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Denver City Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman, left, lost her bid for re-election to  challenger Amanda Sawyer in the District 5 race.

Newcomer Amanda Sawyer is eyeing an upset in the contest for Denver City Council’s District 5 seat over incumbent Mary Beth Susman.

Sawyer already pulled an upset of sorts when she bested Susman in voting percent during the May 7 Denver municipal election, garnering 40.7% of the vote to Susman’s 36%. The two emerged from a field of four candidates.

Since none of the District 5 candidates earned a clear majority — at least 50% of the vote — a runoff is required, against the top two vote-getters.

Eight of the 13 Denver City Council seats were filled election night, but five remained undetermined, kicking off the runoffs.

Denver City Council members earn annual salaries of $91,915 and the body president makes $102,928. Council terms run four years; members can serve up to three terms.

The race for District 5 —  which includes East Central Denver’s Hale, Montclair, East, Hilltop, Lowry Field, Washington Virginia Vale and Windsor neighborhoods —  will be held June 4.

Sawyer and Susman faced off in a runoff debate May 21 produced by Denver 8 TV. It provided a portrait of the candidates and how they stand on some district issues.

As a City Council member, Sawyer, a licensed lawyer who doesn’t currently practice, wants to rein in luxury developments that don’t serve middle-income residents, according to her campaign website. 

As a District 5 neighbor, she said she has been vocal at City Council meetings about development and has sought out meetings with developers to ask how many mid-priced units they will include in their new structures. She’s also helped crack down on illegal short-term rentals in her area. 

She would also work to find dedicated funding for transportation and mobility infrastructure to provide better transit options and create more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly thoroughfares, she said. 

“Development is going to continue, but we have to be thoughtful about it,” she said on her website. “We must protect the character of our neighborhoods and make sure development fits the needs of the people who live here.”

Susman has served two terms, or eight years, on City Council, and is vying for another term. She dotes on directing the city’s recreational marijuana legislation and taxation as council president from 2012 to 2014 and her work on the general obligation (GO) bonds approved by voters in 2017, according to her campaign website.  

“Our marijuana policies have become national models and continue to bring about $25 million/year in revenues to Denver,” Susman’s website states. 

She notes the GO Bonds have paved the way for an expansion of Schlessman Library in District 5, a revitalization of east Colfax, and transportation-, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly improvements.

Susman has been a advocate for transportation improvements during her council tenure and points to her help in creating the city’s new Mobility Department to focus on sustainable transportation in the city.

The city’s newly approved Denveright plan, the council’s new rules for short-term rentals and Denver’s Green Roof Ordinance are also on the list of council projects Susman had a hand in.

Prior to joining the council, Susman worked in higher education, retiring as vice president of the Colorado Community College system. She also helped start online colleges in Colorado, Louisiana and Kentucky and is a Smithsonian laureate for her work in online learning.

     

Rezoning in Denver: Rigorous or a rubber stamp?

The candidates were asked to respond to the statement that the city’s property rezoning process is nothing more than a way to circumvent the city’s zoning code. 

Sawyer said she’d agree with the sentiment, arguing that the rezoning process is just a rubber stamp — that proposals are automatically approved without a thorough vetting process. 

“That’s a problem that needs to change,” she said. 

Responding first to a statement from Sawyer that the city’s planning board doesn’t take into account the neighborhood surroundings or character when considering rezoning proposals, Susman said a area’s character is one of the top priorities in re-zoning consideration.

Susman defended the rezoning process, arguing it's rather rigorous.

“The rezoning process is very complex, it starts with developers even coming to the council person with, ‘Would you be interested in this?’” Susman said. “I have turned down more developer interests than I can count on two, three, four, five, six hands.”

     

Neglected voices during Denveright process

In the wake of approval of the city’s Denveright plan — a comprehensive roadmap for city growth and development over the next 20 years — many residents have complained they weren’t heard or that their comments fell on deaf ears during the drafting process. 

During the debate, Susman defended the process. She said the city made some 25,000 contacts with residents during the process of drafting Denveright. 

“Two and a half years, I can’t tell you how many meetings they had to work on the Denveright plan,” she said. “It was a plan that was made by the community.” 

Sawyer said the feeling that residents’ voices aren’t heard stems from the city’s poor job of community outreach. People are busy, and the city needs to make resident engagement simple for Denverites. 

“We’ve got to go to where the people are, and that means we need to potentially provide babysitting services for meetings, food, translation services,” she said. “We’ve got to go out and knock doors if that is what’s it going to take to get people in the community involved.”

       

Sustaining Denver’s water supply

Considering the city and state’s massive population growth and the unpredictability of winter storms, how does the state and city guarantee current and future residents have access to water?

When asked that question, Sawyer said a key solution includes being smart about designs when it comes to infrastructure or restrictions to ensure city planning is thoughtful as it relates to water.  

“We are going to have a major problem with water, especially if, as estimated, 200,000 more people are going to come here in the next 10 years,” Sawyer said. 

Susman said water isn’t necessarily a City Council issue, but is managed by Denver Water. She said that Denver Water was so smart about water management when it was created that the city is in “great shape” for its water.

“I’m very confident about what Denver Water has been able to do to preserve our water supply,” Susman said. 

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