Fort Collins City Council election: Historic District 4 race includes 5 female candidates

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City Council District 4 seat candidates Jessica Dyrdahl (top left), Erin Hottenstein (top right), Shirley Peel (bottom left), Melanie Potyondy (middle) and Sidna Rachid (bottom right).

In a Fort Collins election with many intriguing races, the competition for City Council’s District 4 seat stands out.

No race for any council seat has had this many candidates since the 1999 mayoral race, which had six candidates. Five women are vying for the District 4 seat, possibly the most for a race in city history and certainly the most in at least 23 years. 

And four of the candidates — Sidna Rachid, Melanie Potyondy, Erin Hottenstein and Jessica Dyrdahl — are left-leaning or progressive. The fifth candidate, Shirley Peel, describes herself as a moderate conservative.

Fort Collins election 2021:Get to know the candidates and the issues

All five candidates applied to fill the vacant District 4 seat, which represents southwest Fort Collins, when former mayor pro-tem Kristin Stephens moved to the Larimer County Board of Commissioners in January. Council voted to appoint Potyondy to the District 4 seat on a short-term basis. Two of the three others who applied to fill the vacancy had announced intent to run for the seat but later left the race.

The winner of this race will be elected to a two-year term. The seat will be on the ballot again in 2023.

Potyondy has Stephens’ endorsement and has raised the most money, with about $15,900 as of the March 16 campaign finance reports. Hottenstein has raised $10,820, Dyrdahl has raised $10,360, Peel has raised $7,550 and Rachid has raised $600.

Let’s meet the candidates for District 4.

Jess Dyrdahl

Jessica Dyrdahl: ‘I want to make sure to bring all the people to the table’

Some of Jessica Dyrdahl’s friends joke that they need at least three cups of coffee before meeting with her. Otherwise, it can be hard to keep up.

Dyrdahl’s passion for the community, and tendency to think of strangers as friends she hasn’t met yet, shines through easily in conversation. She’s long been interested in applying that passion to working in government — she had one of those “future president” T-shirts when she was a kid, got her bachelor’s degree in political science and Spanish at Colorado State University and, since she returned to Fort Collins in 2016, has taken to watching City Council meetings when she’s free on Tuesdays.

She’s now assistant director of CSU’s student government program and advises student leaders on how to make headway with their priorities, whether that means expanding composting in the Lory Student Center or working with council to propose changes to the city’s “U+2” residential occupancy restrictions. (Editor’s note: Dyrdahl’s campaign reached  to clarify that her platform is separate from the student-led issues on which she’s advised CSU’s student government.)

When the deadline was approaching for small business COVID-19 relief grants, she called small businesses in District 4 to make sure they knew how to apply, putting that double major to use and conversing with some business owners in Spanish.

That’s the same energy and attitude she said she’ll apply to council if she’s elected. Included on her lengthy list of ideas for innovative council outreach: Host a listening session at a brewery, or at night, to better reach younger people. Put on a “concert and conversation” event where people can listen to a local artist and talk about community issues. Invite new groups to speak at virtual council meetings.

“I want to make sure to bring all the people to the table,” she said. “I’m not only going to reach out to my friends. This is what I tell my students all the time — we can get into our own little tunnels or silos, and (you have to be sure to ask), what does the greater population think?”

Dyrdahl said a few of her top priorities on council would be COVID-19 relief, with a focus on ensuring people’s basic needs are met; implementing the city’s Housing Strategic Plan; and working toward equity and access for everyone. She’s also devoted to strengthening the city’s climate goals and increasing involvement of Indigenous people in climate planning efforts, working with the District Attorney’s Office on criminal justice reform, and providing more resources for survivors of sexual assault and interpersonal violence.

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Equity is a key focus of her campaign and an integral part of her vision for Fort Collins.

“It really comes down to … how are we perpetuating these systems of oppression and the cycle of poverty, and what can we do to connect people with resources to get them out of those cycles?” she said.

She said two main traits set her apart from the field of District 4 candidates: Her diversity of experience, which includes working at Horse and Dragon Brewery, volunteering with female inmates at the Larimer County Jail, serving on the steering committee of Leadership Fort Collins and working with the refugee population in North Dakota; and her position at CSU, which offers her a direct connection with student leaders and staff. (For those curious about how that would affect her vote on anything related to Hughes Stadium, she said she supports expansion of open space but would recuse herself from voting on that topic.)

