WESTMINSTER — A loud and boisterous fight over municipal water rates. An attempted recall of four city council members in the spring. The sudden resignation of a mayor who had been in city leadership for more than 20 years.
Flash forward to October. The chief of police, a department veteran for more than three decades, retires following a stinging report about workplace culture under his watch. A day later, Westminster’s city manager steps down.
And last week, voters bounced nearly half of those on City Council out of the job.
All of these developments in less than a year have some wondering: Is Westminster a city in crisis or is this just democracy’s messy machinery on full throttle?
“This is the most unsettled I’ve ever seen Westminster,” said Bill Christopher, a former long-time city manager who has lived here for more than half a century. “We’ve been a pretty stable community but it’s in a state of flux now.”
Debbie Teter, a 20-year resident who helped spearhead the battle against Westminster’s high water costs, said disenchantment among the electorate has been steadily mounting.
“It feels like it finally burst,” she said of the frustration that has been building in this city of 116,000 northwest of Denver. “Westminster is in a state of turmoil — and now it’s rolling through some changes and that’s good.”
But Anita Seitz, who on Monday night stepped down from the mayoral seat she has held since Herb Atchison resigned the post in May, said while the city has hit a rough patch of late she doesn’t see challenges with its aging water infrastructure and troubles at the police department as signifying some intertwined municipal collapse.
“I think these (things) are pretty discrete — correlation is not the same as causational,” Seitz said during an interview at city hall. “It’s a large organization and things can happen at the same time.”
Jon Voelz, a councilman who also lost his seat in the Nov. 2 election, said he feels he’s leaving the city in better shape than he found it when he first took office in early 2019. Financial reserves are up, the open space fund is flush and the city is trying to shore up a water system that is decades old and in disrepair, he said.
“I think there’s a group of people that want us to think there’s chaos in the city,” Voelz said. “I’m optimistic about Westminster.”
A big clue to Westminster’s future may be found in last week’s election results.
On the one hand, voters brought back Nancy McNally as mayor — eight years after she had last held that position. Bruce Baker, a former conservative councilman, also won a spot back on council.
Yet, two progressive candidates new to politics also won: Sarah Nurmela, an urban planner, and Obi Ezeadi, the son of Nigerian immigrants who on Monday became only the second Black person to sit on the Westminster city council.
“Now we have an opportunity to re-set,” Ezeadi said in an interview with The Denver Post. “People want to trust their government. How do we steer the ship now?”
A product manager in the tech field, Ezeadi said he “modernized outreach” to Westminster voters by meeting them in person and through various digital channels. He placed a special emphasis on canvassing low-income, minority neighborhoods in the southern part of the city, listing his passions as “justice, innovation, equity and transparent government” on his campaign website.
Winning the most votes out of any candidate in the at-large race — with 13,338 — Ezeadi attributed his success at the ballot box last week to support from a segment of Westminster that historically hasn’t been a prominent part of the city’s political mix.
“We door-knocked them, we texted them, we called them,” he said. “We didn’t ignore these communities — we made them feel included.”
Ezeadi said he doesn’t feel like Westminster is necessarily in turmoil, but he does think the city needs to be more open and straightforward with its residents in order to regain their trust. That includes an intense, out-of-the-gate focus on finding the best police chief and city manager for Westminster.
“I’m going to be leaning hard on transparency in all areas,” he said.
Lack of communication from the city was the complaint McNally heard the most on the campaign trail this past year, she said.
“A lot of people feel they don’t know how to be heard,” she said. “They felt like they kept hitting roadblocks.”
Many residents were unhappy with a decision by the city at the beginning of the year to suddenly stop emailing weekly updates about goings-on in Westminster, she said. And the coronavirus pandemic, with its restrictions on in-person gatherings, only made civic discourse more disjointed and fragmented, McNally added.
“People couldn’t get to the dais, they couldn’t ask their questions,” she said of city council meetings, where audience members were just voices over a phone line or internet connection. “I could see people’s frustration — so I jumped in.”
There are other pressures bearing down on Westminster that will test how well the city’s elected leaders can collaborate with one another and communicate with residents. Next month, the new council will be deciding on a master plan and rezoning request for the central portion of a controversial development proposal known as the Uplands.
The council will focus on a 150-acre parcel at the corner of West 84th Avenue and Federal Boulevard that for decades has been farmland fronting an arresting view of the foothills to the west. The project, which calls for up to 2,350 homes and more than 100,000 square feet of office and commercial space, has generated intense opposition from those who say it’s too dense and urban for the area.
Karen Ray, who helped form a group called Save the Farm more than two years ago to oppose Uplands, said she’s been frustrated trying to get information from Westminster about the project.
“Yes, it’s a city in turmoil,” she said. “It’s been a government unresponsive to public concerns.”
‘Show us what you got’
But Seitz, the former mayor, said development pressure is not unique to Westminster — especially in a metro area that has experienced historically low housing inventory and skyrocketing real estate prices — just as police reform, water issues and city staff resignations are happening in other places too.
“People want to have affordable housing but they don’t want to have growth,” she said. “There is nostalgia for a time when there was more stability.”
Voelz admits that the city didn’t always do a great job communicating with its residents through the pandemic, but said he didn’t hear that as a top concern among the voters he met with as he campaigned this year. As Westminster’s first openly gay council member who served on the city’s Inclusivity Board before joining the council, Voelz said he worked hard on making sure all voices were heard while he was in office.
“I think we’re going through a transition,” he said.
And it’s a transition that better be handled deftly by Westminster’s next slate of elected leaders, Ezeadi said. Voters will only give the new council so much time to prove that it is putting the city on the right course.
“The people are asking, ‘Show us what you got,’” he said. “I think the city is not currently in chaos. But if this council can’t work together, it will be.”
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