The Basalt Town Council likely will ask voters in the April election to clarify some gray areas about the town’s term limits.
The outcome could shape the town’s 2016 mayoral election because it would determine if the current mayor, Jacque Whitsitt, would be eligible for another term.
Town Manager Mike Scanlon told the council Tuesday night that questions have arisen about term limits. He suggested going to voters for clarification “to avoid those things that have been trouble in the past and get out ahead of them.”
In the past, the town government has made two determinations that affect the term limit issue. First, it defers to the Colorado Constitution, which says elected officials are limited to two consecutive four-year terms in office. Second, Basalt regards the mayor’s position an equal to the six council positions. There is no difference between the mayor and council members in the town’s Home Rule Charter, as there is in other town’s and city’s charters.
That’s significant because it suggests that a person cannot serve two terms on the council, then flip over to serve two terms as mayor.
Former Mayor Leroy Duroux initially decided to run for a council seat in 2012 after he had served two consecutive terms as mayor. He withdrew as a council candidate after researching the state constitution.
Whitsitt faces a similar situation in 2016. She served on the council from 2008 to 12, then won a four-year term as mayor in 2012. If Basalt were consistent in its interpretation of rules, she would be forced to sit down in 2016.
Whitsitt said prior to Tuesday’s meeting that she wanted to keep the door open for running in 2016 but was uncertain. “A lot can happen in two years,” she said.
Town Attorney Tom Smith told the council Tuesday night that there are a lot of gray areas in the term limits issue for the town. Towns, cities and counties can set their own rules on term limits — as Aspen and Pitkin County have. When they don’t, they must rely on the constitution, Smith said.
“That sort of sets a default if you don’t do anything,” Smith said. “That’s where we’re at right now.”
It’s less clear if the council and mayor positions are regarded as the same or different, according to Smith. Colorado Municipal League — an association for towns and cities in the state — says in its guidelines that the positions are different but it doesn’t explain why, he said.
Councilman Rick Stevens, a former Basalt mayor, said he doesn’t see a significant difference between the positions. The mayor has ceremonial duties and signs official documents but doesn’t have any greater influence over the legislative process than council members, he said.
Whitsitt said she considers the positions different because mayoral candidates square off directly against one another in elections while council positions are decided in at-large elections.
The five members of the board that attended the work session indicated they want to send the issue to the ballot in the town’s April 1 election. Scanlon and Smith were directed to work on ballot-question wording.
It is yet to be determined if the question will ask if an absolute limit to consecutive terms that could be served as a member of the council and mayor. In other words, should there be a ban on flipping back and forth between the positions indefinitely.
Councilman Herschel Ross said a limit of two terms on council and two terms as mayor — for a total of 16 consecutive years — should be set. “I think if you stay in office that long, you ought to be committed,” he said.
Scanlon agreed that an absolute limit is needed so “people don’t create dynasties in office.”
What remains to be seen is if the ballot question becomes a mid-term referendum on Whitsitt’s performance and popularity. If voters determine that members of the board should be limited to eight consecutive years regardless of whether it is as mayor or council, Whitsitt would be a lame duck. If they decide the positions are different, she could run again.
Whitsitt declined to answer after the meeting if she thought her situation could get mixed into the ballot question.