Rebecca Powell, Fort Collins Coloradoan
In the race for mayor of Fort Collins, the subject of listening is intertwined in most of the issues the candidates are talking about.
It’s a value both candidates are heralding in their approaches.
Jeni Arndt, Fort Collins’ current mayor, is running for reelection for a second term. She says being mayor isn’t about promoting her own ideas but listening to the community and reflecting theirs.
Patricia Babbitt, who teaches English as a second language to immigrants, is running against Arndt. She says residents have felt unheard by city leaders and more stakeholders’ voices need to be truly heard.
Babbitt did not file to run as a candidate in time for her name to appear on the ballot. Instead, she is running as a write-in candidate, meaning anyone who wants to cast a vote for her must write her name on the blank line provided on the ballot.
To learn about the candidates, the Coloradoan asked them to respond to a questionnaire answering questions about key issues in Fort Collins. Then each candidate was interviewed.
Read on to learn about their top priorities for their first months of the term, their viewpoints on key issues, what they said about engaging with residents and other issues they identified as important to them and for Fort Collins.
If you want to dig even deeper into Babbitt’s and Arndt’s thoughts on key issues in Fort Collins, including growth, transportation infrastructure, climate goals, inclusion and more, read their full Q&As below:
These are the candidates’ top priorities for the beginning of the term
Her first priority would be to create a cohesive and civil council, saying it would be her job “to inspire them to really focus on their democratic responsibility … not to be swayed by another person on council, or special interest group, but to look back to their district for their vote.”
“When you have a well-functioning council that is rooted very strongly in democratic principles, then you get somewhere,” she said.
This includes leading council as it sets its priorities.
With the City Council election moved to November, now there’s more time for onboarding new members and being more intentional about priorities. Last council term, 33 priorities were identified. Arndt said that’s too many.
Future priority setting needs to consider prior council work, legacy projects and the role of council, which is to form broad policy goals, she said. In this approach, council can decide what it wants to emphasize and staff can come back with ways to achieve the goal: “Because they’re the experts.”
Good governance is another focus for Arndt, starting with modernizing the City Charter to make sure everything is up-to-date, aligned with new court rulings and free of anachronisms. “We found a lot of things just this year that need modernizing, but we find them in a one-off way, like when we have problem. I’d like to be more intentional about that.”
“It’s the unsexy work of governance that’s important to do make sure it runs smoothly in the future,” she said.
Part of her emphasis will be on customer service for residents. She recounted a difficult process a couple was working through for their building project as an example, where they had to go to various departments that didn’t appear to be coordinating with each other.
“If you have a process that doesn’t fundamentally work through the eyes of the resident and works through what’s more convenient or expedient for the department, you’re missing the boat on democracy,” she said.
The city is working on improving its website, she said, but could even consider a centralized line, like a 311 number, that helps people get routed where they need to be.
The land use code revision has been “such a source of contention, and it’s related to everything,” like transportation, housing and zero waste, Babbitt said: “I feel like we need to get some transparency and clarity on what that means and try to get people’s trust again.”
A new council can still modify policies when it’s clear that past decisions were a mistake, she said. “Maybe we need to go back and reconsider.”
“We make amendments to our constitution all the time. Why can’t we make amendments when we realize: Oops, we did not see this coming at that time. Maybe we need to rethink it,” Babbitt said.
What listening to residents looks like for these candidates
When a neighbor came to her upset about the land use code changes, Arndt said their discussion illustrated how the city and the community had been caught in a perfect storm.
City staff felt the land development code process was a continuation of work that had already included years of outreach, and even as the COVID-19 pandemic started, the code was the subject of an extensive work session. But how many people were actually going to tune in to a three-hour meeting on Zoom, Arndt asked.
When she asked her neighbor how he usually got his information about the city, he said it was through activities that he and his wife weren’t doing during the pandemic: like going to coffee hour at church or attending yoga.
“So at the same time the pandemic interrupted the way city did business and the way the community interacted with the city, it was a complete miss. And good people lost normal channels of knowing, and good staff at the city thought they were doing all the same things, but everything had changed.”
The aftermath revealed lessons to be learned, she said.
“I do think going forward, the city will have to reimagine our public engagement because everything’s changed.”
