Aug 15, 2023 - Politics

Push for term limit changes in Denver meets resistance

Illustration of the Denver City and County Building with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Denver City Council is clashing over term limits for elected officials, as similar debates about fitness for office and ageism take center stage at the federal level.

Why it matters: How long local leaders stay in office could come down to Denver voters next year if the council agrees to put the question on the November 2024 ballot.

  • City charter currently allows the mayor, council members, auditor, and clerk and recorder to serve no more than three consecutive four-year terms in the same position.

Driving the news: Council members Amanda Sawyer and Amanda Sandoval ran the idea of changing term limits by their colleagues this week.

  • Although the two heard some support from colleagues — particularly for capping limits on Denver's mayor — they were mostly met with skepticism and pushback over whether the effort was just a "solution in search of a problem."

Details: Sawyer pointed to data that shows more than half of the 30 most populous U.S. cities limit their mayors to two four-year terms, while most — 43% — have no limits on city council.

  • Sawyer also highlighted a public survey her office conducted that showed 69% of the 686 Denverites who responded supported limiting officials' time in office to two, four-year terms.

Yes, but: The survey was hardly representative of the city at-large, with 82% of respondents identifying as white and 38% aged 65 or older.

  • About 69% city residents are white, and about 12% are aged 65 and up, U.S. Census data shows.

What they're saying: Limiting how long an elected official can serve is worth exploring "given how much this job takes a toll on all of us," said Sandoval, who has been mulling these changes for months.

The other side: Many council members say the change is unnecessary.

  • "Voters are very smart here. They return good people and they vote out people they don't like," council member Kevin Flynn said.

Plus: Others, like Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez took a more nuanced approach, arguing that limits should exist in some way — but retaining institutional knowledge is critical.

  • "I don't see [reelections] as term limits because defeating an incumbent can be very difficult," she noted. But as a former lawmaker in the state Legislature — where officials' time is limited to eight years — she knows the downfalls restrictive term limits can have.
  • "What we see happening is that the lobby has institutional knowledge," she warned. "They know who to speak to. They know the process, and they have the upper hand."

What's next: Sandoval and Sawyer plan to continue conversations with the community and their colleagues before moving forward with a formal proposal and any ballot language.

What to watch: Whether the council considers splitting term limits for mayor and council members into separate questions, a suggestion that came from at-large member Sarah Parady.


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