Ask the Indy: What’s the deal behind term limits for Denver’s mayor?

Denver City Hall (Photo by David Grant via Flickr: Creative Commons)
Denver City Hall (Photo by David Grant via Flickr: Creative Commons)

Indy reader Rosemary Cullain, a psychologist and consultant specializing in coaching parents of children with autism, reached out to  Ask the Indy  to find out what term limits exist for Denver’s mayor. Cullain said someone told her that if Mayor Michael Hancock were to win his third term in the runoff Tuesday, he would only serve as mayor for two years.

Someone steered her wrong. Denver’s mayors (and city council members) can serve up to three four-year terms. So, if Hancock wins this run-off election (ballots must be turned in by 7 p.m. Tuesday, so get going if you haven’t voted), it’s another four years.

That hasn’t always been the case. Though the state constitution established term limits, Denver is governed by its own charter, what’s called a home rule city, and it did not adopt those limits. So, once upon a time, Denver mayors actually could serve as long as they were reelected, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb tells us. Benjamin Stapleton, for example, served 20 years between two different terms in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

Former City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, recalling that period of no term limits, says that when she was elected in 1995, fellow Councilwoman Cathy Reynolds had been in office for 20 years.

But in 1994, Colorado voters approved a constitutional amendment that, among other changes, limited members of Congress to three consecutive terms, local officials to two consecutive terms, and two consecutive terms for the state Board of Education and the University of Colorado regents. Webb says the cap was eight years total for state and local offices.

However,  the United States Supreme Court struck down state-imposed term limits for members of Congress in 1995 in US Term Limits, Inc. v Thornton.

Denver abided by state voters’ wishes, and so, Barnes-Gelt recalls, when she was elected the following year, she was limited to two terms. The result, however, was that “at some point 10 of 13 council members were new and it was toys in the attic because no one knew squat,” she says.

At that point, she says, she and Councilwoman Sue Casey led the charge to ask Denver voters to allow their elected officials to serve three four-year terms instead of two. On Nov. 7, 2000, voters signed off.

“So, it went from none, to two terms, to three terms and 12 years,” Barnes-Gelt says.

It didn’t apply retroactively, however, and after two terms, the councilwoman who sought to give elected officials more time in office was out.

Tina Griego and Austin Fleskes contributed to this report.

The Colorado Independent is a statewide online news source operating in a time when spin is plentiful, but factual, fair and unflinching news in the public interest is all too rare. Our award-winning team of veteran investigative and explanatory reporters and news columnists aims to amplify the voices of Coloradans whose stories are unheard, shine light on the relationships between people, power and policy, and hold public officials to account. We strive to report the news with context, social conscience, and soul, and to give Coloradans the insight they need to promote conversation, understanding and progress in this square, swing state we call home.