She believes outreach in the spring was improved: “I do think the staff did an amazing job this spring with the walk with the planner. I do think they’ve listened, I think we’ve scaled it back.”
The original land development code was more like a 50-year plan, and now we’re considering a 5-to-10-year plan, Arndt has said. “And that’s fine. The city said slow down.”
City Council needs to do more brainstorming with the community, Babbitt said. Council and staff may already be doing that among themselves, but the general population may not be feeling heard in their brainstorms.
“Implementing the necessary solutions … requires talking to a bigger pool of people and really listening,” she said. Having a little bit more diversity in the leadership who is listening is important because people hear things differently based on their backgrounds.
As a teacher who works with immigrants and refugees who often are not heard in many aspects of their lives, Babbitt said she has experience working with people with different perspectives.
Her students might talk about a problem in class that’s affecting their everyday lives, “and then we brainstorm and figure stuff out.”
Brainstorming has led to ideas like one she has for transit: “I have friends who have driven for Lyft or for Uber. And I keep thinking: What if there were some way that the city could do sort of an Uber-Lyft model so that the income comes back to the city rather than to Uber and Lyft?”
Or similarly, the transit system could be complemented by drivers who, instead of having to be trained to drive buses, can drive vans. So a shuttle system, rather than paying for huge buses many people don’t know how to drive, could possibly help with a driver shortage.
We asked: What is a strength or benefit that you bring that City Council and Fort Collins needs right now?
“It is unique to go from the state to local,” she said, referring to her six years in the Colorado House of Representatives before becoming Fort Collins mayor. “You bring a broader perspective of how the pieces of local and state and federal government fit together.”
“My experience at the state guides me in that humans, including electeds, make mistakes, and if we make mistakes, we can fix it. Government is an iterative process. We create the rules that we live by, so we can recreate them as we need to.
“If that’s not working for the people of Fort Collins, we should change it,” she said.
She said that perspective also gives her steady confidence in government: “When we do it right, we can get it right, and if we get it wrong, we can try again.”
“That’s OK. That’s natural.”
“I do have some different views because I have a very different lifestyle. Ever since a young age, I’ve been worried about environmental negative impacts we’ve been making, and I’ve always thought when I die, I want to know that I did everything possible not to add to those problems.
“I think of the story of Benjamin Button, who started out old and got younger, and I kind of feel like that’s my story. From age 6 … we were dealing with civil rights stuff, were dealing with the Vietnam War. This was all in my mind … because of my parents’ backgrounds. We would talk about this stuff and we’d have these pretty adult discussions when I was 6.
“In some ways that can be useful in seeing things that I feel like other people don’t see.”
As a person who doesn’t drive at all, she thinks that viewpoint is missing from discussions: “I have some different ideas about transit because I actually use the public transit,” she said. “A lot of people using it feel like it’s really geared toward people who already have cars and just use it when they want, but the people who really depend on it can’t.”
What do you do when your personal values are different from what you are hearing from residents?
“Listen harder. Understand where they’re coming from, think about what my bias is and where I could be wrong.”
But her personal preference is irrelevant as mayor, she said: “In relation to U+2, I wouldn’t have any occupancy limits. … Now that is not what the people in Fort Collins are saying. They said they want reasonable occupancy limits.”
So when it comes time to cast a vote on council on an issue that conflicts, “it depends on the issue, but I lead with my values that I’ve been clear about in elections, and then each individual policy point I try to be reflective of the city.”
“I’m going to vote with the whole city in mind. When I go to the ballot, and vote in that way, then it’s Jeni. But when I vote on council, I vote as mayor. I represent the whole city, not just some vocal activist groups.”
Babbitt said she’s made decisions that go against others in her life and had to live alongside them afterward.
And having taught so many people of different backgrounds, even from different countries at war, she’s focused on having peace in the class.
She reflected on one current council member’s approach, saying she doesn’t agree with some decisions City Council member Shirley Peel has made on council but has seen her vote against her personal stance on an issue in order to support what she’s hearing from her constituents.
“I hope I would operate that way” but would also try to help others understand the way she is thinking, she said.
“We’ve got to make this work for everybody.”
Where the candidates stand on U+2 occupancy rules
Arndt said she supports increasing occupancy and thinks an incremental approach would be wise.
