Now under home rule, Basalt ponders how to select mayor | AspenTimes.com

Now under home rule, Basalt ponders how to select mayor

An interesting but obscure debate has taken shape in Basalt on whether the town should continue to elect its mayor by popular vote or let its council pick a leader.

The issue is one of hundreds being pondered by the Home Rule Charter Commission, a nine-member group of citizens and elected officials. The commission was elected in May to draft a proposal on Basalt government’s makeup and powers.

The town is currently a statutory government whose powers are defined by the state. Proponents of the home-rule style of government say it grants more local control and greater flexibility in dealing with issues.

The commission is sort of like the framers of the U.S. Constitution. They propose how the government functions, then voters will decide in November whether to ratify or reject the proposal.

Much of the commission’s work is tame and even dull – such as deciding when and where the Town Council will meet. But two issues have been placed on the back burner because of the potential for controversy.

Those issues are how to select the mayor and whether term limits should be retained.

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There is precedent in the Roaring Fork Valley for different methods of selecting the mayor by home-rule municipalities. Aspen lets citizens select its mayor; Glenwood Springs allows its council to make the choice. Every two years, the Glenwood council votes on which of its seven members will serve as mayor.

In Basalt, Home Rule Charter Commission member Peter Frey raised the prospect of letting the council make the choice for mayor. He said Basalt sometimes attracts multiple quality candidates for the post, such as in the latest election in 2000 when three veterans of Basalt government competed.

Just one candidate takes office while “the losers just go away,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Town Council elections have a history of not attracting enough candidates to spark competition. The April election was canceled this year because only three unopposed candidates sought three seats. They took office with no discussion of issues.

Frey said he would like to see a system that retains candidates, even if they fail to be elected mayor.

Other proponents of the council’s selection of a mayor claim the council members know best who among their ranks is most qualified to run the meetings and serve as the board’s leader.

But there is strong sentiment among the charter commission for keeping the mayoral selection in the hands of the populace.

Councilman and commission member Leroy Duroux said last week he talked to 20 to 25 people about selecting the mayor and found most of them oppose letting the council select its leader.

“Five said that would make them campaign against the charter regardless of what it says otherwise,” Duroux said.

Like Duroux, Councilwoman and commission member Tiffany Gildred said she found that many people wanted to retain the ability to select the mayor. The mayor may be a figurehead, but voters want to select their figurehead, she said.

Commission member Laurie Dows said the preference was a 50-50 split among the people she informally polled.

Gildred said she is convinced the commission should avoid changing the way Basalt is governed and simply expand powers in the charter. She is opposed to an overhaul.

“Every change we make provides a reason to vote against home rule,” Gildred said.

Frey countered that Gildred may be assuming that Basalt residents are happy with the existing rules and powers of government. He said he wasn’t sure that was the case.

In addition, the town’s voters elected the commission to look at the whole issue of governing, Frey said.

Nevertheless, he predicted the mayor-selection issue will be decided without controversy. He said public opinion seems to be on the side of continuing popular election.

“I don’t think that the voters will have any ugly surprises,” he said.

Councilwoman and commission member Anne Freedman said also felt voters may welcome alterations of existing rules of governing.

“There are some cases where things aren’t really broken but we can improve them,” she said.

The commission is also deferring a decision on term limits. State law currently limits Basalt’s elected officials to serving two terms of four years each. A partial term of two-or-less years, such as when an appointment is made to fill a vacancy, doesn’t count toward the term limit.

Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens isn’t part of the charter commission, but he said when quizzed that he would like to see mayoral selection stay in the hands of voters. He also supports term limits.

“It’s good to change around after a while,” he said.

The Home Rule Charter Commission expects to unveil its proposal to the public for official comment later this summer – probably in August or early September. Meanwhile, it is pecking away on issues nearly every Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Basalt Town Hall. The meetings are open to the public.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.]