“I think CSU definitely helps me stand out,” she said, adding that she would seek ways to “strengthen the ties for the town-gown relationship. Being an employee, I could help represent CSU employees (on council), and I think that is a really big positive for the district.”

To learn more about Dyrdahl, see her website: jess4foco.com.

View her answers to the Coloradoan’s candidate questionnaire here.

Endorsements

Among Dyrdahl’s endorsements are District 4 residents Hellen Castro, Pamela Norris and Thea Rounsaville, and community members Alisha Zellner and Everton Brossus

Erin Hottenstein

Erin Hottenstein: ‘What I bring is that oversight mentality’

As a former journalist, Erin Hottenstein has a good sense of when government is working and when it isn’t.

“What I bring is that oversight mentality, where you ask hard questions and you dig for answers, and you don’t just accept what people are saying unless they can really back it up by answering your questions,” said Hottenstein, who worked as a reporter in print, TV and radio before starting a business that coaches people on public speaking and communication.

A resident of Fort Collins for 21 years who founded women’s leadership organization Colorado 50-50 and served as board president of her church, Hottenstein said she loves to get people together to solve problems. When the District 4 seat opened up late last year, several people reached out to her and said she’d be a good fit for City Council.

Hottenstein said some of her top priorities if elected will be boosting the city’s engagement with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, increasing the city’s affordable and attainable housing stock, achieving the city’s climate action goals and enhancing equity in the community. Another priority of hers is increasing voter access and raising participation in local elections.

On the vaccine rollout, she said it’s been distressing to see how much trouble older residents have had scheduling appointments and suggested the city devote more resources to coordination and logistics, perhaps creating a local hotline.

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For affordable housing, she said she’s particularly interested in the city adding more land to the land bank, a tool the city uses to sell land at a discounted price to affordable housing developers. To create a more equitable community, she thinks the city should take a more concentrated look at equity of impacts related to new and existing policy. The city’s Equity Indicators Project may provide a useful roadmap for that work, she said.

She said she’ll be a strong advocate for achieving the goals laid out in the city’s climate plan if she’s elected. Some of her strategies would include pushing for 100% renewable electricity, making neighborhoods more walkable and improving infrastructure for biking and public transit.

“You just have to keep raising the question,” she said. “You can’t make a plan and then let it sit on the shelf for too long — you’ve got to revisit it. You have to dig in and ask, ‘OK, well, why didn’t that work out? And what else can we do? And how much would that cost?’ ”

She highlighted her experience as a board president, small business owner and graduate of CSU’s Water Literate Leaders program, an extensive course that teaches people about the complex world of Colorado water law and provides a foundation for deliberation of water issues. As a board president, she ran meetings with hundreds of people, oversaw a significant budget using a designated system of governance and had to “set the tone” when conflicts broke out.

“I have a lot of experience with all that kind of work that the council does, just in a different setting,” she said.

Her vision for Fort Collins is a community that can accommodate population growth while also preserving “the things that are uniquely Fort Collins — these great neighborhoods, the parks and the trails that we all love and the amenities that we like to use.”

“I used to live in Wyoming, and there are some towns that you drive into and they look the same as they looked 25 years ago — you just don’t get the sense that they’re thriving,” she said. “That’s the balance you’ve got to strike: Keeping the feeling while allowing us to accommodate the growth.”

To learn more about Hottenstein, see her website: erinhottenstein.com.

View her answers to the Coloradoan’s candidate questionnaire here.

Endorsements

Among Hottenstein’s endorsements are former state Sen. Peggy Reeves, former state House Majority Leader Alice Madden, former City Council members Marty Tharp and Ben Manvel and former Greeley City Council member Stacy Suniga.

Shirley Peel

Shirley Peel: ‘I could be that balance’

Shirley Peel’s campaign message was inspired by the months she spent watching the struggles of her business-owner friends navigating a pandemic that turned the local economy upside down.

“I just watched them work themselves to death to keep their businesses open, because they were worried about what was going to happen to their employees,” Peel said. “Just watching that was really eye-opening. … I get that we had to take care of our vulnerable populations and we had to make sure that our hospitals weren’t overrun. I just felt like somewhere along the way, the focus on helping people keep their businesses alive was lost a little bit.”

Local business recovery is the defining priority of Peel’s council run, though not her only priority. She’d like to see the city explore additional creative ways to help business owners set up payment plans for taxes and fees, negotiate rent with their landlords, or otherwise reduce costs that make it harder to break even.