“We have an estimated 15,000 empty bedrooms in Fort Collins and many people in the community who need a place to live,” she said. “I am optimistic that we can find a smart solution that is a good fit for Fort Collins, taking into account the very real concern about the quality of life in neighborhoods.”
“I would like to think of a way to increase occupancy with as little disruption as possible,” she said. She’s not sure people truly care about how many people live next door, “but in our city, we don’t want to have unkempt places,” she said.
For that, a new public nuisance ordinance is now in effect, and the city also doesn’t have to move fast on changing occupancy, she said.
Simply allowing four unrelated people to live in a house rather than three “seems so reasonable to me” because it’s simple and avoids problems or complexities with a designation based on a home’s number of bedrooms or square footage.
“I have known many seniors and students who have benefitted from sharing their living spaces. That being said, if we make changes to the U+2 ordinance, we will need to find ways to prevent our Fort Collins rentals from getting into the hands of out-of-state management companies and slumlords,” Babbitt said.
Babbitt recounted her experience as a college student, when she lived in a four-bedroom house owned by a man whose children were grown. He needed a smaller home but needed to generate income. He converted it into apartments and even allowed his tenants to do chores for a break on rent.
“He tried to make it so that the people staying there were also helping keep up the house. I wanted to live in a nice place. He wanted it to be a nice place.”
If the landlords are local and “have some skin in the game as well as the people living there, I think it’s possible” for increased occupancy to work, Babbitt said.
Other ideas she finds intriguing are allowing a probationary period for U+2 or limiting the number of cars allowed to park at a home, rather than limiting the number of people allowed to live there.
“Some have suggested that if we could provide a good rental registration program, we could exempt seniors and some co-op housing from U+2, and allow for more unrelated people to share their living spaces,” she said.
“If we look at it a little differently and approach it a little differently, maybe we can find some ways to actually make it work and help everybody.”
Where the candidates stand on the land use code
“We are in the middle of a housing crisis. The average single-family house price in Fort Collins exceeds half a million dollars. Many hardworking members of our community are unable to live where they work,” Arndt said in her questionnaire response. “The land use code is a tool to increase housing affordability by providing more types of housing and broadening access. The revised code ensures Fort Collins will qualify to apply for affordable housing grants from the state. The appeal process and subsequent revisions, based on extensive community input, resulted in a more balanced approach to housing supply and density, reflecting resident concerns.”
“I do think we’ve listened, I do think we’ve made changes, and I do think the city’s been very responsive. And I do think we need to move into the future for what’s right in our future,” Arndt said. “And I do think it’s the best for the environment.”
“I think it strikes a balance because change doesn’t happen overnight, ” she said. “ADUs (accessory dwelling units) are really expensive to build. Just because you can doesn’t mean everybody will, for one.
“I do think it’s well intended, but I do have questions” about how similar policies are working out in other communities, she said. She’s not sure it will address affordable housing concerns the ways some people think it will.
Many use the supply and demand arguments, she said, saying that if we increase the number of housing units, we’ll decrease the costs of these units. “Unfortunately, several of the housing plans that have been proposed seem devoid of affordable, or even attainable housing for many residents in our city.
“Too many of the plans focus on homes for sale that are at or above $450,000 and apartments that cost about $1,900-plus for one-bedroom units and much more for anything larger.”
She indicated some things in the code are promising: “I’m certain that others would happily share a larger home that has been converted into a few apartments — especially one with a yard that could be used to grow food and allow for fun with friends and family, including pets, which are so important to many in our community. These options seem much more doable and less invasive than some of the other options emphasized in recent iterations of the land use code. But again, we need to be careful with any changes we make in order to avoid new problems that may come with the changes.”
Still, the overall process has created a trust problem, she said, and it feels like things could be snuck in there because of its complexity: “It’s not easy to find it, it’s not easy to read it. Why is it so cumbersome and difficult for regular people to try to understand?”
Hughes open space ‘was the last straw’ for Babbitt
She’s concerned about what the city is considering doing with the former Hughes Stadium land.
Babbitt helped petition to get a measure on the ballot in 2021 asking voters whether the land should remain as “open space.” She feels the intent of voters — almost 70% approved the initiative — was not for something like a mountain biking park, one idea that has come up for consideration.
“That brought on distrust, for sure,” Babbitt said.
