Colorado Supreme Court rules in favor of Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann in term limits case


The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the six years Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann served as a city councilwoman do not count towards her tenure as mayor of the city, striking down a legal challenge that she was in violation of the state’s nearly three-decade-old term limits law.

The ruling means Kulmann is permitted to not only finish serving out the remainder of her current term as Thornton mayor but to run for another four-year term next year, if she chooses. The ruling reverses an Adams County District Court opinion that had gone against Kulmann.

The high court’s 5-2 ruling Monday came down to the interpretation of one word: office.

The court’s majority concluded that councilmember and mayor are distinct offices in Thornton and that service in one role did not count towards service in the other. Colorado voters in 1994 passed an amendment to the state constitution restricting individuals from serving “more than two consecutive terms in office.”

“For example, the (Thornton) Charter provides that the Mayor and Ward Councilmembers are elected in different ways and by different constituencies, and they represent different groups of people,” the court wrote. “Accordingly, in our view, ‘in office’ plainly and unambiguously refers to a specific office, and not to an institution or governing body.”

Kulmann issued a statement Monday afternoon saying she was “thankful for the thoughtful consideration of the Colorado Supreme Court and that this decision preserves the original intent of those who wrote our City Charter.”

She said she hasn’t yet decided whether to run for mayor of Colorado’s sixth-largest city next November.

Kulmann, who lost a bid to represent Colorado’s 8th Congressional District during the Republican primary in June, served as a councilwoman on Thornton’s city council from 2013 to 2019, at which point she successfully ran for mayor and stepped down from her Ward IV council seat.

Thornton resident Cherish Salazar challenged Kulmann’s tenure in court, claiming that by November 2021 Kulmann would have served eight years — or the equivalent of two consecutive terms — on the council and needed to step down.

But the majority on the Supreme Court concluded that there is a meaningful difference between the role of mayor and that of councilmember in Thornton. They wrote that the mayor is paid more, has certain exclusive “emergency and appointment powers,” and “the voters specifically choose the individual whom they want to serve as their Mayor.”

They concluded that “the offices of Thornton Mayor and of Ward Councilmember are separate and distinct…”

But two dissenting justices, Maria Berkenkotter and William Hood, said Monday’s ruling carries potential problems in carrying out the voters’ will on term limits.

“While the majority’s analysis is thorough for Thornton, its factors seem arbitrary when applied to other comparable government structures,” they wrote. “I fear that this Thornton-specific analysis may map poorly onto the state’s other jurisdictions and destabilize varying municipal structures.”

The two justices said the high court’s ruling opens the door to potential shenanigans by local officeholders.

“By alternating between eight-year stints as a ward-elected and an at-large councilmember/mayor, an individual could hold the same legislative position in the city of Thornton forever,” they wrote.


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