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Peel’s other top priority is creating a “smart growth” strategy for Fort Collins to accommodate population growth that she considers inevitable. That will necessitate a less prescriptive, more collaborative approach to working with developers, as well as a relaxed land use and zoning code in some instances, she said.

“Instead of the city just saying, ‘We’re gonna do it like this,’ I think it’s critical that (the city) is going to have to listen and come to some kind of agreement with everybody to figure out how to put these people somewhere but keep our Fort Collins feel,” Peel said.

The West Texas native and mother of four has lived in Fort Collins for about 20 years, and she founded Christian Core Academy. She said she’d be considered a moderate where she’s from, but she knows many voters will probably label her as a conservative — and that’s the main thing that sets her apart from the rest of the District 4 candidates.

“I’m not against new ideas and innovation, but I am more cautious,” she said. “I guess that’s the conservative part — I try to look at all sides and look at the unintended consequences of ideas.”

She said she also adopts a more measured approach toward social services.

“My heart absolutely is to help people,” she said. “But I always want to make sure that personal responsibility is in there as well. Sometimes, people who are more progressive just want to say, ‘Let’s just throw money at it,’ and my approach is more like, let’s help them help themselves.”

Peel said council has seemed “imbalanced” at times since the last election led to a more progressive direction, leading to some high profile 5-2 votes.

“I could be that balance,” she said.

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Her experience founding and leading Christian Core Academy also prepared her for council, she said. She grew the Christian private school from 18 kids to about 75, demonstrating an ability to “design a plan, implement it and evaluate it to make sure it’s working,” she said.

She decided to run for the District 4 seat after completing the Colson Fellows program, which encourages participants to look for ways they can be useful in their community. She’d always wanted to get involved with local government, and with her kids grown, she decided to include a council run in her three-year plan.

“What I would want people to know about me is that even though I’m not a native Coloradan, I love this community,” she said. “It has been such a blessing to my family, and I know that sounds corny, but I really mean it. I just want to give back to this community and help figure out how to keep it as good as it is, or make it better.”

To learn more about Peel, see her website: voteshirleypeel.com.

View her answers to the Coloradoan’s candidate questionnaire here.

Endorsements

Among Peel’s endorsements are former council member Gino Campana, developer Steve Schroyer and Bask Salon owner Kelly Schroyer, state Sen. Rob Woodward, and former District 4 council member Kurt Kastein.

Melanie Potyondy

Melanie Potyondy: ‘We’re ripe for change’

Melanie Potyondy thinks a lot about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when she’s deliberating city issues.

“If folks’ basic needs aren’t met, and they’re not psychologically healthy because of factors in our community, then they’re not able to fully realize their potential as residents of Fort Collins,” said the Rocky Mountain High School psychologist and District 4 appointee. “I think a big goal is for us to be very vigilant in connecting people to the right services, the right funding sources to just keep them afloat.”

She said she’s been applying that lens to her work on council for the last two months, always coming back to the question of “what needs aren’t being met?”

In her time on council so far, she’s voted in favor of putting a proposed plastic bag ban on the ballot, voted against appealing judicial decisions related to enforcement of the city’s camping ban and the wording of the Hughes Stadium ballot measure and expressed support for a proposed immigration legal defense fund. She said her guiding principles in those actions and others have been equity, access and environmental stewardship.

Potyondy said she’s been gearing up for a local leadership position for a few years by getting involved with the Poudre Education Association, becoming a member of the Colorado Education Association’s Mental Health Advisory Committee, serving on the city’s Women’s Commission and working with her elected representatives.

Her two young sons and the high schoolers she works with are a big part of why she decided to run for council.

“I’ve noticed so many of their struggles when it’s time to graduate,” she said of her students. “They’re so excited to move into their independent lives, and they’re running into obstacles when it comes to finding an apartment that they can afford, finding a job that’s fulfilling and maximizes their skills. So (being on council) really is just an opportunity for me to make substantial changes and good decisions that help ensure that these young people that I care about have a great place to live.”

The clearest unmet need in the community is housing, Potyondy said. She likes that the city has moved toward a “housing first” model and, if she’s elected, said she’ll push for a tactical approach that pursues all angles detailed in the city’s Housing Strategic Plan. Those include increased mixed-use development, more variety in housing types and working more with developers to ensure that new development includes affordably priced units.

