ENDORSEMENTS: 2017 Aurora City Council, APS elections promise change — our picks to ensure it

October 12, 2017 GMT

Change is guaranteed to come to Aurora as a new generation of Aurora City Council and Aurora Public Schools board candidates usher in new ideas and a drive to bring substantive progress.

There are five open seats on the Aurora City Council this election year, and two of the seats are held by incumbents who are being vigorously challenged.

There are four open seats on the seven-member APS school board, and only one incumbent running.

But not only are so many legislative positions in play, many of the candidates themselves are younger, more educated, more experienced and more determined than either panel has boasted in many years.

The new wave of city and school board candidates are arguably much more progressive than the have been previously, offering a distinct and contrasting change from past local elections. These two slates of candidates have pulled incumbent conservatives to the left, as well, something reflected in their newer positions on some past conservative touchstones.

On the surface, it’s hard to tell many of the candidates apart on positions you would expect distinct differences on, such as immigration, police oversight in light of excessive force allegations, homelessness and even taxes for roads.

Only under scrutiny do stark and important differences become clear.

For the first time in recent memory, there are essentially no bad voter choices for city council or the APS school board — with few exceptions. But being guided by big-picture problems facing both the city and the schools, our recommended slate of new leaders offer a way out of long-standing quagmires. Here are our suggestions for 2017.

City Council Ward I: Crystal Murillo

There is no arguing that incumbent councilwoman Sally Mounier has worked hard to serve the voter base that has elected her previously. But therein lies the problem. It is the vast majority of residents in her ward who often don’t vote that she misrepresents on the city council.

Certainly there are shared interests among the dwindling aging, white residents of northwest Aurora and the growing majority of younger, immigrant and more mobile community that has overtaken the area. Solid police enforcement, paved streets and code enforcement serve everyone, and Mounier has worked to ensure the city’s poorest neighborhoods are not left behind.

But all residents in Ward I must have a stable and safe environment to thrive, and the city will not thrive unless the huge population of documented immigrants, refugees and illegal immigrants can depend on fairness and stability.

Mounier has failed deeply in this most important cause. She has not only helped to make the city’s position on illegal immigrant vague, she’s worked to undermine the work of police to ensure all residents that Aurora officers do not and will not be made to act as immigration officers.

Anything else puts all of Aurora at risk as illegal immigrants — repeatedly targeted by the Trump administration — move further into shadows. They become easy prey for criminals. They avoid schools and civic responsibility for fear of deportation. The threat is very real and unsolvable under the Trump regime’s incompetence and duplicity. Mounier’s strong support for President Donald Trump and his administration is anathema to solving a long list of issues that directly affect her constituents. When addressing the problem, she is at best vague and is more often just dead wrong. The problems Aurora invites by standing firm against the Trump Administration pale in comparison to the chaos that can ensue from being coy and undermining Aurora police and good sense.

Challenger Crystal Murillo grew up in this area of Aurora. Working her way into a new generation of motivated, educated community of immigrants, Murillo shows a wisdom and insight far beyond her years, in part because of her dedication to studies at the University of Denver and her work to solve problems in the area.

Aurora lawmakers and the council as a whole cannot afford to be vague or equivocal on issues such as children of illegal immigrants, or so-called DACA kids and DREAMers. The city council cannot be vague in how it pushes back against the deterioration of civil rights inflicted by Trump’s Department of Justice. The city council cannot waiver in its support of state rights to control the end of marijuana prohibition and its long-standing support of the rights of homosexuals. These federal and state issues will continue to land squarely in the laps of Aurora council members.

Murillo has been consistent in showing she has the temerity, the experience and the wisdom to be steadfast in her demand that Aurora serve and protect all residents in her ward and the city, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or their documentation. Anything else is dangerous and patently un-American.

Ward II: Nicole Johnston

Here is one of a handful of races where there is only better choices to make over good choices.

Vying for this open seat are Bob Hagedorn, a veteran former state lawmaker, Jeff Wilson, a software engineer, Ruben Medina, a stalwart and talented community activist and former city supervisor, and Robert O’Reily, a former lawman and a solid public servant.

Any of these choices would bring a new fervor for fairness and progress to the city council, but Nicole Johnston brings a determination, savvy and ability to create consensus that sets her above the talented and qualified pack.

Johnston has been a dedicated part of several aspects of the city over the past few years, focusing on the environmental and zoning aspects of oil development in the city. She has proven herself many times to be a fair and insistent agent for change, reason and safety.

Like Murillo, Johnston is clear and firm in her stance on important decisions such as raising revenue for roads, protecting the rights of all Aurora immigrants, and therefore protecting the safety of everyone. She would be adamant about ensuring that controversial police confrontations be reviewed not only by using a transparent and credible process, but she would ensure that such an oversight panel protect police by avoiding the appearance of impropriety. Without independent oversight, police self-review lacks the critical credibility that is now absent.

Johnston does not mince words nor hide behind a cloud of populism. She means what she says, and Aurora is ready and in need of voices like hers.

Ward III: Martha Lugo

Other than Robert Hargrove, who appears on the ballot but has not participated in any noticeable campaign activities, including meeting with the Aurora Sentinel, this race, too, offers all good choices.

But Martha Lugo is the best choice here. Lugo, an experienced and dedicated former Colorado probation officer, brings vast experience, education and real-world savvy to the city council. More than any other candidate, she is a strong voice for the blue-collar and hard-working middle-class residents of her ward. A ward thick with immigrants from across the globe and residents directly affected by growing crises in Washington, Lugo can help the city council navigate what all the residents in the ward are struggling with.

