Meet the 8 people vying for Fort Collins City Council’s vacant seat

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Eight people are in the running to fill the Fort Collins City Council District 4 seat left by Kristin Stephens, who resigned after being elected as a Larimer County commissioner.

The remaining members of City Council will pick Stephens’ successor, but the appointment will last for only a few months. The southwest Fort Collins seat is up for election in April, and almost all of the vacancy applicants are planning to run.

Council publicly interviewed the applicants Jan. 6 and will pick someone to fill the seat at a special meeting Tuesday. You can watch the interviews at https://www.fcgov.com/cityclerk/agendas.php.

See each hopeful’s application materials here. Council is still accepting public comments on the applicants. You can email your thoughts to cityleaders@fcgov.com or share them virtually at the Jan. 12 meeting.

Read on for background information about each candidate and their thoughts on the three most important issues facing Fort Collins. Quotes, taken from the Jan. 6 interviews, were lightly edited for clarity.

More:Fort Collins City Council says goodbye to Kristin Stephens

Jessica Dyrdahl

Occupation: Assistant director for student government at Colorado State University

Experience: Member of Leadership Fort Collins steering committee, worked at Horse and Dragon Brewing Company, former adjunct faculty for CSU’s President’s Leadership Program

Running for the seat in April? Yes

What are the most crucial issues facing Fort Collins?

“I would say the top issues are COVID-19 relief and affordable housing. For me in particular, I’ve worked for the largest employer in Fort Collins — Colorado State University — and I’ve worked for one of the smallest employers, with Horse and Dragon Brewery. You really need to be able to see the spectrum of (COVID-19) impacts. 

“… I would continue to support offering different resources for mental health, rental, utility and child care assistance, and access to different services. In terms of affordable housing, I was able to facilitate some of the Home2Health conversations (about housing affordability and health equity) that took place over the last year as a partnership between the city and different organizations in the community. I was able to host about five different conversations. The first one was actually with 40 CSU students, and it was the day that we learned we were transitioning to virtual operations. I have also held conversations with residents that have just recently moved here to the United States from Central America. And so I really appreciate the systems approach that the city has taken in terms of affordable housing, and looking at the various challenges that we have, but then also looking at 50 possible solutions to provide safe and stable housing.”

More:Public comment open for Fort Collins City Council District 4 seat candidates

Erin Hottenstein

Occupation: Associate trainer and vice president of operations at Public Speaking for the Professional

Experience: Former print and broadcast journalist, former Board of Trustees president at Foothills Unitarian Church, founder of Colorado 50-50, an organization that promotes women’s leadership

Running for the seat in April? Yes

What are the most crucial issues facing Fort Collins?

“COVID-19 is our most crucial issue, and we’re going to need to deal with it in the short-term and the medium-term, at least. People in the service sector and those with low incomes are particularly vulnerable right now, and we need to pay special attention to their situations. The city of Fort Collins has been playing, and should continue to play, an important role in COVID-19 response. City Council oversees the spending of millions of dollars in CARES Act funding such as utilities payments, small business assistance, and providing noncongregate shelter. Of course, council will have to adjust the budget based on updated revenue forecasts, state funding and potential future federal funding. Then, a long-term focus on economic recovery and job creation will be essential.

“Affordable housing is another challenge for Fort Collins, as the City Council knows well. We want a place where people of all income levels can live. In the near-term, I am especially concerned about evictions. Neighbor to Neighbor and other nonprofits have been doing some heavy lifting. The city might consider what other resources it could bring to keep people in their homes. In the longer term, I agree that council needs to continue to prioritize affordable housing. We should be looking to find solutions for our neighbors experiencing homelessness and also dealing with race-based equity concerns, both in homelessness and homeownership. As the recent equity indicators project reported, these are all issues on which City Council can have an impact through development review, zoning decisions, land bank investments and the use of Community Development Block Grants.”