“We really need to be hitting it really hard with every source of funding that’s out there, and every incentive program we have, we need to be taking advantage of, because our housing issue is pressing,” she said. “I’m really interested in being a little more assertive with developers … and I would love to learn more about what options we have to compel developers to build the kinds of commercial and residential communities that we actually need. I’m very opposed to the idea of just ‘build more houses, any kind of houses.’ We need to be strategic.”

In terms of housing and other complex challenges, like the city’s goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and zero waste by 2030, she said she’ll push for more detailed planning conducted with an urgency that meets the moment.

“We’re at a real turning point in this community, where I think we’re ripe for change,” she said. “I’m seeing a real high level of energy for people wanting to be change agents, nationwide and in Fort Collins, and they’re ready to have hard conversations. I think we need to strike while the iron is hot, and say, ‘COVID forced our hand, and it’s really laid bare where we’re struggling as a community, and let’s go for it.’ ”

To learn more about Potyondy, see her website: melanieforfoco.com.

View her answers to the Coloradoan’s candidate questionnaire here.

Endorsements

Among Potyondy’s endorsements are mayoral candidate state Rep. Jeni Arndt, mayor pro-tem Ross Cunniff, council member Emily Gorgol, Fort Collins Board of Realtors and Sierra Club.

Sidna Rachid

Sidna Rachid: ‘You gain a lot more by helping people proactively’

Living in Qatar and Egypt, Sidna Rachid has lived in the richest country in the world and witnessed extreme poverty in another. Those experiences have given her a pronounced perspective on the intersection of government and poverty.

She was involved in the opposition effort to the Larimer County Jail expansion and opposes policy that criminalizes homelessness or blames people for their lack of resources. In that vein, one of her top priorities if she’s elected to the District 4 seat would be pushing for more eviction prevention methods and increased aid for the city’s homeless population.

“I think that you gain a lot more by helping people proactively rather than trying to wait until the last moment,” she said. “My focus will be on serving the underserved community.”

Rachid has lived in Fort Collins for about 20 years, since retiring as chief accountant for an oil company in Qatar. She was previously chair of the Northern Colorado chapter of American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and is a board member of Front Range Forum, which offers courses on history, music, art and other topics at the Fort Collins Senior Center. She said her background as an accountant and her willingness to debate issues in an open forum make her a great fit for council.

“Deciding where money should be saved and spent is not going to be a problem for me,” she said. “It’s part of the way my mind works, and I hate to spend money foolishly. That would work very well with the city. And also, I don’t hide my points of view at all, and I don’t expect other people to either. I don’t mind discussing issues, as long as it’s a polite and fact-based discussion.”

Rachid said council’s 2018 decision to put limits on the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship’s locker program for the homeless population, which inspired a successful legal challenge by the church, was “mean-spirited.”

“For years and years, they have tried to make it uncomfortable for the homeless,” she said. “Whereas if they had spent as much time trying to provide services for the homeless, they would have helped a lot of people.”

She said she’d be open to working with service providers to establish a centralized campus for homeless services if they recommend it. On another portion of the housing spectrum — affordable housing — she thinks the city should work to ease the land use code to allow more accessory dwelling units, but she’s wary of for-sale affordable housing because it might not stay permanently affordable.

“To me, it makes a lot more sense to help people add an apartment to their basement where they’re already using infrastructure that’s in place,” she said, “and then you can look at the land use code as it stands today, and loosen it up on multifamily dwellings in certain areas, especially if they’re needed. I think we have to do that if we want affordable housing.”

She also thinks the city should purchase undeveloped land to turn into open space before approving any new developments. She opposes CSU’s proposed Hughes Stadium development and hopes to see the land preserved as open space.

Rachid supports more scrutiny of Fort Collins Police Services’ budget and policies, increased assistance for small businesses and increased assistance for child care, perhaps through a dedicated revenue stream approved by voters.

“I’m just one person with a lot of maybe impractical desires, but once I get there, I can see whether (my ideas) are possible or not, “ she said. “Anything that will help the community and not just one specific corporation or individual, I’m all in favor of spending money doing that, as long as it’s evidence-based.”

To learn more about Rachid, see her website: sidna4district4.com.

View her answers to the Coloradoan’s candidate questionnaire here.

Endorsements

Among Rachid’s endorsements are community members Linda Grey-Wilson, Dwain Bloyer and Carrie Ashley.

Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.