Incumbent Marsha Berzins has worked hard to keep the issue of deteriorating areas of the ward in front of the city council, but there is much more work to be done, and it needs a new and energized force to capitalize on critical work already done by agencies such as On Havana and RTD.

Likewise, former Councilwoman Debi Hunter Holen would vote in ways much more representative of this diverse district, but Lugo brings first-hand experience and unparalleled enthusiasm for change and clarity to the race.

Naquetta Ricks also offers solid community activist credentials. Ricks fell into controversy about her ward residency, but she has appeared to resolve it to the satisfaction of the city clerk’s office and others. She is a smart and focused community activist with her thumb on the pulse of the community. She, too, is a solid choice for city council or a future state legislative seat.

Lugo, however, offers a powerhouse opportunity to get important work done now.

At-Large: Tom Tobiassen and Allison Hope Hiltz

Other than candidate Abel Laeke, who failed to be forthright about his previous problems with mental illness and criminal charges, this is the final city race that offers voters an embarrassment of good choices.

Laeke has offered sound opinions on city issues, but his unwillingness to be frank about his troublesome past, missing an opportunity to show how he has risen above it, disqualifies him.

Community and homeless activist Brian Arnold is a highly experienced and creative dynamo in Aurora. He brings an earnest desire to push the city forward and unparalleled appreciation for the plight of the city’s growing homeless and at-risk community.

Former Aurora police officer Timothy Huffman also brings a lifetime of experience working Aurora streets to the city council. His street smarts and compassion, however, are offset by a weaker understanding of the city’s complex and underfunded system of government.

Russell Wagner also brings a been-there mentality to the council. Having grown up in Aurora as the son of a struggling single mom, he also brings a vast career in the U.S. Navy to the table. He is open and sensitive about the complicated and often contradicting aspects of Aurora and seems ready to offer realistic solutions. His explanation of having oddly shared a clearly racist Facebook meme on his personal Facebook page in 2015 was unsatisfactory. The misstep was a contrast to his past work, comments and campaign answers. But given the gravity of the issue of black deaths at the hands of police and the importance the Aurora City Council will play in that controversy, his response of just wanting to share a curious statistic wasn’t enough. The incident wasn’t damning when weighed against his otherwise impressive campaign demeanor, but there are better choices.

Former Aurora Chamber of Commerce board chairman and Air Force veteran Col. David Gruber brings virtual city manager experience to the council, having been responsible for running large parts of the “city” at Buckley Air Force Base. He gets police, fire and transportation challenges like few other candidates do and would be an affable and motivating addition to the city.

Much in the same way, Aurora pastor Reid Heittich would bring that same real-world sensibility to the city council. Having worked for years on East Colfax with a wide range of communities, he has a sensible and compassionate view of what can help everybody in Aurora improve their lives and community.

But former RTD board chairman Tom Tobiassen was practically born for the job of Aurora city councilman. He has worked hard on virtually every aspect of the city’s challenges. He was instrumental in getting the city’s long-awaited light-rail trains running. He has an unparalleled understanding of the city’s budget and transportation challenges, and he has been a locomotive in working to make bike commuting and recreational riding a rising success story. He strongly believes that all Aurora residents must be fairly and actively represented, and he has a great deal of experience to guide the city through what will and won’t work. His thoughtful and pragmatic approach to serious issues facing the city will serve Aurora voters well.

The same goes for Allison Hope Hiltz. Like Martha Lugo, Hiltz brings an in-your-face insistence that the city and the council work for Aurora residents, and everything it does must reflect that. She brings a serious sense of fairness and pragmatism to the council. Above all, she brings a curiosity and creativity that can help move the city out of a growing list of political quagmires.

Individually, each of these endorsed candidates will motivate and complement the work of the city council. But as a solid block of new ideas and enthusiasm, they offer a great deal of promise in bringing needed change and success to Aurora.

Aurora Public Schools Board: Kyla Armstrong-Romero,  Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin and Marques Ivy

The future for Aurora Public Schools looks brighter than it has in years, primarily because the next APS school board will have new energy, new ideas and without a doubt a strong new direction.

There are nine candidates vying for four seats on the seven-member school board.

Only incumbent school board director Barbara Yamrick is seeking another term.

Other candidates bring a wealth of experience, education and strong opinions on what can help this large and challenged school district off its academic high center. To help APS move past a plethora of difficulties such as a large, poor segment of students, a community that speaks more than 100 different languages as their first language, aging schools, dismal test scores for many segments and more, we advise the following directors:

Kyla Armstrong-Romero will be a much-needed and welcome addition to the APS school board. A long-time resident of the school district and a product of APS schools, she returns with top-notch education and community service credentials. She is a strong voice for common sense and will help the district determine what will work in the real world.

Likewise, community activist Kevin Cox brings an outstanding understanding of what most APS parents and students face as challenges each day, and he brings a down-to-earth understanding of how career eduction will play an integral part in shoring up the future for thousands of APS students.

Veteran teacher, advocate and APS administrator Debbie Gerkin will be an important addition to the APS school board. Having spent decades teaching, coaching and being a principal in some of the most challenged schools in the district, Gerkin brings a vast wealth of real-world experience and a deep understanding of what has held so many APS students back. She promises to be a steady keel on the APS ship.

Finally, Marques Ivy brings APS a strong sense of direction and advocacy. Ivy, a defense attorney for the indigent, promises to be a rallying force for students and families often overlooked by a bureaucracy that’s forced to pay close attention to the district’s neediest students. He’s a compelling community activist with his finger on the pulse of what needs to be done to close the widening achievement gap in the district. Together these four candidates have a better chance than any at making measurable and sustained change to a district starving for it.