Castle Rock residents love their town, but the government could use some work — this according to the release of results from a town-wide survey. And one growing grassroots movement in the community believes they have just what the doctor ordered to cure some of those ailments.
The recent survey provided a glimpse into what Castle Rock residents see as some of the strengths and weaknesses of their town. Many of the items listed in the weakness category have to do with government responsiveness and accountability. Some community leaders are using this information to push for an elected mayor — allowing all Castle Rock residents a chance to vote for their mayor at-large — which they believe would dramatically ease many of these citizen frustrations.
The momentum for such a move seems to be growing as quickly as the community’s booming population.
Castle Rock currently uses a mayor-appointment system in which members of Town Council select the mayor from among their peers, leaving the “Everyday Joe” city residents out of the process.
Seeing a number of problems with this form of government, the group Castle Rock Citizens for Elected Mayor was launched. Their sole aim: to collect enough signatures to place the mayoral issue before voters at the ballot box. If the committee succeeds, and voters approve of their suggested scheme, it would instigate a significant change in Castle Rock’s form of government — residents would have an opportunity to vote for their town leader, selecting them from the community as a whole, rather than from one, single political district.
Supporters of the movement are quick to point out that the change would not give the mayor any additional authority, but would simply allow every resident an opportunity to cast their vote for the town’s figurehead, rather than just the other Council members.
Citizens for Elected Mayor saw an opportunity with the recent town-wide survey results, because of the pattern of complaints they saw. Town residents do indeed overwhelmingly love their community, but they do have their gripes. Things could be better.
But is a town-wide elected mayor really the silver bullet they are looking for?
The 2017 Castle Rock Community Survey indicates that Castle Rock receives exceptional ratings in many categories, including the overall quality of life, town services and activities within the community. But the town received relatively low ratings in the government involvement category, especially regarding whether the government keeps the residents informed or seeks residents’ input.
Supporters of the movement argue that having the people elect their own mayor would help alleviate many of these concerns by building more participation. Such a change, advocates claim, would enable residents to partake more directly in the political process while having more open conversations about key issues facing Castle Rock and holding one key, elected leader accountable to an at-large electorate.
“Right now the appointed mayors are not accountable and don’t represent the entire city,” said Wayne Harlos, chair of the Citizens for Elected Mayor Committee and state chairman of the Colorado Libertarian Party. “The mayor is a selected person that is already on the Town Council, which means they represent a specific district, and so the people from other districts don’t really feel as though the mayor is on their side or even listening to their position. If we have an elected mayor who the citizens of the entire town chose, the people would feel a lot more connected and the mayor would have a lot more respect and a much louder voice.”
Castle Rock began using the mayor appointment system in 1987, when the then-government changed the town charter to establish the method that is still used today. The Town Council consists of seven members that represent specific districts and that are elected by voters in their given districts. Council members then decide which member should — in addition to serving on the Council — also serve as the town mayor and enjoy the ceremonial privileges and legal powers that accompany the position.
This mayor appointment system is rare by many standards. With 101 municipalities in the state of Colorado, 80 municipalities use the mayoral election process and just 21 use the appointment method. The rapidly swelling population of over 63,000 residents also puts Castle Rock in a key category — it’s the largest city in Colorado to not let its residents vote for an at-large leader or mayor.
The appointment process is also unusual for a county seat. Every county has a seat city where all the government buildings and administrative services for the county are located. Castle Rock serves as the seat community for Douglas County. Of the 64 counties in Colorado, Castle Rock is one of the only county seats that use the mayor appointment system.
“It’s crazy that we don’t have that ability to elect our mayor in Castle Rock,” said Harlos. “Castle Rock is one of the few municipalities in the state that does not have that ability, and where the Town Council just appoints the mayor among themselves.”
A Case Study
In July 2016, an attempt to recall former Castle Rock Mayor Paul Donahue shined a spotlight on the city’s mayor appointment process. Because Donahue was only elected as a district representative and not as an at-large mayor, only residents from his specific district were able to vote on whether to retain or recall the mayor. The recall effort ultimately failed and Donahue stayed in office until his term limit expired a few months later. But the attention that the recall attracted, for some, was productive, as the issue illuminated for many Castle Rock residents that they do not elect their own mayors and that the position is instead filled by the Town Council.
“When people found out that they didn’t have a chance to choose the mayor that was recalled last time, they were very surprised and there was a tremendous amount of anger,” said Harlos. “Citizens were complaining that they didn’t have a chance to vote for that guy, they probably wouldn’t have voted for him and then they didn’t get to even vote in the recall.”
This encouraged Harlos and several community leaders to form the Citizens for Elected Mayor Committee, which has effectively facilitated the new movement to let the residents elect their town mayors.
The committee and its petitioners are currently collecting signatures from residents throughout the city, with the end game being to place a ballot initiative before the voters in November. The committee must gather signatures from 10 percent of registered Castle Rock voters – which equates to 4,288 signatures – by a July 10 deadline to place the initiative on the ballot. The November ballot initiative would simply ask voters if they want to amend the charter and elect their mayors.
If the voters then pass the ballot initiative, starting in 2018 candidates would campaign for the position and all residents would vote for their mayor. Similar to the current Town Council structure, mayor elections would be held every four years and each mayor would be limited to two terms.
“There won’t be a change to the power structure,” said Harlos. “There are a lot of capacities that the mayor has right now above and beyond what the other council members have, and none of that is going to change. They’ll still run the meetings and handle a lot of negotiations. The only change is going to be that the people are going to decide who leads them.”