More:Trump appoints former Fort Collins City Council member Gino Campana to federal post

Philip Jensen

Occupation: Self-employed AWS cloud developer

Experience: Former chief of Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department, original member of fiber-to-home initiative that eventually culminated in municipal broadband

Running for the seat in April? Yes

What are the most crucial issues facing Fort Collins?

“My wife and I have both worked from home for a long time. When I go out to the Spring Canyon dog park, I’ve run into a number of people who’ve asked me, ‘How do you work at home?’ Because there are things involved in working from home that are not the same as working in an office: communication skills, dedication, setting apart a space that you can actually work in, et cetera. When COVID is done, very few people are going to go back into the office, I’m absolutely certain of that. What COVID has proved is that working from home is a very viable thing to do, and I would really like to see a program where we can help people learn the skills for working from home. I think that would (prepare) a lot of people for positions that they’re going to be doing anyway.”

“… the other topic that I’ve been a real supporter of is clean energy. The city of Fort Collins has done a great job on that. I taught a class at Front Range Community College for two years in clean energy technology — solar, wind or geothermal. In fact, quite a few of the people who work at Vestas and places like that were the members of my class for learning energy technology. Certainly, improving our emissions rates from vehicles (is important).”

More:Larimer County commissioners will be all Democrats for first time in history

Veronica Olivas

Occupation: Housing and Dining Services safety coordinator at CSU

Experience: Formerly worked as a law enforcement officer for the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, Estes Park police and CSU police; served on board of directors for ChildSafe; served as a citizen volunteer for city of Fort Collins Budget Finance Operations safety committee

Running for the seat in April? No 

What are the most crucial issues facing Fort Collins?

“I agree with (other applicants) on COVID-19. So far, we’re managing, although we know that this crisis is probably going to run into 2022. However, current national events have also created a ripple effect in cities across our country in reference to systemic and institutional racism. We have the opportunity to influence the outward manifestations by listening and gathering data and using the analytics to create change. I’m excited and hopeful that the Equity Indicator Project research will provide insight into how to improve outreach, inclusion, equity and action for those who feel marginalized in our community.

“Another area of concern is poverty. Perhaps we could look at poverty, outreach, and employ creative identification (strategies) and resource referrals. For example, having been a law enforcement officer for many years, first responders often see homes or meet people who have all these problems, so they can request that social services or mental health follow up with these persons or families. It could also include having mental health or social services respond with police or firefighters, in order to witness the dysfunctional manifestation, document and follow through with helpful resources.

“I worked with PFA to install smoke detectors in a trailer park. We took CSU students with us in social work, and they were able to help identify those other needs in that community and refer them to resources. So I know that it can work. Also, equity and inclusion and affordable housing ranked low in the 2018 Community Survey. So it was an identified issue then, and it remains so now.”

Shirley Peel

Occupation: Retired

Experience: Founder and board member of Christian Core Academy, member of Larimer County’s Citizen Review Board, former teacher and school volunteer

Running for the seat in April? Yes

What are the most crucial issues facing Fort Collins?

“COVID-19, obviously, is the most crucial issue. We need to continue partnering with the county to manage the pandemic by helping protect our first responders and the population that is the most vulnerable to the virus. But at the same time, (we need to) give the business community the support and tools they need to stay in business. I think finding a balance between those two is a hard but crucial action that the council is going to have to take. And then also in dealing with the pandemic, the city is going to have to search for innovative ways to deal with the budget shortfall caused by lost tax revenue, keep our job market strong and stimulate the economy. Our economy is roughly 60% sales-tax dependent, and if small businesses and major retailers do not survive this crisis, our community is looking at widespread layoffs and significant reductions and services ultimately adversely affecting mainly our city’s low- to moderate-income families.

“Also, the projected growth in Fort Collins is an umbrella that contains many issues for the council. If Fort Collins is projected to grow by more than 100,000 people in the next 10 years, then we have to have a smart growth plan, a plan that allows for affordable housing and addresses the homelessness problem. (We need) a plan that has the ability to provide more quality infrastructure, ensure we have quality roads and traffic and transit system, all the while limiting the environmental impact while protecting our water sources in natural areas.”