Turning 80 acres of the 164 acres into a mountain biking park has nothing to do with “what I was telling people it would be if we kept it as an open space,” she said. “I’m a biker, I’m friends with a lot of mountain bikers, but I just feel like the city seems to be courting these ideas for what is really a very small minority” of the many people who voted for it.
“And this is why I feel like they’re courting developers, they’re courting special interest groups,” she said. “That was kind of like the last straw that made me feel like I’ve got to jump in and do something.”
Public outreach for a decision on what to do with the land will happen in 2024.
Babbitt said the outreach so far has been in the form of a survey, and she’s worried it includes the views of people who don’t live in Fort Collins, when the ballot issue reflects the will of Fort Collins residents.
She said even if the land were divided into all the uses identified in the ballot language — parks, recreation, open lands, natural areas, and wildlife rescue and restoration — only 20% should be recreation.
“There’s no way in a democracy any person has the right to read an intention into somebody else’s vote,” she said. Residents were voting on the language before them, which included a list of things, she said, and they could have picked any one of them, including the one that “recreation.”
Second, she said, nobody has decided what to do with the land: While a bike park is in the city’s master plan, that doesn’t mean it will be placed on the former Hughes land. She said it might be better in a different location to be regionally accessibility, for example.
She hopes the public process in 2024 goes forward with “open minds and hearts.”
Where the candidates stand on the two city tax proposals
Arndt voted on council to refer both items to the ballot.
“Once it’s before the people, I’m just another voter. I feel like I have a duty to explain ballot initiatives, very fairly, pro and con, and then I always say: Your turn to vote.”
“I really trust people.”
She indicated she didn’t have strong opinions on them, but offered the following comments:
2A, the sales tax to fund parks and recreation, transit and pollution reduction: “They are all things that do need to be addressed, and it makes sense for sales tax to go for that,” Babbitt said.
2B, the property tax to fund affordable housing: “I do feel a little difficulty, it feels a little bit contradictory,” she said, and a lot of people who own houses are having a hard time paying higher taxes.
Arndt ‘affiliates’ with the Forward Party
City Council elections are nonpartisan, but Arndt has been a lifelong Democrat.
Earlier this summer, the Forward Party announced Arndt was the first sitting mayor to affiliate with it, alongside other “Forward Democrats and Republicans.”
The Forward Party aims to bring together Democrats, Republicans and independents to find shared ground and move “forward,” not left or right.
Arndt said she’s been a registered Democrat since she was 18, and the affiliation doesn’t mean she unregistered with the party.
“It’s an outward recognition that most people are voting with their registration feet to say, ‘We really want you to be about the people and not the party.’ … My district is more than 50% independent.”
“To affiliate with the Forward Party is to say, ‘I’m very much open to democracy and listening to what people are saying.’ I’m a nonpartisan mayor. … People are tired of tribal warfare or kneejerk division.”
YIMBY Fort Collins, Colorado 53rd District Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, Colorado 52nd District Rep. Cathy Kipp, Poudre Education Association, 2nd Congressional District U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, former 4th Congressional District U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey.
Campaign finance reports
Individuals, groups, entities and organizations may contribute up to $100 to a candidate committee each election cycle. Donations from political parties are not allowed.
This is information is for the first reporting period, which ended Oct. 1.
Arndt has received $18,610 from more than 200 donors so far and spent $11,395, ending the period with $10,191. She started the period with more than $2,900 funds on hand already.
Babbitt has received $757 in contributions from 11 donors, including herself, and spent $73 for a remaining balance of $684.
The city also requires the reporting of any independent expenditures on behalf of a candidate, separate from the candidate committee, if they exceed $250. There were no independent expenditures reported by the city clerk’s office as of Oct. 10.
Instructions for voting for a write-in candidate
A word about how to vote for a write-in candidate on the ballot:
Fill in the bubble next to the blank and write the qualified candidate’s name on the line.
If the bubble next to the write-in blank has been filled in but no name has been written on the line, the vote won’t be counted, according to Larimer County Clerk Tina Harris.
However, if the bubble is not filled in but the name of the write-in candidate is written on the line, the vote will be counted, Harris said.
As long as the voter has provided a reasonable spelling of the qualified candidate’s last name, the vote will be counted.