The Aurora City Council’s Ward 2 vacancy saga came to an end Thursday when the council continued its stalemate voting until it reached the deadline for filling the vacancy.
By failing to reach consensus by Thursday at midnight, the council violated the city charter, which demands vacancies be filled by majority vote within 45 days of the previous member’s departure.
The council will no longer attempt to fill the vacancy, leaving the seat empty until a new council member is voted in during the November election.
This comes after more than 150 rounds of votes resulted in the same 5-5 tie over the course of a month, with half of the council voting to appoint Democratic candidate Ryan Ross and the other half voting for Republican candidate Steve Sundberg.
During the vacancy meetings, council members who supported Sundberg made several attempts to postpone the vote until after the November election, saying voters should decide because the council could not agree. However, attorneys said that is in direct violation of the city charter.
“We’re letting our residents watch us be dysfunctional when we could just stop it now and wait until November and let the people of Ward 2 decide who they want,” Councilwoman Marsha Berzins, who voted for Sundberg, said during a meeting on July 12.
"I don’t think we should be setting the precedent that the charter doesn’t matter, and I also don’t think we should be setting the precedent that a ward can go without a ward council member,” Councilman Juan Marcano, who voted for Ross, said during a meeting on July 26.
The council-appointed city attorney Dan Brotzman has repeatedly said waiting until November would violate the charter, though some Republican council members disagreed with his interpretation because the charter requires a majority vote and they could not reach one.
During Thursday’s meeting, Denver law firm Hoffmann Parker Wilson & Carberry provided a third-party legal opinion, confirming that failing to fill the vacancy because of a tie would still be a charter violation.
Brotzman said the city attorney’s office likely wouldn’t serve the council with criminal charges for violating the charter, but the council could be subject to civil suit.
The Ward 2 council seat was left vacant after Councilwoman Nicole Johnston resigned in June to start a new job. Johnston is a progressive Democrat, part of a wave of new candidates who transformed the historically conservative council to a relatively even split — with five members leaning right and five leaning left.
In each of the four meetings, most of the council’s debate centered on whether or not the candidate who is selected to fill the vacancy needs to politically align with Johnston, who endorsed Ross to take her seat.
Some council members also argued that appointing Sundberg would be problematic because he is running in the November election and the temporary vacancy would give him an unfair advantage over other candidates.
Without someone to fill the Ward 2 vacancy, the council’s current party split could result in more tied votes before a new member is added in November, including on Mayor Mike Coffman’s proposed urban camping ban that is due for an August vote.
The council has four Republican members (Berzins, Francoise Bergan, Curtis Gardner and Dave Gruber), three Democratic members (Marcano, Crystal Murillo and Alison Coombs) and two unaffiliated members (Allison Hiltz, a former Democrat, and Angela Lawson, a former Republican).
Under the charter, Coffman is allowed to vote to create or break ties on council proposals that aren’t resolutions.