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RTD draws few board election candidates despite big challenges

When voters in large chunks of metro Denver unfold their ballots, they’ll notice a conspicuous blank — with not even one candidate listed to represent their district on the Regional Transportation District’s Board of Directors.

Four of the eight board director seats that are up in the Nov. 8 election lack ballot-qualified candidates, leaving a write-in field as the only option. Of the rest, just two have competitive races. Six candidates, most of them incumbents, made the ballot overall, continuing a sharp drop in recent election cycles.

The sparse field points to an unsettling reality: At a time when metro Denver’s sprawling transit agency faces historic challenges — navigating the fallout of pandemic-induced shifts in ridership, overcoming stubborn staffing shortages and defusing frustrations over promised rail projects it simply can’t afford — few people stepped up to run for its board.

Current board directors, candidates and transit advocates cited several factors that might deter potential candidates. Whatever the reasons, a political observer expressed concern about the implications for RTD, one of the few U.S. transit agencies governed by an elected board.

“This dearth of candidates puts in vivid relief the governance problems of RTD,” Denver political analyst Eric Sondermann said. “Service on the RTD board is at the very bottom of the political food chain. It is becoming ever more evident that the current process for selecting board members does not meet the massive challenges of the agency and does not serve the interests of transit users or, more broadly, of the taxpaying public.”

In the four empty races, write-in candidates will serve as a backstop that averts any vacant positions on the 15-member body. At least one write-in candidate in each district filed a required affidavit by the state’s July 21 deadline.

RTD’s board is charged with appointing the agency’s general manager and CEO, approving its annual budget — including a $776 million operating budget this year — and signing off on service changes and policies that affect hundreds of thousands of regular transit riders.

The latter duty has been affected greatly by the pandemic, with only about 70% of prior service now being provided while ridership is still down substantially. The board, constrained by RTD’s fiscal realities, recently approved a service restoration road map for coming years that will prioritize higher-demand routes.

In coming years, the board will steer RTD through difficult service and financial decisions, though its multiyear fiscal outlook isn’t as bleak as that of some larger transit agencies, even once federal pandemic aid runs out.

RTD also is studying potential fare changes that could decrease what riders pay. The board likely will vote on a new fare structure next year.

The Denver Post included the write-in candidates when it sent out RTD candidate questionnaires. In their responses, the candidates differed greatly on the idea of a sales tax increase to improve bus service, with some pointing instead to a need to diversify RTD’s sources of revenue. They also offered a range of views on whether to prioritize unfinished FasTracks projects and on ways to improve safety at RTD stations and on its trains and buses.

RTD staggers its board directors’ elections, with a group of seats on the ballot every two years. Directors can serve up to two consecutive four-year terms.

Several potential factors are behind drop in candidates

The number of RTD candidates long has fluctuated, but recently it’s declined. In 2018, when nearly all the same seats were up for election as this year, 18 qualified for the ballot, with five of seven races featuring at least three candidates. The candidate total fell to 12 two years ago — and then to six in the current election.

What’s behind the drop?

Some board members and a transit advocate attributed the declining interest to a range of factors, from the large time commitment involved to the increasingly toxic political climate at all levels, which might discourage people from getting involved. The ballot petition threshold, 250 verified signatures from registered voters who live in the district, also is tough for some candidates to clear, since they typically don’t have the backing of organized campaigns.

In fact, two write-in candidates, Michael Guzman in District C and Ian Harwick in District L, opted to run that way after failing to qualify for the ballot.

This year, another factor was that three incumbents who were eligible for another term decided not to seek re-election, at least one of them unexpectedly.

A fourth incumbent, Peggy Catlin in Jefferson County, initially hadn’t intended to run again because of a chance she and her husband would move out of the district after he lost his job in the spring, she said. But the candidate she supported failed to collect enough signatures. By then, Catlin said, her husband had landed a job that allowed them to stay put, so she decided late in the process to register as a write-in candidate. She’s one of two write-ins for District N.

Angie Rivera-Malpiede, the District C director representing northwest and west Denver, is finishing her second stint on the board. She decided not to run again, saying her two years as board chair during the pandemic, when the board also hired a new CEO, were rewarding but often involved working seven days a week. It detracted from her jobs at two Denver nonprofits.

“This is a strange election year,” she said. “But I just think politics in general are so weird right now that there is no normalcy. … I do think people are tired. It’s been a tough couple of years, it really has been.”

The $12,000 annual stipend offers low compensation for the significant time put in by most directors at meetings, community events and other activities, said Molly McKinley, the policy director for the Denver Streets Partnership. She called it “disappointing but not surprising” that so few were running.

“It would be tough for someone with a family, a career and other interests or commitments to be able to serve in this role,” she wrote in an email, “let alone someone who relies on RTD service to get to their job(s) and to care for their family.”

She added: “I hope every candidate… is ready to get to work for a better region, because we’re all counting on them.”

At most U.S. transit agencies with boards, the members are appointed, leaving RTD among the few outliers. The Bay Area Rapid Transit and Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, both in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, also have elected boards.

Vince Buzek, the current RTD board chair, is running unopposed for a second term in District J. He says the ballot-petitioning challenge is one he’s faced, since it often takes as many as 400 signatures to ensure enough will be verified as district residents.

But he isn’t concerned about the decreasing number of candidates — not yet.

“I don’t think you can take one election cycle as an indicator of all future election cycles to come,” Buzek, who represents several north metro communities. “I’m thinking this is a one-off because you usually have quite a bit of interest in the RTD seats. … I guess we’ll find out in future election cycles if it’s a trend.”

Other incumbents are on ballot, with two drawing challengers

The other incumbents on the ballot are Erik Davidson, a Broomfield resident unopposed in District I; Troy Whitmore, an Adams County resident facing challenger Harvest Thomas in District K; and Lynn Guissinger, a Boulder resident facing challenger Richard O’Keefe in District O. Davidson is on the ballot for the first time after being appointed to his seat by the Boulder County commissioners in 2018, when nobody ran in District I.

Only write-in candidates are running for the other seats: JoyAnn Keener-Ruscha for District B in northeast Denver and northern Aurora; Guzman for District C, Rivera-Malpiede’s seat; Harwick for District L in Arvada and some other north and northwest suburbs; and Catlin and Pat Lawrence in District N, which covers western and southern Jefferson County.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office says only registered write-in candidates will have their votes counted — and those vote totals won’t be available on election night. A spokesman said write-in votes are compiled as counties submit their certified election results, which takes three weeks or more.

The sole write-in candidates in districts B, C and L face a low bar: They’ll win so long as they vote for themselves.

“I’m not sure which one is more anti-democratic: having an executive appointee or a write-in candidate. Both seem a little awkward,” said Keener-Ruscha, noting that if there were no write-in candidates, the Denver mayor would be responsible for filling the seat for District B since most of it is in the city.

She previously ran in 2018, joining two other candidates on the ballot. Now-Director Shontel Lewis won that year. Four years later, Keener-Ruscha said she made a last-minute decision to file a write-in affidavit after learning in July that Lewis had decided not to seek reelection. On Oct. 17, Lewis filed to run for a Denver City Council seat in 2023.

Keener-Ruscha briefly was joined by Steven Gibson, but he withdrew his write-in affidavit last month, leaving her as the sole candidate.

“So I win by accident,” marveled Keener-Ruscha, who says she plans to continue her work advocating for RTD riders with disabilities once she’s on the board.

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