AURORA, Colo. — Aurora’s city council is headed for a shakeup. Conservative-leaning candidates who won the majority of the five open seats in Tuesday’s election are promising big changes once they are in office.
Dustin Zvonek, Danielle Jurinsky and Steve Sundberg are all newcomers to the city council. Incumbent Crystal Murillo was able to hold onto her seat in the election.
The results flipped the balance of power on the nonpartisan city council to the conservative-leaning members.
Since June, the city council has been deadlocked in 5-5 ties on major issues after Nicole Johnston resigned from her seat to accept a job offer in El Paso County. The city council couldn’t even come to an agreement on replacing her.
Tuesday’s election will mean an end to that political stalemate and a possible pathway for some of Mayor Mike Coffman’ priorities to be reintroduced, like a camping ban.
“I look forward to seeing the camping ban brought up again. I will support it. I want a viable plan on where our homeless can go,” Jurinsky said. “The plan, whatever we come up with, the homeless will be much safer than they are right now having tents right on the side of major highways.”
Sundberg agrees changes need to be made within city council to deal with Aurora’s homeless population, saying he doesn’t want to see the area become the next Portland or Seattle.
He says the homeless tend to gravitate toward the most permissive policies, and he would support an ordinance to discourage panhandling.
“The complex issue, we’re dealing with human beings and lives. Every situation is different, and in a lot of cases — in a majority them — for dealing with hard-core addictions and substance abuse, and so, in a perfect world, rehabilitation for each individual would be ideal,” Sundberg said.
Current city councilmember Alison Coombs, however, disagrees with a camping ban and says Aurora needs to work to find more balanced solutions, like housing options.
Coombs says the mayor’s most recent proposal doesn’t offer dignified housing and, instead, corrals people experiencing homelessness.
“I’m concerned that folks do not see viable solutions as accepted because they’re so focused on political wins for themselves,” Coombs said. “If this new council comes in and they’re not open to action that’s really going to serve people in a humane manner, then people are going to die.”
Because of city rules, the camping ban will not be able to be reintroduced until February.
Jurinsky and Sundberg are both restaurant owners whose businesses struggled like many others during the pandemic. They say COVID-19 played a big role in convincing them to run for city council.
“Local city government wasn’t much of a help pushing a $20 minimum hour when we were on our knees,” Sundberg said.
He believes that demonstrated a lack of appreciation or understanding for the struggles of small businesses in the community. Sundberg's promising to work with city council to cut regulations and taxes to encourage more businesses to move to the area.
Coombs was one of the councilmembers pushing for an increase to the minimum wage.
She says the current council has been trying to work with the business community through their struggles over the past two years, but she believes raising the minimum wage is important to help low-income families.
Another change in directions with the city council could be over police reforms and the support for law enforcement.
Aurora police have been in the news numerous times in recent months for the death of Elijah McClain, an officer passed out drunk behind the wheel, the detainment of a Black family after a case of mistaken identity and more.
Jurinsky, an air force veteran who served in the Air National Guard, says she supports law enforcement, and she wants to rebuild the police department’s image and reputation.
However, Jurinsky says she knows there are some bad actors and some fixes to be made within the department.
“I back the blue, but there is that 1%, and make no mistake of it: That 1%, I will be their worst nightmare,” she said.
An independent investigation by the Colorado Department of Law also found that the department engaged in a pattern of racially biased policing and excessive force.
The report recommended that the department enter into a consent decree that requires changes in policies and more training.
Chief Vanessa Wilson has implemented numerous reforms, changed policies, disciplined or fired officers and ordered more investigations into allegations of wrongdoing.
“I think she’s got a tough position in a tough role uniquely, so she’s dealing with a lot. I think she’s probably the right person in the interim,” Sundberg said.
However, Aurora’s police union recently overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence against Wilson 442-16. The vote came after Wilson decided to reopen an internal affairs investigation into use of force during the arrest of Preston Nunn III, which had already been reviewed by the Force Review.
Following the no-confidence vote, one of the City of Aurora’s deputy city managers released a statement saying Wilson and Aurora officers have “my full support.”
Jurinsky, however, says while she doesn’t know Wilson personally, she has her doubts.
“The vote of no confidence was pretty overwhelming numbers against her,” she said. “It sends a very clear message that there is a problem with leadership, and so I would say that it’s definitely going to be looked at.”
City council does not directly remove the chief of police because it is not a council-appointed position. That job falls to the city manager. However, Coombs says she has already heard talk of removing the chief.
“I want to be clear that I absolutely do not support that,” Coombs said.
Jurinsky and Sundberg are also disappointed with state reforms to policing with SB-217, saying they believe the new law has discouraged officers from doing their jobs. They blame some of the reforms for Aurora’s crime rate and say they want to explore options on city council to protect officers.
“The state did away with qualified immunity, and one thing that I would like to look at is maybe the city steps in and if there’s a case that someone sues a police officer, instead of suing them civilly, maybe it does come back to the city,” Jurinsky said.
However, she said she would support the change on a case-by-case basis and not as a blanket rule, and it would depend on the city’s budget.
Sundberg, meanwhile, says he supports independent oversight for the police department.
Civility on Aurora’s city council is another topic altogether.
Between the tied votes and vastly differing ideologies, the city council has gotten ugly at times with back and forth bickering and name calling.
In October, councilman Juan Marcano called Republicans a sadistic death cult that is the most dangerous organization that has ever existed during a recorded council meeting.
Jurinsky and Sundberg say they are going to approach their new positions with an open mind and positive attitude.
The change to city council’s makeup could help to restore civility, or it could further drive a wedge in the politics of Aurora.
Coombs says she would like to see the city council collaborate and that could mean sitting down as a body and setting common boundaries for appropriate behavior.
For now, how much change comes in Aurora and how long it sticks around will depend on how well the city council can get along.
“I think this is such a pivotal point for the future of Aurora," Sundberg said. "I think people sense that to which direction can we go? We don’t want to go extremely left or right. Let’s unify, and let’s make some great decisions together.”