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The Woodland Park city council narrowly appointed Mayor Pro Tem Hilary LaBarre as the city's mayor on Thursday night, Jan. 21, 2022, nearly a year after the seat was left vacant following the death of former Mayor Val Carr in February 2021.

Woodland Park Mayor Pro Tem Hilary LaBarre was narrowly appointed as the city’s mayor Thursday night, filling a vacancy left open for nearly a year after former Mayor Val Carr died last February following a two-month battle with COVID-19.

LaBarre was appointed by a 3-2 vote. Councilmembers Rusty Neal, Kellie Case and Catherine Nakai voted in favor of the appointment and Councilmembers Robert Zuluaga and Stephanie Alfieri cast the two no votes. LaBarre abstained.

Neal, who made the motion to appoint LaBarre, said he did so because LaBarre had served as acting mayor since Carr’s death and the council could now formally appoint her to the position with no risk of triggering a special election, which could have cost the city as much as $20,000.

LaBarre’s appointment “doesn’t change anything she has been doing or will continue to do,” Neal said. “It’s more ceremonial.”

Zuluaga and Alfieri criticized the motion, arguing it was an “inappropriate” move that circumvented voters’ right to elect a person to the seat.

“Is it the function of elected officials of (the) council to make feels-good votes on behalf of the citizens?” Zuluaga asked, criticizing LaBarre's, Case's and Neal’s decisions not to vote to appoint any of the five mayoral applicants who interviewed with the council during a public meeting last spring.

Alfieri said appointing LaBarre mayor while LaBarre actively campaigns for the seat in the city’s upcoming April 5 election was “verging on misconduct.”

Before moving for the matter to be tabled, Zuluaga added, “If the good citizens of our community choose to elect her lawfully as one of the preferred candidates in April, that will be soon enough.”

Neal and Nakai argued LaBarre’s appointment was acceptable because the city charter allows the council, among other options, to appoint a mayor by a majority vote. Appointing LaBarre to the position fewer than 90 days before the city’s next election ensures if there is, for whatever reason, another vacancy on the dais, the city is not required to hold a special election to fill it, said City Clerk Suzanne Leclercq.

The City Council has weathered several vacancies in the last year following Carr’s death in February and the resignation of former Councilmember Jim Pfaff last spring. Nakai was narrowly appointed by the council to fill Pfaff’s seat in July.

At the time, city officials said appointing Nakai could help them avoid calling a special election if there were too many vacancies on the dais. Previously, the council decided not to fill Pfaff’s open seat, reasoning that an even number of members could result in too many tie votes on a council that has struggled to agree on various issues. In July, LaBarre said the council ultimately appointed Nakai to fill the vacancy because another sitting member, whom she did not name, was facing health issues and could potentially resign.

The city’s charter calls for a special election if three or more vacancies occur between the city’s regular municipal elections.

Had the council also appointed LaBarre to the position of mayor around that same time, Neal and Nakai argued, and had another councilmember resigned after Nakai’s appointment, the city would have had to hold a special election to fill the vacant council seat, a cost taxpayers would have had to bear.

“When we suggested (Labarre’s appointment as mayor), she hadn’t pulled a petition and she hadn’t decided to run (for mayor) yet,” Nakai said.

“Intentions aside … she is now an active candidate for the position you are asking to put her in,” Alfieri responded. “That is, in my mind, a clear conflict of interest …”

LaBarre, who remained silent during discussion, offered only a few remarks of thanks following the vote.

“Thank you, council, for your recognition, and thank you for all your professionalism with the topic. I appreciate it,” she said.

LaBarre will serve as Woodland Park’s mayor until the city’s next regular election on April 5.

Contact the writer: breeanna.jent@gazette.com

Reporter

Breeanna Jent covers El Paso County government. She previously worked as the editorial assistant for the Pikes Peak Newspapers and joined their sister paper, The Gazette, in 2020.

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