Editor's note: This is the fifth installment of a six-part series on Colorado Springs City Council races, on the ballot for the April 6 election.
In the most crowded race of the Colorado Springs City Council election, five political newcomers are vying to represent District 5, central Colorado Springs, a seat held by term-limited Councilwoman Jill Gaebler.
Justin Hermes, a realtor with Re/Max; Matt Zelenok, owner of Springs Preferred Realty; Nancy Henjum, an executive coach and leadership assistant; Karlie Van Arnam, general manager of Pure Medical, a medical marijuana company; and Mary Elizabeth Fabian, a small-business consultant and photographer, are competing for the seat. All of the candidates except Henjum are under 40.
The candidate elected will join a nine-member board facing tough issues such as parks funding, city growth, an ongoing push to legalize recreational marijuana sales, and police reform among other priorities.
The race is one of six on the April 6 ballot, and one of two seats that does not have an incumbent. The three at-large members — Wayne Williams, Bill Murray and Tom Strand — are not facing reelection this year.
New technology could be a major benefit for the city's street system, allowing the city to better coordinate traffic lights and reduce emissions from vehicles, Zelenok said. Improvements to managing traffic flow could prevent the need for widening roads and other expensive construction projects, he added.
He would also like to foster a culture shift around growth so that it benefits citizens, not just developers, he said. For example, large houses on big lots might not be the most beneficial infill in the city, he said.
"I think we need to be more thoughtful about the development that we’re doing," he said.
Infill projects should also take into account concerns from neighbors, he said.
Building economic diversity should also be a focus for the city and a widespread high-speed fiber optic network could help encourage that, he said.
To help with pandemic recovery, Zelenok would like to see the city promote assistance and loans that are available, a continuation of the sales tax rebate for bars and restaurants and easing of rules around signs and outdoor seating.
Zelenok supports the new police commission and would like to see more officers added to the force, particularly around crisis response. Those teams could include social workers to help people in crisis, he said in a forum hosted by Fox21.
On recreational marijuana sales, Zelenok said he would prefer residents petition to put a question on the ballot.
To help fund parks, the candidate said he would like to see the trails, open space and parks tax adjusted to allow more flexibility in spending. Right now, 60% of the tax is designated for acquisition and stewardship of new open spaces.
Zelenok's education as a biochemistry major and former engineer involved with making vaccines sets him apart as a candidate. His scientific background would be particularly useful managing utilities, he said.
Henjum wants to include all neighborhoods in planning city growth and transportation, she said.
"If we aren’t having everyone doing the planning, then we aren’t planning for everyone," she said.
She views transportation spending as an investment in the economy and a top issue, she said.
To help support pandemic recovery, she would like to see more programs like Survive and Thrive offered through Exponential Impact, a business incubator and accelerator. Initially, the group offered three-year low interest loans. The second iteration of Survive and Thrive is a partnership with the city to offer grant, mentorship and virtual programming.
On parks funding, an increase to the trails, open space and parks dedicated sales tax or an increase to the lodgers and auto rental tax, largely paid by tourists, could offer options for funding parks, she said.
When it comes to recreational marijuana sales in the city, she would be open to asking voters to decide if they should be legalized.
She supports the work of the newly formed Law Enforcement Transparency and Accountability Commission, formed to advise the City Council on policy changes. She would also like to see the department improve its crisis response, she said, in a forum hosted by Fox21.
Henjum would bring experience to the board as a former social worker and board president for Court-Appointed Special Advocates, a group that works with abused and neglected children in the justice system, she said. She also worked as a facilitator for the Illumination Project that helps police and citizens build relationships.
Underused commercial spaces, such as the Citadel Mall, could offer a creative solution to the city's affordable housing problem, Hermes said. If those spaces are converted or partially converted in the case of the mall, it could help keep overall building costs down and in turn help keep rents low for tenants, he said.
While the city shouldn't be directly involved in such conversion, it could encourage the projects through new zoning regulations, he said.
"I think that the biggest pressing issue for our city is affordable housing," he said.
When it comes to overall growth, the city should be planning much farther ahead particularly when it comes to road infrastructure, he said. He is, in general, against converting space on roads for bike lanes, in part, because the new bike lanes downtown haven't drawn many users, he said.
To encourage recovery from the pandemic, businesses should be allowed to open up to 100% occupancy and soon as possible, and Hermes would like to see city officials advocating for that on the state level, he said.
On parks funding, he is against any new taxes, he said. But he would be open to addressing parks needs in the future.
Hermes said he is against legalizing recreational marijuana sales, but he would send a question about it to the voters.
When it comes to police reform, Hermes said he supports the new advisory committee, but he applauds the work of local law enforcement.
"They are doing the best job they possibly can," he said.
Hermes is not accepting campaign donations and instead asking those who want to support him to give to charity and spend money at local bars and restaurants.
Karlie Van Arnam
As the city reworks its zoning codes, Van Arnam said she would like to see a comprehensive strategy that would encourage efficient use of underused commercial areas. She sees potential for former shopping centers to be turned into affordable, multifamily housing, she said.
She would like to see more efficient and transparent use of taxpayer dollars and pointed to the use of 2C funds to cover the cost of sidewalk ramps required by a lawsuit against the city as an example of the need for better planning.
If the city knew it needed to build more ramps for accessibility, a budget and a plan should have been put in place for that, she said. The city spends about $7 million per year or about 13% of 2C funds on ramps as required to meet federal requirements, said Travis Easton, public works director. The plans for 2C were not changed as a result of the lawsuit, he said.
The city's public transportation also needs to be improved and Van Arnam would like to see smaller buses serving more direct routes, she said.
She supports the new police advisory commission and potentially expanding its role to ensure transparency, she said. She would also like to see health care professionals assist police in managing residents in crisis, she said.
Van Arnam would support legalizing recreational marijuana sales in town, but it would not be a leading priority for her, she said.
On parks funding, she would support increasing volunteer initiatives to care for open spaces and asking voters for permission to use funds collected beyond the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights limit for parks, she said.
To help pandemic recovery, she would like to see government applications for relief streamlined as much as possible, she said.
As a member of the highly regulated marijuana industry, Van Arnam said she would bring insight into how government rules impact the lives of citizens and could apply that experience to the city council.
Mary Elizabeth Fabian
Plans for growth in the city should ensure that grocery stores, parks and other everyday needs are convenient for residents and that road layouts that decrease or manage congestion, she said.
Pandemic recovery dollars in the city should also be spread among a broader range of businesses, she said. She noted that some relief programs have left businesses like her photography and small business consulting operation out.
"I understand the COVID challenges," she said.
Fabian said she would like to see greater fundraising for parks and more involvement from the community to care for them rather than asking for a tax increase.
She supports the new police advisory commission, but she would not like to see its role expanded. She would also like to increase police staff and ensure that officers trained locally are retained.
The candidate is not in favor of referring a measure to the voters to legalize recreational marijuana sales.
Fabian said she would bring a background in finance and bookkeeping and a love for diving into the details of budgets to the job.