IDAHO SPRINGS — Up here the air may be thinner, but the political drama brewing is thicker than the crust of the famously dense pizza sold at Beau Jo’s on Miner Street.
Recall fever, sweeping across the state from the governor’s mansion on down, has come to Idaho Springs, one of Colorado’s most economically stalled mountain communities.
Leaders in this small town nestled along Interstate 70 in Clear Creek County fear it could hamper their big plans for an economic renaissance that includes housing, hotels and the ambitious expansion of outdoor recreation opportunities, potentially putting at risk years of work to find investors willing to help turn things around.
The target? Mayor Michael Hillman, a local restaurateur who has been mayor since 2013 and was reelected in 2017 after running unopposed. The targeters? A group of citizens who think too much change is happening too quickly and without enough citizen input.
“We just need to slow it down and really pay attention to the process,” said Janet Diedrichs, one of the recall organizers. “Do it right. Do it better, not bigger.”
Idaho Springs is just the latest Colorado community to become embroiled in a recall of its small-town officials. Elizabeth, southeast of Denver, is in the midst of an active effort to oust its mayor and entire board of trustees. Estes Park and Brighton are recent veterans of fractious recalls.
And it’s all in the wake of a wave of unsuccessful efforts last summer to remove Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and a handful of Democratic state lawmakers from their posts. Recalls have become so commonplace that a bipartisan coalition is building in the Colorado General Assembly to examine ways to reform the process and potentially make it harder to remove leaders from office.
The fed-up folks in Idaho Springs were paying attention to what was happening across the state, and say they are trying to follow in the footsteps of other communities. In fact, the language on the recall petition against Hillman is almost identical to the one used in the failed attempt to recall Estes Park Mayor Todd Jirsa earlier this year.
“We did look at other models,” Diedrichs said.
The petition says the recall backers want Hillman out because of “significant erosion of confidence in town government during his administration,” “failure to adequately supervise planning staff” and “allowing unresolved conflicts of interest by town board members to occur.”
Specifically, Diedrichs said she’s worried about what all of the development will mean for existing businesses in Idaho Springs and how the city will take care of all the new visitors to town that are expected to accompany the projects. “Keep the community intact,” she said.
Amanda Kowalewski and her husband Michael, two other recall organizers, say people are tired of not being heard.
“We were a sleepy little town and it’s not sleepy anymore,” said Michael Kowalewski, standing outside of city hall on Monday night. “From a resident standpoint, it’s getting hard to live here. Our costs continue to increase … It’s really switching into that destination-type mentality.”
The recall’s organizers on Friday submitted their petitions to the city clerk. To force a special recall election they needed the valid signatures of 77 voters, or 25% of the total number of voters — 306 — to cast ballots in Idaho Springs’ 2017 mayoral election. The city says organizers turned in about 160 signatures.
The clerk has until 6 p.m. on Thursday to review the signatures to determine if they’re sufficient.
Elected and civic leaders say the Idaho Springs recall effort couldn’t come at a worse time. They are trying to reimagine parts of the historic mining town to allow for what they say is badly needed housing with the hope of attracting new residents and businesses to finally cash in on the scores of people who rush past on I-70 to live, work and play elsewhere.
“It’s very gray, very vague,” Hillman said of the reasons for the recall. “… Not to mention my personal side, me as Mike Hillman, the business owner who’s got kids and a wife — what it’s doing to my wife and kids. There are people out there saying nasty things to them already. Like, ‘Ha, your dad’s done. He’s not going to be the mayor anymore!’ My family is actually taking it, too.”
Hillman denies that he’s done anything wrong and said his sole focus has been to move Idaho Springs forward and make sure it’s prepared for the next century. He said some of the naysayers have a not-in-my-backyard mentality.
Colorado is among a handful of states in the U.S. that don’t require a reason for an elected official to be recalled. Others mandate that a person be convicted of a crime, for instance, before citizens can try to remove them from office.
“What our state allows people to recall for is not right,” Hillman said. “There’s no grounds, there’s no basis for it.”
Michael Kowalewski says the basis is the erosion of the community’s trust.
The recall clash heated up at Monday night’s City Council meeting, where an outgoing city councilwoman, Tracy Stokes, excoriated the recall’s backers and accused them of “defaming and maligning the character of this mayor.” Similar to the way recalls have played out in other communities, opponents here argue that those who don’t like where Idaho Springs is headed should wait until the next election to elect different leaders.
“It puts a black mark on the city,” said Mary Jane Loevlie, an Idaho Springs native who is working to build a gondola from the town to a network of city-owned hiking and mountain biking trails above the city’s historic Argo Mill and Tunnel.
The gondola project is one of the plans that’s drawing concerns of the recall’s proponents.
Loevlie, a businesswoman and developer, has gathered an investment team that includes renowned Denver preservationist Dana Crawford to revitalize the Superfund Argo mill site with plans for a commercial village with homes, condos and a hotel along Clear Creek. With first-phase plans including a tourist gondola connecting to a mountaintop plaza in the city’s new 450-acre Virginia Canyon Mountain Park, Loevlie said last month that investors and hoteliers were eyeing her project.
Loevlie said this week that she’s spoken with potential developers who are wary about the political uncertainty that comes with the recall effort. They are backing off for the time being as they wait to see how it all plays out.
“It makes sense to me that you don’t want to invest in an unstable area,” she said. “This is going to create havoc for the next three months.”
Hillman shares those concerns, saying that lending documents specifically ask about whether a town is experiencing any recall efforts.
“I’m worried about the potential for not getting grants or loans needed for things we are trying to get done with the community,” he said. “Developers are getting a little nervous. They don’t know what might happen with this recall.”
The gondola isn’t the only economic development project in town that’s drawing ire and that officials fear might be at risk because of the recall.
Golddigger Stadium, a landmark along I-70 owned by the Clear Creek school district, is up for sale for development, along with a school bus depot. (Opponents of the recall point out that the city didn’t have a say in the decision making for district properties.)
There are also plans to build dozens of apartments in an area on the town’s east end that’s currently occupied by a mobile home park.
Diedrichs says the town can’t wait until the next election cycle to vote in new leaders. “We don’t know what else to do,” she said, adding that she hopes a message is sent that Idaho Springs’ elected leaders need to listen to their community. “If we don’t do this, all this stuff is already in place. If we wait another year or two, we are going to be in a bad place.”
Karla Reeves, who said she’s lived and been a business owner in Idaho Springs for four decades, said she hasn’t made up her mind on how she will vote if there is a recall election — “we’ll see” — but she feels the mayor hasn’t “always acted in our best interests nor listened to his community and their desire to move forward (on) these huge developments”
As for the political atmosphere in town?
“I have never seen it move in this direction,” she said.