Emphasizing the results of the latest survey, supporters of the movement have been articulating the many ways in which providing people with the opportunity to elect their mayors would help improve the city.
The comprehensive 2017 Castle Rock Community Survey was conducted by the Northwest Research Group. The survey asked residents and businesses a series of questions to outline their perception of the community.
The report gave Castle Rock with a 4-star rating out of a possible 5-star system. The survey showed that only six in 10 residents think the town is headed in the right direction while one-quarter of residents think the town is headed in the wrong direction. The report also indicated that this dissatisfaction among residents generally relates to the exorbitant growth of the town regarding its increasing population, congested traffic and influx of outside businesses.
“They want some stops to be made to the growth that we are having because we are growing faster than our infrastructure can support,” said Harlos. “The biggest struggle most people have is that they’re allowing the explosion of people and shops to happen without the supporting infrastructure in place, so there are not enough roads and not enough parking. Growth can be good, but we need a leader who is less interested in tax revenue and more interested in controlling and managing the growth.”
In the survey, Castle Rock residents also expressed dissatisfaction with the level of government involvement. For instance, results show that many residents do not think the government keeps the residents informed about issues or developments in the city. Out of an 11-point scale, the question of whether the government informs the public has been steadily decreasing and has now dropped to a 6.83 rating.
Results also indicated that many respondents are disgruntled that the government does not adequately seek input or participation from the residents. With a 6.2 out of 11 rating, the issue of whether the government seeks the residents’ input has also been consistently declining in the recent years.
“The Town Council often does not even take public input before selecting the mayor,” said Harlos. “So there is no reliable mechanism for the public to have any say in the mayor selection at all. They don’t really take public input in meetings or in private. It’s a decision that only a few select people are able to make.”
The committee contends that allowing the Castle Rock citizens to choose their mayors can help to drastically improve government involvement and resident participation levels.
Having mayoral campaign seasons every four years can be especially beneficial for Castle Rock. The campaign seasons would require all mayoral candidates to promote and defend their plans for the city while trying to garner the trust and support of the voters, proponents say.
“Electing a mayor would allow the people to interview the candidates,” said Roger Hudson, an elected mayor supporter and the founder of the Hudson Firm public relations group. “That’s what a campaign’s about; a campaign’s an interview. You have a campaign so candidates can tell you what their experience is and what their vision is for you, your home and your community. So you want to hear what their big priorities are — whether it’s traffic, or education, raising taxes, lowering taxes, more growth, less growth — either way, you want to be able to have that job interview with the person who’s going to be the leader of your town.”
The political discussions that would occur during the mayoral campaign seasons could also enhance participation among Castle Rock residents. Supporters argue that the campaign seasons would offer a chance for citizens to become engaged in local politics, address the issues confronting the city and debate which candidate to support and which plans to implement.
“A mayoral election would allow the entire town to have a conversation about the future of Castle Rock,” said Hudson. “This means we all get to find out what we all want. We can discuss where we are and where we want to be. We can debate how we want to spend our budget and our time, what we like and don’t like, and what we want to change and what we want to keep.”
In turn, the committee says that the campaign season and election process would help strengthen the collaboration between the government and citizens.
“This is a basic American effort,” said Hudson. “I can’t imagine anything more democratic or more American than a citizen having the right to cast a vote to choose and elect the mayor representative of their community.”
The committee also claims the election process would increase the accountability of the town mayors while in office. They say the reckoning of serving the entire at-large electorate would encourage mayors to become more diligent and responsive to the needs of the city.
“This person will represent and be accountable for the entire city, rather than just one district,” said Hudson. “The mayor will also be elected and held accountable by all of the voters, not just a few council representatives. So an elected mayor makes him or her earn it and work harder for that role.”
The movement does face some opposition. Opponents worry that changing the charter and electing the mayor would expand the size of the government and increase the costs for the taxpayers.
The committee leaders argue that this is a common misconception, as the mayoral election system would not increase the scope or cost of the town government.
“We’re just redistricting from seven Council seats to six, and then turning that other seat into an at-large mayor who will be elected by the entire city,” said Hudson. “So it’s not adding any people to the government, there won’t be a new staff or office and so there also won’t be a budgetary increase.”
Based on the responses they receive throughout the city, the committee is confident that they can collect enough signatures to land the initiative on the ballot.
“People are enthusiastic and appreciative,” said Stacey Rogers, the petition director of the committee. “I’ve been out there in the public in front of stores and in front of various locations, and the majority of people are appreciative. They say thank you for making this effort, thank you for speaking out for us, and thank you for encouraging this change in allowing us to have more say in our local government.”
The nonpartisan aspect of the petition has attracted an abundance of supporters from both sides of the isle.
“This is a nonpartisan issue,” said Rogers. “The ballot initiative would not speak to any candidate or party specifically, and even our group that’s working on this is nonpartisan. We have different political views, different perspectives and different experiences, but we’re all working together for this common goal.”
If the initiative can make the ballot, the committee is also optimistic that the Castle Rock voters would choose to approve the measure, amend the charter and begin electing their own mayors.
“Our petition is just to put the question on a ballot so Castle Rock voters can decide if they want the right to vote for the mayor,” said Rogers. “Judging from the responses I get when I ask the question, I really think this will be successful because most people want to speak for themselves and most people want to have a choice.”