Melanie Potyondy

Occupation: School psychologist with Poudre School District

Experience: Member of Colorado Department of Education Mental Health Advisory Committee, city of Fort Collins Women’s Commission, Poudre Education Association negotiator, regional representative for Colorado Society of School Psychologists 

Running for the seat in April? Yes

What are the most crucial issues facing Fort Collins?

“Obviously, at this moment, COVID is the most pressing issue. It has to be. It’s impacting every facet of life in Fort Collins — health, housing, child care and education and commerce. And because COVID is a crisis situation, our response to it is going to need to take center stage at least for the immediate future. I tend to see COVID as a lens through which we can view council’s established priorities. It’s become an excellent indicator of what Fort Collins has in place that’s working really well, and it has also kind of shone a spotlight on our weak points. One of my top three priorities for Fort Collins is preserving community character, which, in the context of COVID, has a lot to do with supporting our local businesses and our cultural resources so they can stay afloat through the crisis. I’m also focused on long-term livability, which again, during COVID, means continued focus on housing for all, helping folks access the services and medical care they need, and supporting folks with maintaining or finding employment is going to be really important.

“And then my third big focus as a candidate is environmental sustainability. No matter what is going on, COVID or otherwise, we need to always be holding environmental sustainability as a guiding principle to keep us on track. If we want to have a healthy (community), we need to be sure that our decisions about solid waste, climate action and oil and gas development set us on a trajectory that we feel confident will serve us well now and in the decades ahead.”

Sidna Rachid

Occupation: Retired

Experience: Former Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteer for the Eighth Judicial District, former chair of Northern Colorado chapter of ACLU Colorado, League of Women Voters of Larimer County volunteer

Running for the seat in April? Yes

What are the most crucial issues facing Fort Collins?

“Going forward, there are two specific things that I think are extremely important to preserve the economy in Fort Collins. If we do not take drastic action to preserve the small businesses that exist now, the ones that were viable before COVID, we will be hurting in the future because there will be very few jobs. I don’t need to tell you how vital small businesses are to a community. They provide jobs and they are incubators for big ideas. New Belgium started as a small business; so did Amazon. So it’s really important that we support them. I know that there’s a big (city) program there, but I think even grants and something similar to the (Troubled Asset Relief Program), for the small businesses that are actual storefronts and hiring people. It is already a City Council priority, and to me at this time, it is the most important priority.

“The (second issue) is evictions. Once that (eviction) moratorium is lifted, who knows what’s going to happen to those poor people who have not been able to pay their rent for 6, 7, 8 months? They are going to be shoved out the door as quickly as possible. I think, if there is a way to do it, (the city should) contact people who have been served with an eviction notice and try to find services for them or housing, or be proactive in some way.”

William Wright

Occupation: Retired

Experience: Former high school teacher, youth sports coach and mentor

Running for the seat in April? Yes

What are the most crucial issues facing Fort Collins?

“The number one priority is helping small businesses, because that’s the lifeblood of our community. We need to keep people employed, and we need to keep businesses going, so that would be my first priority. I would have the economic development team continue to monitor and work closely with state and federal agencies to apply for grants that also help businesses and increase our public service advertisements and encourage people to shop locally.

“Second, affordable single-family housing I think needs to be a priority. We need to build houses that (first-time buyers) can afford. It’s the American dream. And for the majority of people, that’s the number one asset they have. So I think the city could work with other government entities, as well as local builders to offer incentives to build homes that would sell for less than $200,000. Now, they wouldn’t be five-bedroom, three-bath homes, but they’d be starter homes, the way America used to be. And finally, water acquisition. If Fort Collins is going to continue to grow, we have to have water. So I think that needs to be a constant priority for city staff to be looking at.”

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.