Fort Collins City Council says goodbye to Kristin Stephens

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Kristin Stephens, left, Democratic candidate for Larimer County commissioner, sits beside her son Sanjay Chatnani as they speak with friends and family through the computer as Stephens waits for election results at her home in Fort Collins, Colo. on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

Rocky Mountain High School junior Dylan Lindsey credits former Fort Collins Mayor pro-tem Kristin Stephens for his interest in local government.

As Fort Collins City Council members and the public thanked Stephens for her nearly six years of service on council, Lindsey recalled coming to speak to council as a seventh-grader about snow-plowing on a road that led to his school.

“You saw past my age,” said Lindsey, who recently crafted a plan for hybrid learning and presented it to the Poudre School District Board of Education. “You respected a youth voice and really pushed me to take it further.”

Stephens resigned from council Dec. 31 and will begin a new position as Larimer County commissioner Jan. 12. It’s a bittersweet transition for Stephens, who called her time on council “one of the greatest pleasures of my lifetime.”

“It’s really been an honor to serve,” Stephens said. “I’m so excited about the work we’ve done, and I look forward to carrying that … into my new county position.”

Stephens won the District 4 council seat in 2013 following a run for the same seat in 2011, when she lost to now-Mayor Wade Troxell. Ross Cunniff remembers that 2011 election well — he ran for mayor and lost the same year. On Tuesday, council members voted to name him Stephens’ successor as mayor pro-tem.

Cunniff said the word “perseverance” comes to mind when he thinks of Stephens, in her approach to policy as well as her ascent to council’s second-highest position. He credited Stephens with council’s passage of income-qualified utility rates by pushing council to take another look at the idea after it had previously lost steam.

Stephens said her work on affordability was one of her proudest achievements during her time on council. In an interview with the Coloradoan this fall, she said she has strived to bring cost-of-living issues in Fort Collins to the forefront, including child care and affordable and attainable housing.

“I felt like when I first got on council, child care was kind of dismissed as being a social service kind of item,” Stephens said. “Now, I think it’s seen as an economic necessity. I’m really proud of pushing that and making sure people understood the importance of that.”

City Council has since been a leader in regional conversations about child care as a broader workforce issue. Council has also taken “incremental steps” toward more affordable and attainable housing, Stephens said, supporting development of multiple affordable housing projects and seeking out a metro district policy to encourage more accessibly priced housing.

“This is what people need in our community,” Stephens said. “There’s so many people that can’t get into homeownership or can’t afford rent in this town.”

Stephens said Tuesday that she especially looks forward to continuing work on affordability and climate change at the county level, where she’ll serve on the county’s first-ever all-Democrat board of commissioners.

She said her time on council has improved her skills at consensus-building and problem-solving, which she’ll bring with her to the county. But she added that her council experience has taught her to listen carefully to herself — her own voice and values — as well as those around her.

That has sometimes meant making decisions that are deeply unpopular with some factions of the community. She cited as an example council’s decision early in the COVID-19 pandemic to enact a mask requirement for people visiting businesses.

“What you can’t do in these roles is go for the quick, easy win over what’s really the right thing to do,” she said. “You have to stick to your North Star and keep that insight.”

Fellow council members and city staff commended Stephens for her compassion, accessibility and mentorship to newer council members. Council members Julie Pignataro and Emily Gorgol said Stephens was the first person they met with when they were considering council runs.

Troxell praised Stephens for her “authentic leadership.”

“You are who you are,” he said. “You lead from the heart, and you lead from the head as well.”

Stephens closed her comments to council with a quote from former Texas Gov. Ann Richards that she says embodies her approach to local government:

“I did not want my tombstone to read, ‘She kept a really clean house.’ I think I’d like them to remember me by saying, ‘She opened government to everyone.’”

Who’s filling Stephens’ council seat?

Council is publicly interviewing eight applicants for Stephens’ council seat at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 6. On Jan. 12, council is set to vote on which of the eight vacancy applicants will fill the seat. That person will serve until April, when the seat will be up for election. After the swearing-in of new members, council will need to pick another mayor pro-tem because Cunniff is term-limited.

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.