrance Roberts said that if elected he would push for the mayor’s stay in office to be capped at two terms because incumbency is too powerful and 12 years in office gives one person too much influence over the city’s future.

At a mayoral debate in March, now-Mayor Mike Johnston was among the candidates who raised their hand to pledge they would only serve two terms if elected.

But some councilmembers on Monday, including District 6 Councilman Paul Kashmann, viewed changing term limits as “a solution in search of a problem.”

Kashmann is in favor of term limits generally because they create a vacuum for new ideas and new leadership but didn’t see the city’s current three-term cap as a hurdle to good governance. He, along with District 11 Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore and District 2 Councilman Kevin Flynn are the only members of the 13-person council now serving third terms.

“I’m comfortable with 12 years across the board,” Kashmann said, referencing another cap on elected officials’ time in office: how voters feel about their job performance. “Voters have that choice every four years. I’m not aware of our office having gotten any comments about this.”

Flynn crunched numbers on city electoral patterns dating back to the 2003 election when the three-term limit took effect. Since then, 39 people have been elected and just 12 were elected to serve three terms, according to his research. The average length in office for those 39 members was exactly eight years. If a two-term limit had been in place, his math showed that the council’s average turnover each cycle would have been between eight and nine seats, a rate of churn that he felt could undermine the institutional knowledge on the council.

“Voters are very smart,” Flynn said “They return good members and they vote out people they don’t like.”

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Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval, who brought the topic to the committee in partnership with Sawyer, said more work needs to be done before any changes would be ripe to bring to voters.

“I believe we need to have more discussions in the community and with our colleagues before forming any (ballot) language,” Sandoval said.

At-large Councilwoman Sarah Parady encouraged Sawyer and Sandoval to explore term limits for mayor and council as separate questions. In Denver’s strong mayor form of government, the executive branch wields much more power than the legislative branch, she said.

“We’re 1% of the city budget. I just saw that number and it is tiny,” Parady said. “So the loss of institutional memory fear is a lot more real for councilmembers than someone in that mayor’s seat, in my mind.”

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