A lot of elected officials will tell you they're in it for the policy, not the politics — but Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell says it with an engineer's conviction.
Now in his third and final term as mayor after having served two previous terms on the City Council, Troxell is also a decades-long faculty member and professor of engineering at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. And he approaches policy issues with a techie's wonkcraft rather than politician's bombast.
In this week's Q&A, Troxell talks to us about bringing an engineer's sensibilities to municipal government; he also covers the role that partisan politics plays — or perhaps doesn't play — among voters in electing representatives at City Hall who are officially nonpartisan.
And he talks about his longtime interest in municipal government dating to the first time he served as Fort Collins mayor. No, not the first time he was elected to the post in 2015; the time before that — when he was 14. You read that right; now, read on for the rest of the story.
Colorado Politics: Among the vast majority of Colorado municipalities that employ professional municipal management — i.e., the city-manager form of local government — a couple of larger Colorado cities lately have done an about-face. Voters in Colorado Springs and, most recently, Pueblo, changed their cities’ charters to elect “strong” mayors who serve as the chief exec at city hall, eliminating appointed city managers. Denver, of course, has had a strong mayor all along.
In Fort Collins, you don’t embrace that approach; you believe in an elected council and mayor setting strategic direction and an appointed manager running things day to day. What do you see as the relative strengths of each of those two approaches, and why do you prefer the system you have in Fort Collins?
Wade Troxell: Fort Collins is the fourth-largest city in the state of Colorado with 172,000 citizens. It has always been a plan-and-do city. Some cities plan and don’t do, and others do but don’t plan, and I think this is directly related to the form of government. With a professional manager you get continuity with excellence of city operations between elections. You’re not dependent on the management abilities of a particular mayor to direct the city form one administration to another. It changes the politics — from wearing a political badge to talking about local issues.
Local government can be high-performing, based on data and continuous improvement in terms of services — whether they be recreational or public utilities or economic or environmental. And I think that’s hard to sustain if it all depends on changing political administrations.
- Mayor of Fort Collins, first elected in 2015.
- Served on the Fort Collins City Council 2007-2015.
- Has been on the mechanical engineering faculty at Colorado State University for 35 years; now serves as associate department head.
- Was appointed by U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in 2018 to serve on the FAA Drone Advisory Committee.
- Holds bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. degrees in engineering from CSU.
- Fort Collins was recognized by the U.S. Department of Commerce under Troxell's leadership as a Malcolm Baldrige 2017 recipient for the city's unceasing drive for radical innovation, thoughtful leadership, and administrative improvement.
CP: Municipal elections are officially nonpartisan in Colorado. Of course, party affiliation still plays an influential if off-stage role. How would you characterize the evolving politics of Fort Collins, which has both a liberal college culture and conservative agricultural roots — and how does it manifest itself in local elections?
Troxell: Fort Collins has always been a changing community. In my lifetime, it has grown by more than eight times, from 20,000 people to 170,000 people. I believe Fort Collins has only gotten better over the years. From the very beginning, it has been a university city. That adds to its diversity, and I believe it’s an asset. The electability of anyone on council is based on the strength of a candidate and his or her ability to engage with voters on what’s best for our community — regardless of one’s political party.
CP: How would you describe your own politics, and how did you arrive at your overall political philosophy? What influenced your politics over the course of your life?
Troxell: I believe in the citizen-legislator, and that’s the role I play as mayor. I have my day job as a faculty member at CSU and I also serve as mayor. When I was in junior high school, I used to go to council meetings. The mayor at the time, Karl Carson, even made me mayor for a day when I was 14 years old. The president of the students association at CSU had challenged the mayor to a race called the Walk for Mankind — a 15-mile fundraiser — and I ran in it on behalf of the mayor, fulfilling Mayor Carson’s commitment to the challenge. It’s not about partisanship for me but for service to my hometown.
CP: You testified Aug. 1 in Boulder at a special congressional field hearing of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in regard to Fort Collins’ efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Your city is a participant in Colorado Communities for Climate Action. Tell us about that endeavor and its aims.
Troxell: Fort Collins has always had a commitment to the environmental, economic and social well-being of our community. Our first climate ordinance was enacted 20 years ago, and our current climate action plan was unanimously adopted in March 2015. For me, this means that we are continuously improving as a city committed to future generations.
Our plan involves a transformation of resources from fossil-based to more renewable resources, and better energy efficiency, for our municipally owned public utility as well as for our transportation system. It is based on a climate-economy strategy, which means solutions that benefit Fort Collins can also benefit other communities in Colorado, around the U.S., and around the world.
CP: Your day job is as an academic — a decades-long faculty member at CSU. You hold a Ph.D. in engineering — you’re an internationally recognized expert on robotics — and are associate department head of CSU’s mechanical engineering faculty. Could Colorado politics use more gear heads like you — perhaps bringing more hard numbers and dispassionate analysis to the table in a political culture long driven by lofty wordplay? Do you feel your training and technical background — relatively uncommon in elected office — give you a different perspective?
Troxell: I believe we can all learn from each other. Having the background I have does provide a different approach to thinking about the future and the direction our community takes. One thing I always talk about are systems, and I think in terms of a systems perspective and outcomes for our future. It involves putting forward more integrated solutions to get better outcomes. Many times things are chopped up so much they create bad policy or unintended consequences. With integrated solutions each council member can see positive aspects from their perspective while all working toward a common goal.
CP: What motivated you to fun for the City Council in the first place? It couldn’t have been the pay or the professional esteem!
Troxell: Although I was mayor when I was 14, that wasn’t part of my master plan. Thirteen years ago I was approached by a number of community leaders to consider running for council. I did; I won, and after two terms, I ran for mayor and won in 2015, 2017 and most recently in April 2019, which I was elected to my third and final term. I find it fulfilling to serve my community, in which I’ve been so fortunate to be raised, to go to school, to raise my kids and have my career.
CP: Would you consider running for a higher office?
Troxell: Right now I’m just committed to Fort Collins and fulfilling my final term as mayor. I’m focused on serving my community.