Federal Heights just made history with Colorados first all-woman city council

As departing Federal Heights Councilman Harold Thomas said his goodbyes late last year to his colleagues on City Council, he noted that “the city is being left in really good hands.”

But what Thomas — nor anyone else at that Dec. 7 meeting — mentioned was that those hands on the council belong exclusively to women, making this mobile home park-filled working-class city just north of Denver the first municipality in Colorado’s 146-year history to seat an all-female city council.

“I think it’s a great honor,” said Mayor Linda Montoya, who said she didn’t initially realize the historic milestone her city reached after the November election. “It’s awesome — I think it’s great.”

What happened in Federal Heights, a city of nearly 13,000 residents, is not unprecedented nationally. In November, Las Cruces N.M. made headlines when it seated an all-woman council. A year earlier, the same thing occurred in Asheville, N.C.

But University of Massachusetts political science professor Shannon Jenkins, who specializes in women in politics, said a city council made up entirely of women is “a pretty rare event still,” though she said it could lead to less confrontation and more cooperation at the local level.

“Women tend to approach their jobs a little differently,” Jenkins said. “They tend to focus on coalition building, consensus building and are less adversarial. The symbolism of having the first all-female city council is important.”

The male-free arrangement could place greater emphasis on issues that particularly matter to women, like housing, health care, mental health concerns and safety, said Lisa Calderon, executive director of Emerge Colorado, which helps get women elected to local offices.

“It presents a tremendous opportunity because city councils are closest to the ground,” Calderon said. “It’s a great opportunity to have an all-woman council be more receptive to the everyday issues people are facing. It’s remarkable and should be celebrated.”

Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said it’s hard to say how the women now leading Federal Heights might differ from an all-male or mixed-gender council.

“Most issues municipal leaders deal with are as free from gender identity as they are from partisan politics,” he said. “However, it is undeniable that there is a much greater likelihood of awareness of policy impacts on women, when they might exist, that you may not get with, say, an all-male council.”

Colorado, Bommer said, does pretty well when it comes to female representation in positions of power. Women hold a majority of House seats in the General Assembly, and according to a survey released by the Center for American Women and Politics in April 2021, 44.4% of the state’s municipal political positions are held by women, which ranks the state third in the nation in that category.

Colorado does appreciably better than the nation as a whole, which the Center for American Women and Politics pegged at just 30.5% of all municipal seats held by women.

“It’s common to see women as mayors – currently 14 of 38 in the Denver metro area – and also frequently elected to city council or town board seats,” Bommer said.

It’s been a long time coming. Just 34 years ago, Steamboat Springs became Colorado’s first city to seat a majority female council. Julie Green, known in 1988 by her married name Julie Schwall, was one of four women on the seven-person council.

Green, now 70, did her best to balance her job and home life with her civic obligations as a councilwoman. She remembers what should have been short trips to the grocery store turning into marathon conversation sessions with constituents, endlessly frustrating her children.

“I had young children — they begged me not to do it again,” Green said. “I did my city council work at night after the kids went to bed.”

She remembers her time on Steamboat’s city council as “an extremely friendly experience,” where she and her colleagues dealt with typical issues that often confront civic leaders: whether to allow Walmart into town and how to increase employment in the ski resort town during the summer.

“I don’t know if priorities would have been different if it had been a male-majority council,” Green said.

Doris Peterson said women are generally more caring and collaborative in their approach to things, but she sees her job as one of the seven women on the Federal Heights City Council in a more practical light.

“To me, gender did not matter,” said Peterson, who is 81 and moved to a senior mobile home park in the city in 2016 after her husband died. “Everyone who became a council member is dedicated to doing what they can do to better their city.”

Peterson served on Federal Heights’ planning and zoning commission for two years before being convinced by former Mayor Dan Dick, who is a neighbor, to run for a seat on the council.

“I’ve almost always been involved in something helpful,” she said.

Federal Heights’ city manager is also a woman. Jacqueline Halburnt said she is “glad we can pave the way” but added that there wasn’t a coalition of women who ran together — “it just turned out that way in Federal Heights.”

Rather matter-of-factly, she said reporting to all women in her role as city manager makes “no difference to me.”

“I implement what the majority wants, whoever they may be,” Halburnt said.

Sarah Dawn Pearlstein, who moved to the city just four years ago, said being on a council with women only “breaks that barrier” and is a “big deal for women,” but she said she will keep her focus on the business of Federal Heights.

“I just want to do a good job for the people,” Pearlstein said.

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